Francesco Colonna was an Italian Dominican priest and monk who was credited with the authorship of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by an acrostic in the text.
He lived in Venice, and preached at St. Mark's Cathedral. Besides Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, he definitely wrote an Italian epic poem called Delfili Somnium, the "Dream of Delfilo' which went unpublished in his lifetime and was not published until 1959. Colonna spent part of his life in the monastery of St. John and St. Paul in Venice, but the monastery was apparently not of the strictest observance and Colonna was granted leave to live outside its walls. In Ian Caldwell's and Dustin Thomason's book, The Rule of Four, Francesco Colonna is said to be a Roman, rather than a monk and the true author of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.
The book was printed by Aldus Manutius in Venice in December 1499. The book is anonymous, but an acrostic formed by the first, elaborately decorated letter in each chapter in the original Italian reads POLIAM FRATER FRANCISCVS COLVMNA PERAMAVIT, "Brother Francesco Colonna has dearly loved Polia." Despite this, scholars have also attributed the book to Leon Battista Alberti, and earlier, to Lorenzo de Medici. The latest contribution in this respect was the attribution to Aldus Manutius, and a different Francesco Colonna, this one a wealthy Roman Governor. The author of the illustrations is even less certain.
The subject matter lies within the tradition of the genre of Romance within the conventions of courtly love, which still provided engaging thematic matter for Quattrocento aristocrats. The Hypnerotomachia also draws from a humanist tradition of arcane writings as a demonstration of classical thought.
The text of the book is written in a bizarre Latinate Italian, full of words based on Latin and Greek roots without explanation. The book, however, also includes words from the Italian language, as well as illustrations including Arabic and Hebrew words; Colonna also invented new languages when the ones available to him were inaccurate. (It also contains some uses of Egyptian hieroglyphs, but they are not authentic, most being drawn from a medieval text called Hieroglyphica of dubious origin.) Its story, which is set in 1467, consists of precious and elaborate descriptions of scenes involving the title character, Poliphilo ("Friend of Many Things", from Greek Polloi "Many" + Philos "Friend"), as he wanders a sort of bucolic-classical dreamland in search of his love Polia ("Many Things"). The author's style is elaborately descriptive and unsparing in its use of superlatives. The text makes frequent references to classical geography and mythology, mostly by way of comparison.
The book has long been sought after as one of the most beautiful incunabula ever printed. The typography is famous for its quality and clarity, in a roman typeface cut by Francesco Griffo, a revised version of a type which Aldus had first used in 1496 for the De Aetna of Pietro Bembo. The type was revived by the Monotype Corporation in 1923 as Poliphilus. Another revival, of the earlier version of Griffo's type, was completed under the direction of Stanley Morison in 1929 as Bembo. The type is thought to be one of the first examples of the italic typeface, and unique to the Aldine Press in incunabula.
The book is illustrated with 168 exquisite woodcuts showing the scenery, architectural settings, and some of the characters Poliphilo encounters in his dreams. They depict scenes from Poliphilo's adventures, or the architectural features over which the text rhapsodizes, in a simultaneously stark and ornate line art style which perfectly integrates with the type. These images are also interesting because they shed light on what people in the Renaissance fancied about the alleged æsthetic qualities of Greek and Roman antiquities. In the United States, a book on the life and works of Aldus Manutius by Helen Barolini was set within pages that reproduce all the illustrations and many of the full pages from the original work, reconstructing the original layout.
The psychologist Carl Jung admired the book, believing the dream images presaged his theory of archetypes. The style of the woodcut illustrations had a great influence on late-nineteenth-century English illustrators, such as Aubrey Beardsley, Walter Crane, and Robert Anning Bell.
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili was partially translated into English in a London edition of 1592 by "R. D.", believed to be Robert Dallington, who gave it the title by which it is best known in English, The Strife of Love in a Dream. The first complete English version was published in 1999, five hundred years after the original, translated by musicologist Joscelyn Godwin. However the translation uses standard, modern language, rather than following the original's pattern of coining and borrowing words.
Since the 500th anniversary in 1999 also several other modern translations have been published: into modern Italian as part of the great (vol. 1: fac-simile; vol. 2: translation, introductory essays and more than 700 pages of commentary) edition by Marco Ariani and Mino Gabriele; into Spanish by Pilar Pedraza Martinez; into Dutch with one volume of commentary by Ike Cialona; into German, the commentary inserted into the text, by Thomas Reiser.
A complete Russian translation by art historian Boris Sokolov is now in progress, of which the "Cythera Island" part was published in 2005 and is available online. The book is planned as a precise reconstruction of the original layout, with Cyrillic types and typography by Sergei Egorov.
Ten of the monuments described in the Hypnerotomachia were reconstructed by computer graphics and were first published by Esteban A. Cruz in 2006, and in 2012. In 2007, he established a full, design-study project Formas Imaginisque Poliphili, an ongoing independent research project with the objective of reconstructing the content of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, through a multi-disciplinary approach, and with the aid of virtual and traditional reconstruction technology and methods.