The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, first published in Italy 500 years ago, has long provided a stimulus to eye and imagination. Narrated by Poliphilo, its slumbering hero, it tells of an enchanted and beautiful dream world: an imaginary landscape littered with ancient Classical monuments of fantastic design and size, which have intrigued architects in particular.
The forms and interiors of these artificial bodies are described clearly and elegantly in woodcuts, but rendered improbable by the hero's account of their dimensions. They are thus visible to the reader but intangible, and the intellect is presented with a mirage that dissolves when touched by reason. Towards the conclusion the hero finds and seduces Polia, the woman of his dreams, before death separates his soul from its body. Finally, when Poliphilo awakens the dream fades and corporeal pleasure is consigned to memory.
The Hypnerotomachia is an extraordinary and exceptional book, in which architecture, body and mind are explored through text and drawings. However, only linguists have enjoyed its full impact, because the author combines Italian sentence construction with Latin terms, and arcane Greek, Latin and Hebrew mottoes punctuate the text. As only a small part of the book has been translated before, most English readers have had to rely on partial interpretations filtered through scholarly research.
Not that the author is concerned with immediate transparency for the reader. He does not even declare his own name conventionally, and it has been deciphered from the initial capital letter of each of the 38 chapters of which the book is composed. The Latin acrostic they produce reads poliam frater franciscus columna peramavit - 'Brother Francesco Colonna loved Polia immensely'. Although this is taken to mean that the author's name is Francesco Colonna, it has alternatively been interpreted as no more than a reference or dedication to him.
In this latest and very handsome edition, Joscelyn Godwin has provided the first complete English translation of the Hypnerotomachia. It represents a labour of love by the translator that has realised a dream of the publisher: to commemorate its fiftieth year as a publishing house by reproducing the quality of the original Venetian pressing. Together, they have produced a book that has many qualities - not least that it is now readable in its entirety.
In addition, an introduction by Godwin explains its context, and maps out each narrative step of Poliphilo's journey, before presenting the author's identity as a matter of fact. Godwin has no doubt that he was Francesco Colonna (1433-1527), a Dominican friar who lived mainly in Venice, and she dismisses an alternative suggestion that the writer was an aristocrat from Rome, a generation younger than the friar but with the same name. In a single sentence she also dismisses Liane Lefaivre's lengthy, complex (and dubious) argument, that the famous architect and writer Leon Battista Alberti was its true author (aj 8.1.98).
The hallmark of Godwin's approach is one of minimal interference: she does not add to the mystique of the book with 'futile controversy' (her words), or dissect its form with scholarly footnotes. Consequently, she is faithful to the spirit and letter of the original enterprise. With her excellent translation and the publisher's fidelity to the original design, the book has been renewed.
It can now be read for pleasure. Once again it is possible to fantasise along with the narrative, and travel in a marvellous world constructed beyond reality. This book is a provocative reminder that architecture once framed the landscapes of the imagination and imbued them with meaning. Perhaps it could do so again.
Robert Tavernor is professor of architecture at the University of Bath