July 06, 2004

The Next DaVinci Code

Posted at July 6, 2004 10:33 AM in Books .


Renaissance tome inspires new thriller

By Jerome Weeks
Dallas Morning News

Impress your friends. Try name-dropping this mouthful: HIP-neroto-MOCK-ee-ah PAH-leh-FEE-lee.

Well, impress your bookish friends, anyway. Loosely translated, ``Hypnerotomachia Polifili'' means ``The Struggle of Love in Polifilio's Dream,'' and the unusual book from 1499 is the inspiration for ``The Rule of Four,'' the new ``Da Vinci Code''-like hit mystery.

``These days,'' says John Thomas, ``we seem to have a little tempest in a teapot of novels revolving around the secrets in books'' -- referring not only to ``The Da Vinci Code'' but also to Lev Grossman's ``Codex'' and Umberto Eco's ``The Name of the Rose.''

Thomas is a curator in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin -- which has one of its three copies of the ``Hypnerotomachia'' on public display through Aug. 15.

The ``Hypnerotomachia'' is not rarer than the Gutenberg Bible (``Rule of Four'' authors Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason get that wrong). There are more than 200 copies extant, compared with 48 Gutenberg Bibles. It once was well-known among Europe's well-read nobles (the painter Titian was even inspired by a particular woodcut). But nowadays, it's obscure -- except to the scholars who treasure it as a masterpiece of Renaissance Italian printing (courtesy of Aldus Manutius) -- with 147 woodcuts.

A work of art

``It's so beautiful,'' Thomas says, ``so very clean and spare. I'm pleased that this has given us a reason to show it off.''

The ``Hypnerotomachia'' also has intrigued people because it's mysterious. It's attributed to Francesco Colonna, a friar of dubious reputation. Well after Dante broke with tradition by writing his ``Divine Comedy'' in Italian, not Latin, Colonna wrote in an amalgam of both, with Greek and even Arabic tossed in. It's a chief reason the ``Hypnerotomachia'' was not fully translated into English until 1999. And then there are all the strange, symbolic pictures to

An old, odd love story

As its title implies, the book is Polifilio's account of a dream he has while wooing Polia. Part 2 is Polia's response, which breaks down into letters and poems.

If you're intrigued by the ``eroto'' in the title, don't be. The book's atmosphere is obsessive but lightly amorous. As explicit as it gets are the illustrations of Priapus, the Roman fertility god and his large phallus, and descriptions of nude flesh, ``peerlessly delicate, mingling roses with seasonable snow.''

Less a pornographer than a pedant, Colonna was in love with pagan learning. His book fetishizes Greco-Roman antiquity -- the details of dress, gods and statues. The theory in ``Rule'' that his book is a coded map to a crypt makes sense; he loved architecture.

``Rule'' (Dial Books, $24) is more likable than the pretentious ``Da Vinci'' and, mercifully, unlikely to inspire a diet book (which ``Da Vinci'' has). It'll probably just inspire more thrillers about codes and rare texts.

``Oh, wait till they get hold of the Rosicrucians,'' groans Thomas, referring to the secret society of mystics that first appeared in 17th-century Germany. The ``Voynich Manuscript,'' a puzzling mishmash that is held at Yale's Beinecke Library and once was linked with the Rosicrucians, awaits its decoder-novelist.


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