The next 'Da Vinci Code'? Medieval mystery sparks rush for Renaissance text

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It has been billed as a historical mystery blockbuster in the mould of The Da Vinci Code and has clocked up 250,000 sales in Britain since it came out in paperback two weeks ago.

It has been billed as a historical mystery blockbuster in the mould of The Da Vinci Code and has clocked up 250,000 sales in Britain since it came out in paperback two weeks ago.

But The Rule of Four by Americans Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason is creating an even more astonishing best-seller in its wake as thousands seek out the arcane Renaissance text that inspired it.

The Rule of Four follows a Princeton graduate haunted by the violent death of his father, an academic who devoted his life to a book called the Hypnerotomachia Poliophili (The Strife of Love in a Dream), an intricate mathematical mystery and a tale of love and arcane brutality. The allegorical tale was published in Venice in 1499 and not available in English until the British arts publishers Thames & Hudson commissioned a translation six years ago.

Now the popularity of The Rule of Four has sparked an unprecedented fascination with a text previously known only to scholars of the Renaissance, and Thames & Hudson is bringing out a paperback edition to meet the expected demand.

Thanks to demand on the back of huge US sales of The Rule of Four last year, Thames & Hudson's stock of 7,500 copies of the original lavishly designed translation of the Hypnerotomachia sold out, despite a price tag of $70 (£48). Smaller hardback editions and a US paperback followed, bringing total sales to nearly 50,000.

British booksellers are predicting a surge of interest here when the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili hits the stores on 21 March. Scott Pack, a buyer for Waterstone's, said he was "absolutely convinced" there would be interest because The Rule of Four was selling as quickly as The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown's bestseller has also spawned a slew of spin-offs and even created a tourism industry in visits to related sites.

"[ Hypnerotomachia] is going to be £12.95, which is quite reasonably priced. A lot of people who bought The Da Vinci Code have easily spent another £10, £20 or £30 on related books so I'm sure this will sell. Isn't it marvellous? People are always asking what is going to be the next big thing ­ obscure Renaissance texts are my next trend!"

Thomas Neurath, managing director of Thames & Hudson, is thrilled. He commissioned the translation to mark the company's 50th birthday because illustrated books, of which this was an early example, are a speciality.

Mr Neurath admits he never believed it would be a hit . "It's rather gratifying when one sticks one's neck out and then quite unexpectedly from left field the whole thing suddenly turns into a big success," he said. "When we asked Joscelyn Godwin to translate, I thought it would probably take 10 years to sell it and that maybe my descendants would live to see a paperback.

"But I think the public often get underestimated. The Rule of Four appeals to a certain egghead market. I'm not surprised that some of them go from The Rule of Four to read the real thing on which it's based."

Caldwell came across the text while at university in Princeton but struggled with its curious conflation of Latin, Italian and other languages (this was before the translation was made). He decided it was the perfect material for the novel he and Thomason, a schoolfriend, had decided to write.

Their heroes, Tom and Paul, use the symbols of the Hypnerotomachia to unlock a great secret of the past, though Caldwell stresses it was written before The Da Vinci Code was published. "In retrospect, writing a novel around a completely unpronounceable book that people thought we made up was preposterous," he said.

To find people actually wanted to read Hypnerotomachia as well was "strange but wonderful". But he thinks they may find it an odd read. "There are pictures which lead you to believe there's an awful lot of sex and violence and that it would be a fantastic Ovidian experience but it's pages and pages of dimensions of statues and things."

TALE BEHIND A BESTSELLER

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is one of the most important texts of the Renaissance, and is regarded as one of the most beautiful books ever produced. It has been referred to in studies of art and culture since its publication in 1499. It is thought to have been written by Francesco Colonna, a priest of dubious reputation, and is an allegorical romance, relating the quest of Poliphilo for his beloved Polia.

Comments