Love and Sleep with the Friend of Many Things

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (from Greek hýpnos, ‘sleep’, éros, ‘love’, and máchē, ‘fight’), called in English Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream or The Dream of Poliphilus. The book has long been sought after as one of the most beautiful incunabula ever printed. It is actually anonymous, but an acrostic formed by the first, elaborately decorated letter in each chapter in the original Italian reads POLIAM FRATER FRANCISCVS COLVMNA PERAMAVIT, “Brother Francesco Colonna has dearly loved Polia.”, that’s why this romance is said to be by Francesco Colonna.

First published in Venice in 1499 by Aldo Manutius, in an elegant page layout, with refined woodcut illustrations in an Early Renaissance style, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili presents a mysterious arcane allegory in which Poliphilo pursues his love Polia through a dreamlike landscape, and is, seemingly, at last reconciled with her by the Fountain of Venus.



The book is illustrated with 168 exquisite woodcuts showing the scenery, architectural settings, and some of the characters Poliphilo encounters in his dreams. They depict scenes from Poliphilo’s adventures, or the architectural features over which the text rhapsodizes, in a simultaneously stark and ornate line art style which perfectly integrates with the type. These images are also interesting because they shed light on what people in the Renaissance fancied about the alleged æsthetic qualities of Greek and Roman antiquities.

The typography is famous for its quality and clarity, in a roman typeface cut by Francesco Griffo, a revised version of a type which Aldus had first used in 1496 for the De Aetna of Pietro Bembo. The type was revived by the Monotype Corporation in 1923 as Poliphilus. Another revival, of the earlier version of Griffo’s type, was completed under the direction of Stanley Morison in 1929 as Bembo. The type is thought to be one of the first examples of the italic typeface, and unique to the Aldine Press in incunabula.

The psychologist Carl Jung admired the book, believing the dream images presaged his theory of archetypes. The style of the woodcut illustrations had a great influence on late-nineteenth-century English illustrators, such as Aubrey Beardsley, Walter Crane, and Robert Anning Bell.



The story begins with Poliphilo, who has spent a restless night because his beloved, Polia (literally “Many Things”), shunned him. Poliphilo is transported into a wild forest, where he gets lost, encounters dragons, wolves and maidens and a large variety of architecture, escapes, and falls asleep once more.

He then awakens in a second dream, dreamed within the first. In the dream, he is taken by some nymphs to meet their queen, and there he is asked to declare his love for Polia, which he does. He is then directed by two nymphs to three gates. He chooses the third, and there he discovers his beloved. They are taken by some more nymphs to a temple to be engaged. Along the way they come across five triumphal processions celebrating the union of the lovers. Then they are taken to the island of Cythera by barge, with Cupid as the boatswain; there they see another triumphal procession celebrating their union. The narrative is interrupted, and a second voice takes over, as Polia describes his erotomachia from her own point of view.



Poliphilo resumes his narrative after one-fifth of the book. Polia rejects Poliphilo, but Cupid appears to her in a vision and compels her to return and kiss Poliphilo, who has fallen into a deathlike swoon at her feet, back to life. Venus blesses their love, and the lovers are united at last. As Poliphilo is about to take Polia into his arms, Polia vanishes into thin air and Poliphilo wakes up.

The book is briefly mentioned in The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532–34) by François Rabelais: “Far otherwise did heretofore the sages of Egypt, when they wrote by letters, which they called hieroglyphics, which none understood who were not skilled in the virtue, property, and nature of the things represented by them. Of which Orus Apollon hath in Greek composed two books, and Polyphilus, in his Dream of Love, set down more…” (Book 1, Ch. 9.)

The 1993 novel The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte mentions the 1545 edition of the Hypnerotomachia (Ch. 3). The book is again mentioned in Roman Polanski‘s 1999 film, The Ninth Gate, based loosely on Pérez-Reverte’s novel (this time, by its Italian title, “La Hypnerotomachia di Poliphilo“).


Open Sesame!

Ali Baba (1897), Aubrey Beardsley.


This design dates from near the end of Beardsley’s short life. It is his only drawing for a proposed book of Arabian Night’s Tales, The Forty Thieves. The book was left unfinished at his death from tuberculosis in 1898.

The size and obesity of Ali Baba’s body is suggested in the most simple and minimal way. He almost seems to blend in with the background, his shape defined only by his robes and richly profuse jewellery. The decorations on the tassel seem to be based on 17th-century embroidery designs known as ‘blackwork’. Beardsley may have studied this rare form of ornament at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). It is typical of him to ‘quote’ historical forms in this way. He drew inspiration from many different sources, and yet his style was uniquely his own.


Ali Baba in the woods, also by Beardsley


Ali Baba (علي بابا‎) is a character from medieval Arabic literature. He is described in the adventure tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (علي بابا والأربعون لصا). Like many other folk tales frequently adapted for children, the original tale is darker and more violent than the more familiar bowdlerized versions. Popular perception of Ali Baba, and the way he is treated in popular media, sometimes implies that he was the leader of the “forty thieves”; in the story he is actually an honest man whom fortune enables to take advantage of the thieves’ robberies.

Some critics believe that this story was added to One Thousand and One Nights by one of its European translators, Antoine Galland, an 18th-century French orientalist who may have heard it in oral form from a Middle Eastern story-teller from Aleppo, in modern day Syria. In any case, the first known text of the story is Galland‘s French version. Richard F. Burton included it in the supplemental volumes, rather than the main collection of stories, of his edition of the Thousand and One Nights, and seems to have thought it Greek Cypriot in origin.

Swan’s Way


For the Countess of Peralta


The snow-white Olympic swan,
with beak of rose-red agate,
preens his Eucharistic wing,
which he opens to the sun like a fan.


His shining neck is curved
like the arm of a lyre,
like the handle of a Greek amphora,
like the prow of a ship.


He is the swan of divine origin
whose kiss mounted through fields
of silk to the rosy peaks
of Leda’s sweet hills.


White king of of Castalia’s fount,
his triumph illumines the Danube;
Da Vinci was his baron in Italy;
Lohengrin is his blond prince.


His whiteness is akin to linen,
to the buds of the white roses,
to the diamantine white
of the fleece of an Easter lamb.


He is the poet of perfect verses,
and his lyric cloak is of ermine;
he is the magic, the regal bird
who, dying, rhymes the soul in his song.


This winged aristocrat displays
white lilies on a blue field;
and Pompadour, gracious and lovely,
has stroked his feathers.


He rows and rows on the lake
Where a golden gondola waits
For the sweetheart of Louis of Bavaria.


Countess, give the swans your love,
for they are gods of an alluring land
and are made of perfume and ermine,
of white light, of silk, and of dreams.

Ruben Darío


Photo: Bruce Weber


Carmen Dell’Orefice by Norman Parkinson, 1980


Swaroski logo


Bathyllus in the swan dance, Aubrey Beardsley


Henri Matisse making a study of a swan in the Bois de Boulogne, c. 1930


Advertisement illustrated by René Gruau


Illustration to Garcia Márquez’s short story Bon Voyage Mr. President, by Josie Portillo


Still from The Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)


Anna Pavlova


Still from The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (Bill Condon, 2011)


Helena Bonham Carter


Laetita Casta. Photo: Mario Testino


Uma Thurman and Mikahil Baryshnikov as The Swan Prince. Photo: Arthur Elgort


Truman Capote styled his beautiful and wealthy female friends “swans”


Accompained by Lee Radziwill and Jane Haward


With socialité Babe Paley in Paris


Escorting CZ Guest


Capote and Gloria Vanderbilt Lumet arrive at New York’s 54th Street Theatre for the opening performance of Caligula., 16 Feb 1960


Gloria Vanderbilt ad campaigns


Ludwig II (Luchino Visconti, 1972). He was sometimes called the Swan King


Mirror, Mirror (Tarsem Singh, 2012)


Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in The Great Gatsby (Jack Clayton, 1974)


Leonardo di Caprio. Photo: Annie Leibovitz


Madonna. Photo: David LaChapelle


David Bowie


Ad campaign featured in Vogue, January 1997


Tory Burch swan-print wedge sandalias


Swan Evening dress by Charles James, 1951


Kate Moss wearing a Givenchy gown by Ricardo Tisci, Spring-Summer collection 2011


Giles Deacon Spring-Summer 2012 collection


Erin O’Connor wearing a gown by Alexander McQueen. Photo: Tim Walker


Eglingham Children and Swan on Beach, Tim Walker, 2002

Elliot Alice Boots

Elliott Alice Boots‘, by Paul Christodoulou, 1966-67. A monochrome lithographic poster advertising ladies boots manufactured by T. Elliott & Sons. The design incorporating an illustration of a young woman, in a white dress and holding flowers, into a pastiche of designs after Aubrey Beardsley.

The Peacock Enthroned

Earthquake Damage. Lily Cole photographed by Tim Walker in Whadwhan Palace, Gujarat (India), 2005


La Grande Odalisque, 1814,  Jean AugusteDominique Ingres


The Peacock Room, 1876-7, James McNeill Whistler


The Peacock Throne is the most notable piece of furniture of the Moorish Kiosk, a building located at Linderhoff Palace in Bavaria, Germany. It’s the smallest of the three palaces built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria


Illustration of Sir Vane Peacock, JJ Grandville, 1852


The Kiss, 1896 Will Bradley


Aubrey Beardsley


Alphons Mucha


Kimono by Iida Takashimaya. Circa 1904-1908




George Barbier


bilibinIllustration to a Russian fairy tale about Жар-птица (The Firebird), 1899, by Ivan Bilibin


Walter Crane


Orson Lowell


The Majestic Peacock, by Elisabeth Sonrel


Vogue Cover , March 18, 1909 as illustrated by James St. John


George Wolf Plank, 1911


Frank Xavier Leyendecker, 1921


Page from Winter 1965 Lanctan catalogue, illustration by Paul Christadoulou


Flapper style headdress


Photo credit: Art Kane


Katharine Hepburn. Photo: Cecil Beaton, 1961


Gabrielle Coco Chanel. Photo by Boris Lipnistki


Natasha Khan (Bat for Lashes)


Michael Jackson’s Dangerous. Cover by Mark Ryden