The Song of Poliphili

Apart from Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, another international bestseller, The Rule of Four, has used an enigmatic Renaissance document that in the end may be far more intriguing than any of da Vinci’s paintings ever may be.

by Philip Coppens

Da Vinci CodeLife in the shadow of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is, in essence, what the world’s fiction bestseller list has become. Still, one book, The Rule of Four, by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, is what The Independent described as “The Da Vinci Code for people with brains.”

Both books have a lot in common, including sharing the top of the international bestsellers list. The common theme is code-breaking, set against the backdrop of the Italian Renaissance: one book uses da Vinci’s paintings as a series of clues, the other an enigmatic book, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. The book was written at a time when Leonardo da Vinci was alive – but had yet to paint the Mona Lisa. Brown plays with the “Mona Lisa” to make it into “Amon Isis”, whereas the Hypnerotomachia is a quest for the island of Venus – the Roman Isis.

The Secret Vault

The Rule of Four has cleverly used the mystery of the book’s author and created an equally fictitious account of a search towards a secret stash of Renaissance art, saved from the bonfires of the vanities that were alighted in the streets of Florence by the Dominican monk Savonarola, to cleanse the town from the pagan humanist influences.

The novel is set in Princeton, on Good Friday 1999 and involves a series of murders, in the quest to decode the Hypnerotomachia and unveil its final secret. The inspiration for the book came when Ian Caldwell, a student at Princeton, made a final paper for a seminar by Renaissance specialist Anthony Grafton on the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. This explains the setting; the timeframe (1999) was used as it marks the 500th birthday of the Hypnerotomachia’s publication.

The authors stated that “by the time the research paper was finished, we were already planning to spend the summer writing an intellectual suspense novel together.” Caldwell and Thomason invented a document (the Belladonna manuscript) allegedly found in the Vatican Library and detailing the murder of two people, as well as a fake port master report to form the backbone of the plot.

Various clever tricks have been woven into the plot. The events of the Hypnerotomachia occur on Walpurgis night (April 30), within the course of one day; The Rule of Four occurs on Good Friday and equally lasts one day. Joscelyn Godwin notes how the storyline overlaps with the story of the crucifixion, which also occurs on Good Friday, with various characters taking on the role of the Good and Bad Thief, with one of the main characters playing the role of the sacrifice – Jesus. However, like The Da Vinci Code, the authors make this a faked death, in which the hero is secreted away, to live a secret life elsewhere – whereas Brown makes this possibility the backbone of his story, only a clever analysis of The Rule of Four reveals such hidden gems.

What’s in a name?

What does Hypnerotomachia Poliphili actually mean? Hypnerotomachia is a fabricated word, made up from hypnos (sleep), eros (love) and mache (strife): the strife of love in a dream. Poliphili is the name of the main character, who is searching for the love of his life, Polia. His name breaks down as poli-phile, a “lover of Polia”, which can also be translated as a “lover of many”.

The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili might be unpronounceable to many, but for centuries, it remained largely unreadable. Written in a late 15th century Venetian dialect, the author used hundreds of invented new words, adapted from Latin. Numerous other Latin words were borrowed from a single Latin author, Ovid. The Hebrew inscriptions are linguistically correct and were probably supplied by a rabbi, whereas the Arabic texts seem to have been compiled from a dictionary. The style of the book can only be described as “outrageously overdone” and hence is barely understandable. No wonder that some critics have thus dismissed the book as “unreadable”. Professor Weiss declared it to be “a serious runner up for the title of most boring work in Italian literature”.

Da Vinci MysteryIt should therefore not come as a surprise that the first attempt to translate the book in English lasted until 1592, published by Simon Waterson, and signed by R.D., believed to have been Sir Robert Dallington. Until 1999, no complete English translation of the Hypnerotomachia existed, when Joscelyn Godwin arrived at doing just that.

The book’s reputation comes from its impressive record as a printed work. With original copies selling at auction for 320,000 dollars or more, the book’s main focus is the haunting woodcuts whose author is equally unknown. It is one of the first printed books that was illustrated throughout.

One of the best known illustrations is that of an elephant, carrying an obelisk on his back. It inspired Salvador Dali in his Temptation of Saint Anthony, as well as the Italian artist Bernini. On May 1, 1667, precisely the 200th birthday after the fictional events of the Hypnerotomachia, Pope Alexander VII dedicated Bernini’s elephant-obelisk statue in Rome, on the former site of a temple of Isis. Bernini himself has become the inspiration for Dan Brown’s other top ten selling novel, Angels and Demons.

Text and illustrations flow into one another in what early versions of typesetting software in the 1980s were barely able to do. This typographical tour-de-force was produced by the illustrious Venetian printer Aldus Manutius. Aldus, who has had type fonts named after him, used the Bembo type for the book, one of the most modern in appearance of the 15th century types, and still a well-known type today. The work also required for Greek and Hebrew fonts, and a small sample of Arabic – the first Arabic to be printed in the history of European publishing.

You would suspect that Aldus must have known the author, but for the Hypnerotomachia, he did not deal with the author; the commission came from Leonardo Grassi of Verona, a member of a prominent family of Verona and one of the seven principal notaries of the Roman Curia, who declared in a prefatory letter to Guidobaldo de Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino (1482-1508), that he printed the work at his own expense – even though he was not its author. The statement itself may have been a lie – the alleged author may have co-sponsored the publication.

Love conquers all

Analysts believe the second book may have been written as early as 1467, with the first book added later. Most scholars agree the first book is a slow maturation process by one person and must postdate 1467, the date given at the end of the second book. Maria Theresa Casella and Giovanni Pozzi have shown that some essential parts of the Hypnerotomachia, including the descriptions of the Pyramid and the Temple of Venus, make use of Niccolo Perotti’s Cornucopiae, only published in 1489.

In one sentence, the story of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is exactly what the title says it is: Poliphilo’s search for Polia and their journey to the Island of Cytherea, ruled by Venus, all of which is finally revealed to be a dream by Poliphili. The story is told in two books. The first book is the story of Poliphili in his search for Polia. The second is the same story, now told by Polia from her point of view. Polia states that as a young person, she fell ill of the plague, but promised the goddess Diana that if she recovered, she would become a priestess. But her love for the goddess is tested by Poliphili, who courts her.

When he tries to seduce her and she shows no interest, he collapses in front of her. All she does, is hide the body. In his near death experience, his soul seeks the counsel of Venus, through Cupid, asking for mercy: he wants to return to his body and take Polia as his wife. Venus consents and Cupid shoots an arrow in her breast. In an effort to dispose of the body, Polia returns to Poliphili, who then suddenly awakens, and Cupid’s arrow suddenly strikes her heart. The young lovers get driven out of the Temple of Diana and take refuge in Temple of Venus, where a priestess endorses their union. But in the end, Poliphili learns that the entire episode is not so much a near death experience, but simply a dream – he only ever conquered Polia in his dream.

Who wrote it ?

Though the author is officially anonymous, it seems that shortly after the publication, everyone knew who it was. The book itself contains four hints. The explanation of the most ingenious one was found in a copy of the book in the library of the Dominicans of the Zattere, in Venice, in 1723. The note itself is dated June 20, 1512. The hint involves the initial letters of the 38 chapters, giving “Poliam Frater Franciscvs Colvumna Peramavit”, or “Brother Francesco Colonna greatly loved Polia”, identifying the author as a monk, Francesco Colonna. The unknown cryptographer added that Polia was actually one Hippolyta of Treviso and that Colonna “now lives in Venice at SS. Giovanni e Paolo”.

Leandro Alberti, the author of a 1517 book on “famous Dominicans” equally mentioned one “Francesco Columna of Venice [who] truly displayed his various and multiple ingenuity in a certain book written in the mother-tongue.” Finally, the book’s commissioner Leonardo Crassus’s brother was married to the daughter of Francesco Columna’s sister, settling any possible argument over the true author’s identity. Nevertheless, the Colonna in The Rule of Four has been taken from an alternative, yet largely erroneous analysis of the Hypnerotomachia, which argues that the author was a Roman noble, a Renaissance humanist trying to stop Savonarola’s destruction. In reality, the true author was a Dominican monk himself, like Savonarola.

Colonna was born in 1433 and entered priesthood in the Dominican Order at Treviso, making his first appearance as a priest in 1465. In 1488 and 1493, when Savonarola was working in Florence, he was a preacher at the prestigious St Mark’s in Venice, but in 1496 was released from his post as prior, followed in 1500 with the permission to live outside the monastery. After a final bonf

ire of the vanities, Savonarola was “released” from his rule in Florence and died in 1498, the year before the publication of the Hypnerotomachia. Unlike the strict Savonarola who wanted to reinstate the strict morals of Christianity, Colonna’s monastery at the time was unreformed, which meant that its members did not have to follow the strict rules of monasticism. For a part of his life, he lived outside the walls of the monastery. Colonna died in 1527, either in July or October 2, at the ripe age of 94, sixty years after he may have written the earliest part of his eccentric novel.

The quest for enlightenment

To repeat the question that is asked in The Rule of Four: “But if the Hypnerotomachia is just a conventional love story, then why are only thirty pages devoted to the romance between Poliphili and Polia? Why do the other three hundred and forty pages form a maze of subplots, strange encounters with mythological figures, dissertations on esoteric subjects?” Is it merely a masked porno-erotic treatise, in which pagan imagery of processions of nymphs to a fountain, where the giant phallus of Priapus is hanging, is used to sexually excite the Renaissance mind. The answer must be no, but neither does it seem to be a bizarre coded work, only useful to discover the location of a secret vault.

The story of Poliphili’s search for Polia displays the tell-tale components of an initiation. Poliphili falls asleep in what may well be a drug-induced hallucination, judging from the enormous thirst Poliphili seems to suffer from and the haunting images his mind creates. But soon, having entered the realm of the gods, he is met by the nymphs, who invite him to take a bath (ritual cleansing), followed by a sacred meal in the house of the ruler of the land, Queen Eleutherylida. Poliphili could be mistaken for Perceval on his Grail quest, but that possibility changes with step three, when Poliphili is required to choose his destiny. Two guides, Logistica (reason) and Thelemia (desire), present him with three doors. Door number one leads him to path to the glory of Lord (which in Perceval’s case is the path of the Grail Brotherhood), door number two offers him worldly glory, whereas number three is the path to the Mother of Love (Venus), which he takes.

Now walking on the other side of the looking glass, Poliphili is shown sacred processions, in the name of the Loves of Zeus. It brings him to a first revelation, inside the Temple of Venus, where Polia is finally revealed to him. Step six is the sacred marriage of the two lovers, followed by a voyage to the Island of Cytherea, the realm of Venus. The climax of Book One is reached in the middle of the island, at the Bath of Venus, where the two newlyweds see the goddess in her nudity; Venus has been unveiled, the initiation into her Mysteries is complete. Poliphili concludes: “I beheld the open revelation of mysteries and arcane visions that mortal and material senses are rarely permitted to see.”

Though few analysts have interpreted the book as the account of an initiation, Joscelyn Godwin has stated that “Apuleius’s combination of eroticism with pagan religiosity, and the structure of stories within stories, make the Golden Ass one of the most direct ancestors of the Hypnerotomachia.” Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, or Metamorphoses, is the story of an initiate into the Mysteries of Isis, culminating in Book XI, in which the main character Lucius is restored from donkey to man, witnesses the Mysteries of Isis and Osiris and beholds the Goddess in her visible form: like Venus, she has been unveiled to him.

Most scholars, including Godwin, do agree that Johann Valentin Andreae, the “anonymous author” of the early 17th century Rosicrucian pamphlets, including The Alchemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz (1616), was inspired by it. Christian Rosenkreutz repeats the voyage of Poliphili, travelling by sea to a mysterious island where alchemical rituals of rebirth take place, and on the way is greeted by a chorus of sea-gods. On the island, he enters an underground crypt, accompanied by a mischievous Cupid, and there discovers Venus stark naked and asleep.

From fiction to reality?

“The Hypnerotomachia became the bible of a sect without a master” concludes Godwin. Its descriptions of temples and gardens inspired centuries of ingenious garden design and follies, including the elaborate gardens of Versailles. But according to some scholars, the book actually did become the bible of a secret society. The society in question is the Société Angélique, or le Brouillard, who have a footnote in the mystery of Rennes-le-Château, linked with the mysterious murder of abbé Gelis, a colleague-priest of the notorious Bérenger Saunière – who some authors suspect may have been involved in the assassination of his colleague.

The organisation’s existence is traced back to Venice, to 1470 – the period of Colonna – where there is a trace of a secret alchemical society, known as the Voarchadumia. It is an invented word, meaning “Gold of two perfect cementations”, or “gold twice refined”, derived from a Chaldean word for “gold” and a Hebrew phrase meaning “out of two rubies”.

The organisation is described as a society of members interested in alchemy, who tried to reform the state by applying the principles of the Cabbala; the schools and academies were to teach the Cabbala and the laws of the state were to be modified so that they would be based on “wisdom” rather than “power”. Legend has it that Giorgione, an Italian painter of the Venetian school well known for his Sleeping Venus, was a member of this organisation, but the question needs to be asked whether Francesco Colonna may have been also… If so, perhaps the Hypnerotomachia was indeed a bible, in that it was the written record of his initiation.

The organisation was forbidden in Venice in 1488. Their doctrine was nevertheless published in 1530, in Venice, under the signature of another Venetian priest, Johannes Augustinus Pantheus. By then, the Voarchadumia had made their way across the Alps, finding a new home in France. It is in France that the Hypnerotomachia would inspire Nicolas Poussin, Charles de Perrault, Charles Nodier and Gérard de Nerval, characters who have become embroiled in the mystery of Rennes-le-Château, if only because each was a mystic in search of esoteric truths, a voyage which passed by the Hypnerotomachia.

Still, it is believed that some of them were also members of the Société Angelique, including Francois Rabelais. Guillaume Postel and Antoine Fumée, contemporaries of Rabelais, did accuse him of being a member of a secret society. Postel, in 1542, underlines its pernicious character, “even though it does not deny God directly or indirectly, as they say, but they nevertheless try to chase him from his sky” – it is an intriguing reference. Though such gossip is not conclusive, Rabelais was definitely inspired by the Hypnerotomachia, as in his Cinquième Livre, he gives a description of the subterranean temple of Bacbuc that equals of the temple of Venus.

In the 19th century, Grasset d’Orcet (1828-1900) stated that Le Brouillard was founded by the Lyonnaise printer Gryphe in the 16th century. Gryphe was Sébastien Greif, who had installed himself in Lyon in 1522, from his home in Reitlingen, in Wurtemberg. He took on the symbol of a griffon, from a secret society in Greece, known as Néphès, or le Brouillard.

French writers, including Jean Robin, have argued that the Voarchadumia transformed themselves to le Brouillard, who then may have transformed themselves once again into an organisation known as the AA, an illustrious acronym of which little else is known. Some authors, including Count Beguoin and Jean-Claude Meyer, have nevertheless studied the AA. They have concluded that the organisation largely consisted of priests, like the Venetian Voarchadumia it seems. Count Beguoin identified the AA as the successors of the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement, another priestly organisation dating from the early 17th century, whose headquarters are the now notorious St Sulpice church in Paris – notorious because of The Da Vinci Code.

The AA, like the Compagnie, makes it clear to its members that “the Secret” – with capital S – needs to be protected at all cost. The member’s guide reads more like the instruction manual of a terrorist organisation: do not tell the secret to anyone, not even your confessor; when meeting a fellow member in public, do not speak about or reveal to an outsider your mutual alliance; how to work with passwords; how to protect and if required destroy a cell of the organisation without leaving any traces, etc. With such secrecy in place, it is clear that whatever secret the AA tried to protect, they took their mission seriously. And with such secrecy in place, it is equally clear that the organisation is largely unknown, and that “their Secret” has so far never been discovered. If Gélis was indeed murdered for interfering or revealing their plans, the methodology and brutality of his murder scene show the lengths to which they will go to protect it.

Having crossed the threshold The Rule of Four into The Da Vinci Code, it is clear that in the end, each book has taken historical enigmas and mixed them into a mythical account, each to reveal its own “secret”… Could “the Secret” be anything like the message of the two novels? Or does it take a third bestselling novel, including perhaps another code, originating from the Italian Renaissance, to bring us that answer in a fictionalised setting? Or is that exactly what the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is actually all about?

This article appeared in a slightly changed format in Les Carnets Secrets 3 (2005)

Les Carnes Secrets