Wednesday, January 23, 2019

391. Ricketts on Venetian Printing and The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

Recently, an unknown review by Charles Ricketts emerged from the sea of digitised magazines. It was contributed to a magazine that published articles on politics, religion, and art, including poems by such authors as James Joyce: The Speaker, The Liberal Review. I haven't seen a reference to Ricketts's article in The Speaker before - and in my bibliography of Ricketts's publications, this article is not listed.

The article seems quite important to republish. In it Ricketts discusses an incunable that he had taken as an example for an early Vale Press  book, the edition of Daphnis and Chloe in 1893. This edition was received as an important testimony of the modern movement in book arts.   

Ricketts's review of the Methuen facsimile edition of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili was published in The Speaker of 25 February 1905.

There were no illustrations (I have added some for this blog).

The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and Its Character

The Facsimile of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. London: Methuen. £3. 3s. net.

The publishers are to be congratulated on this facsimile of the Hypnerotomachia. The printing is good, the reproduction, on the whole, is excellent. It counts as a notable effort to make accessible the most harmonious volume ever printed, for the Hypnerotomachia is the flower of the Italian presses. In this work the several composing elements - the build, decoration, and the dainty illustration - each touches what is very like perfection; and they are so combined that the result is unsurpassed.

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Methuen, 1904)
Other noble volumes of the Renaissance - Dürers Life of the Virgin or Holbein's exquisite Dance of Death, for instance - though harmonious enough and unequalled in their way, achieve a different order of success; they interest one as a gallery of pictures by a great master. In the Hypnerotomachia the effect is different; it has the beauty we might admire in a delicate piece of architecture. The books illustrated by Dürer or by Holbein express the genius of a man. The Hypnerotomachia is less intense in its appeal; it is typical of a phase of artistic thought, typical of an enchanted period, and if it was popular in its time as a sort of repository of neo-classical invention, it appeals to us for a different reason - for the expression not of a fashion but a mood which may never occur again. It is local, Italian; it belongs to a charmed moment in the youth of our civilisation.

The author, Francesco Colonna, in his cell in the convent of SS. Giovanni e Paolo, is responsible for the publication of a work which, in its aspect, is all Spring.

Canaletto, Campo santi Giovanni e Paolo a Venezia col monumento a Bartolomeo Colleoni (painting, c. 1740)
I have compared this book to a dainty piece of architecture. That is not all, it suggests also a garden dotted with fragments and relics of an enchanted past. Its effect is really that of some little palace of art standing in its own grounds. Is Francesco Colonna responsible for this? He wished merely for an accompaniment to his half-pedantic, half-childish idyll, and we have forgotten him for the dainty setting. In temper his narrative belonged to that portion of the Renaissance which has become obsolete, which remains essentially mediaeval, despite its neo-classicism - for two of the tiresome fairy godmothers at the birth of the Renaissance, "Pedantry" and "Allegory," had combined to make the work; but two others came to bring their gifts, the fairy "Harmony" and the fairy "Charm."

If the illustrations and decorations of the Hypnerotomachia are typical of a period, are they typical of Venice? I think not. In Venetian art we are unprepared for the temper they reveal. The kind of half-childish patheism which characterises them is singular; yet, if we find evidence of a similar vein of thought in the work of the Florentine craftsman and artisan, we shall not recognise this spirit in the books and booklets issued by the Florentine presses. Florence, the home of the Renaissance, the city of the humanists, lags in the value and importance of her output in the history of printing. Venice, benefiting by her cosmopolitanism, takes the lead in all matters concerning the build and making of books; she owes to her powers of absorption her two greatest designers of type, a  German and a Frenchman. We must not be surprised if her greatest triumph in book illustration comes to us with an unexpected quality and something foreign in invention and temper.

Nicolas Jenson
The dominant influences in contemporary Venetian art were unsuited to the inventive qualities required in the illustrator; the Vivarini are laggards in an icebound pictorial convention. Till late in life John Bellini hardly stoops to romance and the idyll. The illustrations in the Hypnerotomachia are in a mood which was not as yet Venetian. The book is printed in 1499 ate the expense of Leonardo Crasso, a Veronese, and the aim of the work focusses for us an effort at classical reconstruction which might have been contemplated in Florence, Padua, or Verona; it even reflects that more playful and pagan mood of the early Renaissance, and Venice had remained a laggard in all the ideals of the movement. If the Hypnerotomachia is typical of Italy, Venice for centuries has been too busy and too cosmopolitan to remember that she was Italian; she was foreign in temper to the intellectual fervour and the fervent refinement which characterised Florence, remaining rich but provincial; in most things she has been a borrower, for Venetian architecture had caught its local colour from the East, the painting accepts recruits even from the North; belated and conservative, she is the last centre to become influenced by the Renaissance. She takes her revenge, however, in the sudden output of her splendid presses, in her sudden later development in the art of painting. Twenty years are sufficient; and if Venice is the last to be touched by the spirit of the Renaissance, she is the last centre in which it loves to linger on and on, in a prolonged aftermath of art. The Hypnerotomachia is therefore the first obvious sign that the Renaissance is at home in Venice; it is the most typical Italian book which expresses its spirit. It is in Venice also that we will find the last volume  which is stamped by artistic merit: its is the Cento Favole Morali written and illustrated by Verdizotti under the lingering influence of Titian.

Verdizotti, Cento Favole Morali (1570)
[photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]
For one reason or another Venice became the home of printing; her printers find and establish the standard of excellence in all the arts which go to make a book. We owe the shaping of the definite Roman type we still use to Giovanni Spira and to Jenson; we owe to Aldus the Italic type and the invention of the small "intimate" editions wherein the art of printing leaves the desk and lectern to follow us into our homes, and The Dream of Polifilus, published by him, remains the standard or "canon" for a book beautiful in type, decoration, and picture, and in the coordination of each part to each by an indwelling element of harmony.

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499)
Who was the maker of the charming illustrations and designs? The question is still unanswered. Our knowledge of Venetian art enables us to dismiss Bellini, or, indeed, anyone absolutely under his influence. Dr. Lippmann's suggestion that the author was Barbari must also be abandoned (the style or mannerisms of this artist are too well known). I incline to think that we must seek outside Venice for the spirit and the hand to which we owe these cuts - that several others designs related to them which appear in the Venetian presses about 1493 are by the same hand. The border to the Lucianus published  by Bevilaqua; the frontispiece to the Terence of 1497 by Simon da Leure, above all the pictures in the famous border of the Herodotus of 1494, and the rather uncouth designs in the Fasciculus Medicinae of 1493 (allowance being made in this case for the scale of these last cuts) present common characteristics: note the treatment of the architecture, the facial types of the men, and the ornamental details - all these present a set of conventions which would haunt one of those later provincial imitators of Mantegna's prints, little masters like Mocetto or, better still, that imitator  of Mantegna's "Bacchanals"and "Triumphs" who passes under the name of the Master of the Rosebery Sketch-book, and who was some craftsman probably from Verona. I had imagined that Mocetto's windows in SS. Giovanni e Paolo might furnish a clue. It was from that place probably that the author of the Hypnerotomachia supervised the publication of his book. I admit that these woodcuts are in pure outline and not shaded diagonally, like the known work of the two minor artists I have mentioned; but the convention and limitations of the Venetian block-cutter have supervened between the drawings and the prints. I am disinclined towards Mocetto as their author. I am, in fact, disinclined to any name, but not to my ascription of a foreign origin to some of the better and more classical Venetian woodcuts, probably those in the Hypnerotomachia; I think we are nearer the temper in which these illustrations were done when we quite forget the schools of Vivarini or of Bellini - in fact, all the pietistic work which was then current in Venetian painting, and think of some cross-current from Verona touching Venice.
                                                                                             CHARLES RICKETTS

Herodotus, Historiae (Venice, 1494)
[image: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library,
Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut]