Today, the most beautiful book -- but so what? The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
How often have you heard on
the history channel that the printing press created
the Renaissance? It's trite but true. And yet
collectors of rare books are very apt to distort
Some twenty million individual books were printed
in the 45 years between Gutenberg and the beginning
of the sixteenth century. Many of those books still
exist; some are in very shabby condition.
For a book to've survived, and to be
attractive to a collector, two things had to be
true of it. First, it had to've been one of the
beautifully-made books. And, as with any very
popular product -- computer, TV set, automobile --
many shabby books were in-evitably printed for
every beautiful one.
The second factor that augurs for the survival of
an old book was being not-too-interesting. The
highly-prized old books are very often those that
people did not often take down from the shelf and
I recently became curious about
one of the more famous early printed books -- one
of the best-known of these had a pretty imposing
title: the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. It
was printed by an Italian, Aldus Manutius. He was a
court intellectual, whom the royalty set up as
printer in 1495.
The investment paid off -- sort of. Manutius
printed some gorgeous books. And most gorgeous of
all was his Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. The
contents were another matter. It's usually
attributed to a contemporary writer named Francesco
Colonna. But it well could've been someone else.
And scholars debate his intentions.
It reads like a fantasia and an architectural
travelogue. Poet John Tranter says he quickly tired
of trying to read it. He describes it: A man named
Poliphilo goes, in a dream, with his love Polia to
await Cupid at a ruined temple by the sea. Polia
entices him inside to admire the antiquities.
Endless descriptions of dream-art and
fantasy-architecture follow, interspersed with
brief episodes of fondling and heavy breathing.
Tranter calls it detailed, obsessive, and
So, if the new medium of print created the
Renaissance, this book played a very limited role.
It was in the cheap stuff that print truly altered
life on planet Earth -- hastily printed copies of
the Boccaccio tempting common folk to
learn the skill of reading -- cheap Bibles in local
And, of course, that's where we are today. The
Internet is into very similar mischief. You can
find beautiful web sites, just as the Renaissance
produced beautiful books. We pause to admire them,
but then we quickly move on to E-bay or Google.
Printing did not achieve greatness with a few fine
coffee table books, but by fulfilling a far more
primal function. It seized people's minds with
readily available knowledge in every form -- with
the elixir of knowing what they previously could
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For the best on line description of the
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, see: http://mitpress.mit.edu/e-books/HP/hypsinop.htm
And the comments of poet John Tranter may be read
A Page of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,
printed by Aldus Manutius in 1499.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.