Struggle for Love in a Dream

Poliphilo enters a dense and pathless forest

Poliphilo enters a dense and pathless forest

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream or Poliphilo’s Struggle for Love in a Dream), more than just a book but rather a milestone in depth psychology, was published in Venice in 1499. It featured beautiful woodcut illustrations and told a bizarre story that resembled the logic of a dream:

“The action of the ‘Hypnerotomachia Poliphili’ takes place in a dream. The books opens on the hero, Poliphilo, who has spent a restless night because his beloved, Polia, has shunned him. At the break of day, he finally falls into a deep slumber and his ‘Hypnerotomachia,’ or, as it can be roughly translated, ‘struggle for love in a dream,’ begins. The action is particularly absurd, however, even by the standards of the genre. Poliphilo is transported into a wild forest. He gets lost, escapes, and falls asleep once more. He then awakens in a second dream, dreamed inside the first. Within it, he is taken by some nymphs to meet their queen. 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 no less than 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 uninterrupted, and a second voice takes over, as Polia describes the erotomachia from her own point of view. This takes up one fifth of the book, after which the hero resumes his narrative. They are blissfully wed, but Polia vanishes into thin air as Poliphilo is about to take her into his arms.”


This “frenetic, fantastic specimen” of a book, as Liane Lefaivre describes it, is full of mysterious messages in various languages. It is a testament to boundless creativity and simmering mutability of the psyche, ceaselessly spouting foam, creating mirages, blowing soap bubbles, while painting internal, breathtaking landscapes of the soul. Poliphilo chases Polia through grottos, landscapes and gardens which get increasingly fantastical, with an aquatic labyrinth taking the crown. Poliphilo, “lover of many things,” and Polia, “many things,” symbolize the boundedness of Psyche to Eros – as one cannot exist without the other. Yet they both delight in endless hot pursuit.


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10 Responses to Struggle for Love in a Dream

  1. ptero9 says:

    Perhaps because it has my attention, I see a tandem pairedness here with Psyche and Eros. The two show up together when they show up at all. It also reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: Desire is relentless.

    Lovely post and musical accompaniment Monika!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jeff Japp says:

    I just finished reading something that you would love. It’s a graphic novel called Promethea. Drafted up a post and will likely publish it next weekend. I’ll tag you on FB when I do.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. pAuL says:

    Hi, you really don’t see much on the Hypnerotomachia so the idea of putting it out there is very welcome. It was a popular book in its day and influential to the artistic and humanist circles of the time. I suspect it is a type of moral romance not in idea too unlike Dante’s Divine Comedy, but rather of a Hermetic/pagan bent (instead of Beatrice we have Poliphia). Also in the Hypnerotomachia there is a sense that Poliphilo and Polia are rather like Roderick and Madeline Usher in Poe’s ‘Fall of the House of Usher’, where neither can leave the House without the other dying (Dante & Beatrice, Poliphilo & Polia, and Roderick & Madeline are all dual aspects of the psyche). A notion common to all three is that the relationship to the object of attraction must remain unrequited. In that there seems to be (in the Divine Comedy and the Hypnerotomachia) a resolution or a healing, whereas Poe’s story of Madeline’s death destroys Roderick and the house (mind). Also liked the piano in the Vimeo vid – do you know the recording? I have spent brief time (white gloved of course!) with an original copy of the book and it is a wonderful object. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello,
      Thank you for letting me to your website – so much fascinating stuff to digest. I am now making my way through this gem:
      I admire your passionate and meticulous approach to the subject. That painting is also one of my favorites, and I had no idea you can see so much in it!

      About “the relationship to the object of attraction must remain unrequited,” could not agree more: it is the elusiveness that thrills us, not the possession, which is never possible anyway. Thinking also of Orpheus and Euridice…

      Thank you for leaving your comment here. By the way, the piano music is by Erik Satie, who was a magnificent composer, I think.

      Best wishes


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