The only gothic church in Rome is Santa Maria sopra Minerva, so called because it was erected on top of an ancient Roman temple of the goddess Minerva. In the plaza in front, there is a statue of an elephant carrying an obelisk created by the great baroque artist, Bernini. Why is it carrying an obelisk?
1999 marked the 500th anniversary of the initial publication of Hypnerototmachia Poliphili and also marked the first complete English translation of the work, in which this woodcut features. It’s not surprising that Bernini would have been influenced by the book – every other educated European post-1499 was.
The publication of the original book is itself a landmark event, producing one of the most sought after pieces of icunabula, examples of the infancy of book printing, from the Latin for swaddling clothes. It was printed by Aldus in Venice, and integrated the woodcut illustrations with the text, which itself was often displayed in novel configurations, e.g. pyramidal layouts on the page.
The text itself is written in Italian, despite the author’s preoccupation with the culture of antiquity – such humanists usually wrote their scholarly stuff in Latin. But this is no scholarly text, and the author was no ivory tower intellectual. He was a priest of no good repute and the language, according to the translator’s introduction, is arcane, filled with bizarre neologisms, and with words that even educated readers of the day would have found bewildering.
Its title translates roughly as The strife of love in a dream, and it seems like an extended wet dream of an overheated imagination. Whether the erotic longing is for a woman or for architecture is not always clear – at least not as far as I have read so far. No doubt as I read further in this antique stream of consciousness but that associations with Bomarzo will be present.