The Maniera of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili Nicolas Buffe and the Dream of Polifilo

Toshiharu Ito, Art Historian and Professor of Intermedia Art, Tokyo University of the Arts

"The Dream of Polifilo" 2014, Hara Museum of Contemporary Art


Polifilo dreams.

Written by the Italian Dominican priest Francesco Colonna in 1499, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is a medieval adventure story about a friar called Poliphilo who after being shunned by his beloved Polia falls into a dream, wanders through a mysterious forest and magnificent gardens, reunites with Polia, and then goes on to have further adventures and recollections, which include extravagant processions and mysterious rites. But what has fascinated people about this book — considered by some the greatest incunabula of its time — is the encyclopedic knowledge it displays on subjects as varied as architecture, medicine, zoology and botany and the exquisite beauty of its exotic woodcut illustrations. The erudition and images, suggestive of a book of alchemy or tarot cards, constitute a brilliant display of imagination and ancient learning layered on top of a very curious tale.

Poliphilo falls asleep under a large tree in a dark forest and then wakes to find himself facing ancient ruins and a fearsome wolf with gaping mouth and fangs, one of the manifestations of the two motifs of fear and bliss that alternate within the story. To arrive at a place of serenity and joy, he must make it to the end of a dark, narrow and terrifying path as if it were a rite of passage. He encounters one difficulty after another on the way to Cythera, the island of love, in pursuit of his beloved Polia, who also symbolizes ancient knowledge.

For the exhibition, Nicolas Buffe transformed the entire Hara Museum along the thematic and structural lines of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, turning it into a setting for an adventure journey. The tree near the entrance of the museum became the great tree in the dark forest where Buffe’s character Polifilo slumbers and enters his dream. The entrance canopy became a wolf’s head, with its huge mouth open and long red tongue extended. Getting past this obstacle, one enters Buffe’s theme park, a labyrinthine succession of installations composed of wall murals and three-dimensional objects, including an interactive work that makes use of Augmented Reality.

Buffe’s Triumphe, ils ont sauvé la terre (triumph, they saved the earth) (2008) depicts a carriage in a triumphal procession that is decorated in silver and gold and accompanied by nymphs. Buffe borrowed its shape and composition from an illustration in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. A triumphal procession is a group of allegorical characters assembled into a moving spectacle to honor a given person or event. In this work, Buffe transformed the procession into a vision of marching Japanese live-action, special-effect action heroes who have just rescued the earth from danger.

Buffe’s Pulcino (2009) was also inspired by an illustration of a black elephant bearing an obelisk in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Buffe’s work is a three-dimensional elephant with a large obelisk on its back that sways. It is an amalgam of various elements ranging from Bernini’s Elephant and Obelisk, Disney’s Dumbo, Japanese Buddhist architecture and portable shrines and rocking chairs. To support the weight of ancient knowledge represented by the obelisk requires a solid head (brain), but Buffe embeds his own message: action and play are necessary components in all knowledge.

In his art direction for the Haydn opera Orlando Paladino (2012), Buffe explored this kind of organic fusion between the fantastic and the allegorical on a deep level. This Renaissance tale is about the title character Orlando’s unrequited love and madness, which plays out against a backdrop of Charlemagne’s battle against the invading Saracens and the exploits of his paladins. Taking historical and geographical allowances, the story contains sorcerers and monsters and even a crazy journey to the moon. In Buffe’s hands, however, he creates a red arcade that is inspired by Baroque French stage sets, and in the cave of the sorceress Alcina, Buffe incorporates a circular stage and staircase that he borrows from the Cloud City set in Star Wars/The Empire Strikes Back. The scene where Alcina turns Orlando to stone and sends him to Hades is taken directly from the scene in which Hans Solo is carbon-frozen in the same movie. In other words, Buffe applies a unique association of ideas to make his characters shine.

Then there is the design of the costume for Orlando’s servant Pasquale, which was inspired by the costume of Kamen Rider, the wings on his helmet and sword by the comic book character Asterix, the sheep herder Yuria by the sexy costume of Barbarella. The costume of the insane Orlando combines a strait jacket with medieval knight’s armor, and the hair and beard styles incorporate elements from Don Quixote and Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. Rodomonte, the King of Barbaria, was influenced by the kumadori make-up of Kabuki and the carriage he rides is in the style of Japanese decorated trucks. The sea monsters move like Godzilla or an Ultraman monster against a simplified backdrop in the style of a 1990’s TV game show.

Buffe’s creations are more than quotations or pastiches; they are creative attempt to generate a new dimension unlike anything before it. Paraphrasing Eduoard Glissant, it is a dimension in which people exist in one place and another simultaneously, taking root as they spread out, harmonizing as they wander.

The extreme rate at which opportunities for communications and movement are increasing has affected how people live and think, making their daily lives a kind of chaotic journey. Artists are starting to be seen as agents who penetrate this cultural landscape overflowing with symbols to create multiple forms of expression and pathways. For Buffe, these conditions describe the “altermodern era” of globalized, multicultural relationships that have resulted from a planet-wide creolization, an era that has supplanted the 20th-century Modernism of the West.

Buffe believes that what is important in devising a new maniera for the altermodern era is not to flatten the idea of historical time or geographical place, but to cherish the operation of shared cultures and the depth of shared cultural memories; that is to say, to go not in the direction of “Superflat,” but in the direction of “Supervolume.”

Faced with an astounding amount of information, contemporary artists must open themselves up to an aesthetic of diversity and drive a wedge into the monotony of uniformity while cultivating unique sensibilities with respect to selection and use. What is necessary is to transform the vast network of knowledge into a rhythmical movement, to play with history in a serious way, to have fun with anachronisms and to give form to joyous knowledge. It may be said that the succession of works created by Buffe are the best examples to be produced in this direction and from this stance.

Overflowing with allegories and symbols, including winged horses, the Tomb of Adonis, fierce dragons, the Three Graces and the Fountain of Venus, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili continues to be a major revelation for Buffe in that sense. The title is a neologism composed of the Greek words hýpnos,“sleep,”éros,“love,”andmáche ̄,“fight.”TatsuhikoShibusawa, who first introduced the book to Japan, translated the title using the characters for “madness,” “love” and “dream.” Embedded in these words is an organic chain of human emotions in which dream, love and fight are harmoniously combined in madness. Nicolas Buffe is sure to continue creating his own unique maniera, sending out variegated links with imaginary worlds and the real world through his ivy-like creative powers, constantly responding to its own growth and environment, transferring its own roots and adding new ones.

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