Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Francesco Colonna. Published in Venice 1499. Houghton Library, Harvard University, USA. Wikimedia Commons - public domain.


Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The most influential book of the Renaissance

  • Tuesday 26 September 2023
  • Keynes Library, Birkbeck School of Arts, 43 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PD
  • Lecturer: Clare Ford-Wille

This book was considered to be essential reading by every Renaissance intellectual and is frequently referred to in studies of art and culture. It tells the story of the quest of Poliphilo for his beloved Polia and is attributed to the Dominican friar, Francesco Colonna (1433-1527). Published in Venice by Aldus Manutius in 1499, it was richly illustrated for its time, having over 200 woodcuts which were an immediate influence upon Renaissance artists north and south of the Alps, such as Giorgione, Dürer, Titian, Cranach, Giulio Romano and later artists such as Bernini. The illustrations show intricate garden designs with elaborate topiary and flower beds, as well as ingenious fountains, and architectural garden buildings. They reveal the contemporary importance of antique remains and inscriptions, all of which became influential on future gardens, such as the extraordinary mannerist garden at  Bomarzo. It was also an important source of ideas on buildings.

The seminar format with its smaller numbers will allow for discussion of this important source of inspiration both in the Renaissance and later.

Programme for the day

  1. Introduction and literary context of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili from 1400 to 1500.
  2. Analysis of text and illustration in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.
  3. The immediate impact of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili on painters and sculptors from Giorgione to Bernini.
  4. The later influence of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili on garden design in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


Clare Ford-Wille is an independent art historian, well known to members for her courses at Birkbeck and Morley College as well as a lecturer at the National Gallery, the V&A and The Arts Society groups in Britain and Europe. She has led many tours abroad. Clare is a Vice President of The London Art History Society.

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