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Carl Jung: “The Dream of Poliphilo”

1 Poliphilo

Symbolic Life

Carl Jung: Foreword to Fierz-David: “The Dream of Poliphilo” 

It must be twenty-five years since Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili first came my way in the French translation published by Beroalde de Verville in 1600.

Later, in the Morgan Library, New York, I saw and admired the first Italian edition with its superb woodcuts.

I set about reading the book, but soon got lost in the mazes of its architectural fantasies, which no human being can enjoy today.

Probably the same thing has happened to many a reader, and we can only sympathize with Jacob Burckhardt, who dismissed it with a brief mention while bothering little about its contents.

I then turned to the “Recueil Steganographique,” Beroalde’s Introduction, and in spite of its turgid and high-flown verbiage I caught fleeting glimpses which aroused my curiosity and encouraged me to continue my labours, for labours they are in a case like this.

My efforts found their reward, for plodding on, chapter by chapter, I sensed, rather than recognized, more and more things I was later to encounter in my study of alchemy.

Indeed, I cannot even say how far it was this book that put me on the track of the royal art.

In any case, not long afterwards I began to collect the old Latin treatises of the alchemists, and in a close study of them lasting many years I did eventually succeed in unearthing those subterranean processes of thought from which sprang not only the world of alchemical imagery but also Poliphilo’s dream.

What first found expression in the poetry of the minnesingers and troubadours can be heard here as a distant echo of a dreamlike past, but it is also a premonition of the future.

Like every proper dream, the Hypnerotomachia is Janus-faced: it is a picture of the Middle Ages on the brink of the Renaissance—a transition between two eras, and therefore highly relevant to the world today, which is even more obviously a time of transition and change.

So it was with considerable interest that I read the manuscript sent me by Mrs. Linda Fierz-David, for it is the first serious attempt to unlock Poliphilo’s secret and to unravel its crabbed symbolism with the help of modern psychology.

In my opinion, her undertaking has been entirely successful.

She has pursued the psychological problem which forms the central theme of the book through all the twists and turns of the story, demonstrating its personal and suprapersonal character as well as bringing to light its significance for the world of that time.

Many of her interpretations are so astute and illuminating that this seemingly outlandish and baroque tale, eagerly read in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is once more brought within the intellectual orbit of the modern reader.

With an intelligence equalled only by her intuition, she has painted a picture of that peculiar Renaissance psychology whose literary monument

is the Hypnerotomachia, while giving that picture a timeless background.

Thus, the tale reappears in all the freshness of its original colours and makes a direct appeal to the man of today by virtue of its imperishable psychological truth.

On its voyage through uncharted seas, the book owes some of its happiest discoveries to the sensitiveness of the feminine mind, which, delicately indiscreet, can take a peep behind Francesco Colonna’s richly ornate baroque facade.

It was because of this feminine gift that St. Catherine was consulted by the heavenly assembly “in all difficult cases,” as we learn from Anatole France’s amusing account in Penguin Island.

“While on earth, St. Catherine had confounded fifty very learned doctors.

She was versed in the philosophy of Plato as well as the Scriptures, and possessed rhetoric.”

Hence, it is no matter for surprise if Mrs. Fierz-David has brought off some dazzling feats of interpretation which throw considerable light on the obscurities of Poliphilo’s symbolism.

The tortuous ways of the masculine mind, setting traps for itself with its own vanities, are here exposed and illuminated, and modern man would do well to learn from this example.

In her commentary, she takes us deep into psychological problems that remain unfathomable to the modern mind and set it a hard task. The book is not easy reading—indeed, it requires some effort.

But it is a rich and stimulating repast, and will amply reward the attentive reader who comes to meet it halfway.

For myself, I am grateful to the author for the enriched knowledge and insight her book has brought me. ~Carl Jung, CW 18, Pages 780-781