Right at the beginning of his dream, Poliphilo has a vision of the entire moving Alchemy machine: 14 discordant dancers taking origin from their opposite.

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili 34Every man is connected with a woman but untied to her. Every smiling face is turning to a crying face.  But every simile restarts from a dissimilar. Like night and day. Summer and Winter. Sun and Moon. The alchemical time. Which needs strict proportions, though.

One of the best known engravings from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, is certainly that of the enigmatic bi-faced group of dancers. We are still in the incipit of the first book. When walking out of the dark forest, having been drinking at the river, Poliphilo enters the huge pyramid to see some wonders. After a winged horse with putti and two squared stone pillars, he can glaze at a group of men and women, with two faces. One smiling, the other crying. Dancing in two oscillating semi-circles, not in a round.

From the strange (even for a venetian) form of neo-latin in which Hypnerotomachia Poliphili has been written: ” …..sul lato destro da poscia coelate erano alcune figure di homini & di damigelle chorigianti, cum due facie per uno. Quella dinanti ridibonda, la posteriora lachrymosa……On the right side there were some presences of dancing young men and young ladies, each one with two faces. The front one smiling, the back one crying. And in round they were dancing. Holding by arms, man with man and woman with woman. A man’s arm under a woman’s one, and the other arm over the woman’s one. And so holding they move in that way, one by one. That always one happy face was opposed to the sad face of the previous. There were seven and seven of them, so perfectly carved of ancient sculpture. With living movements and flying garments. They didn’t burden the artist with any other inaccuracy than having not give them voice and tears. The above mentioned dance was shaped in two semi-circles and an interposed partition, egregiously scratched.

Under that “hemiale” outline I saw the inscribed word TEMPUS (Time). Then I saw on the other side many adolescents (made by the said artist and the whole uniformly shaped to the above mentioned one, gorgeously waved and the wave by both the figures worn with exquisite vegetation) concentrated on picking flowers among many herbs and shrubs, together “molte facete Nymphe scherciando solatiose, da quelli blandivolegli rapivano” many playfully silent Nymphs took flowers from them. And because of the above mentioned, under the figure some carved letters saying this unique word” AMISSIO” ( Loss). And they were exact letters, their “crassitudine” (perhaps size) was the ninth part and just a bit more than the diameter of the square.”

I have already said, in my introductory article to the printer and editor Aldus Manutius , that in my opinion this collection of gorgeous engravings, and lousy text, is a detailed alchemical compendium. In the incipit of Poliphilo’s dream we have the Alchemy keys and foundations. The fourteen dancers actually represent the fourteen steps. That’s to say “seven and seven” (1).

In a sense, we are here forerunning another Hypnerotomachia engraving: that representing the seven Nymphs. But here we are before a mere tool, not a process. Certainly, both images stand for ubiquitous necessary points, but the fourteen dancers are less chemical and more physical.

hypnerotomachia poliphili 14 dancers tempusSo, a succession of men and women, moving in two opposite semi-circles, forming quite an ellipse, more properly an eye. Each of them is bi-faced and turning the wrong face to the following dancer. So they are always opposite to each other. Here Poliphilo is being taught the Solve et Coagula.

Every man is a fixation, while every woman a volatilization. Every man raises up, every woman brings down. Every man is Fire and Earth, every woman is Air and Water (2). In fact, no matter what chemical substances there are inside our vessels, it is the state of the matter to be significant. Alchemists, and even ancient chemists to some extent, were uninterested to molecular purity. They were interested in Elements, because in this way Secret Fire came from power to the act. And is the practical consequence of the real “abstract” alchemical machine, that of hot and frozen (3).

Nevertheless, more than an Ouroboros rendition (4), here we are before the Caduceus in the sense of Aura Catena Homeri. The image representing the strange dance is to happen inside and outside vessel (5). In the universe, as well, our Secret Fire is subject to “open” and “close” while wandering around. Opening is female, closing male.

Here, precisely, we are watching the intercrossing and succession of the necessary operations. In fact the alchemical, and chemical, time is marked by the Solve et Coagula processes. Like a metronome. We have to count seven of each type of operation. Seven volatilizations, followed by seven fixations. Seven plus seven is fourteen. The representing shape cannot be a round, but a kind of ciliated eye.

We can start to count from a woman, or a man. In fact every sex holds only the arm of the same sex. Nevertheless, necessarily, the end of a man-fixation turns into a woman-volatilization and creates the condition to reverse and start again. So every smiling face produce, in the end, a crying face. They all, do form the “Tempus”, the time an alchemist can count.

Of course, Time cannot just to be seen as a metronome. Because these operations require “timing” also. That’s to say a determined period of Lunation (6), when they are intended to reach the first Mercurius. Another period of Lunation at the beginning of the main work. And a last period during the last cooking. These two kind of “Times” definitely mark the difference between ancient chemistry and Alchemy.

Poliphilo described as “hemiale” the “Tempus” image, which causes not few problems to translators. In most cases it remained not translated and skipped. It is neither a latin, nor a neo-latin word. We just know that -aemia (latin), -aimia, haima (greek) means blood. Which is unquestionably a red thing. In the last part of the Great Work there is a matter called “Blood” (7). Is blood meaning this final substance? Or something indicating a”living” substance containing a Soul, since ancient people did believe the Soul/Sulphur contained in the blood?

This word “Tempus” perhaps may give a meaning to a more difficult to understand title for the following engraving. “AMISSIO”, or loss.

This image in the original Hypnerotomachia published by Manutius in 1499, and probably engraved by Mantegna school, is different from the version in “Les Tableau des Riches Inventions” by François Béroalde de Verville, Paris 1600. Probably Béroalde de Verville feared the flowers detail was not sufficiently clear in the original versions.  We know that flowers, which are the product of salts volatilization, make the end and start of each sex, of each process of lifting up and falling down. In fact, you can find this term in ancient chemistry treatises as well: Flowers are a salt sublimation product. But Béroalde failed to understand the handing of them: are men to offer flowers, as a lifting produces a flower. The following falling process makes the flower not definitive.

hypnerotomachia poliphili amissiobéroalde de verville tableau riches inventions amissio

But, what does “Loss” mean? Why a loss, and a loss of what? Perhaps a loss of time? Perhaps an operation with no strict timing rules? To some extent, the product of a salt volatilization, once obtained is obtained. But, is this “Loss” really referring to the previous “Tempus, or not? In Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, as we will see, we will find often expressions as “Loss”, ” Unhappiness”, “Sorrow”. In the previous engraving we are able to see a “Equus Infelicitatis”, of unhappiness horse.

We know that Poliphilo is happy when seeing Polia, and unhappy when something detaches him from her. We know that “Love” was generally employed to refer to the forces tying a Spirit of Life/Mercurius and a Soul/Sulphur. In the italian Academies which the “Fedeli d’Amore”, or Love Followers, belonged to, that was taught.

We know that in the upper part of our vessels, like in the upper of our skies, Spirits do encounter each other. Are flowers the new life being born from this union (8), like a volatile Mercurius can get fixed and becomes Sulphur, that’s to say the product of a Mercurius fixation in Sulphur, a Salt? (9). But this new life, till the final fixation, will be bound to be not definitive, over and over. In fact how many, of all the bouquets we are able to see, are going to live more than an ephemeral moment? All these flowers are to be dissolved again, and again will fall to the bottom.

In order to be able to lift inside the vessel, the texture must undergo a “Weight”, or a measure. Not all consistencies are allowed to be easily lifted up. In the end of the chapter, Poliphilo says: ” Et erano eximie littere exacta, la sua crassitudine dalla nona parte, & poco più dil diametro dilla quadratura”, or ….and these were exact letters, their size was the ninth part and just a bit more than the diameter of the square.

“AMISSIO” has seven letters. The dissolvent has to be nine time the solute. Or, at least…..the transverse measurement of something. Is this square the “Amissio” frame? Béroalde de Verville failed to understand and set an oval frame for his version. In Hypnerotomachia Poliphili the detailed instructions lay on written part.

  1. See also Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit and Secret Iconography of the Wheel ;
  2. See also Stoll, the Lacinius Translator on Male and Female ;
  3. See also Cesare Ripa & the Hot Frozen Ouroboros World Machine ;
  4. See also Codex Marcianus Ouroboros ;
  5. See also Kriegsmann/ Sun, Moon, Wind and Earth in Tabula Smaragdina ;
  6. See also Santi Pupieni and the Raising Black-New Moon ;
  7. See also Ripley Scroll/ the Soul Drinks only Blood ;
  8. See also Eros, Psyche & a New Alchemical Body ;
  9. See also Basilius Valentinus & Salt, Azoth or Philosophers Gold?