While browsing through the Whipple Museum’s interesting webpages on Regiomontanus just now, I was struck by a behind-the-scenes connection that might possibly lead to the source of some of the Voynich Manuscript’s images…

In 1465, Antonio Averlino (better known as ‘Filarete’) left Milan with a letter of recommendation from his friend Filelfo in his pocket, with the intention of travelling to Istanbul to work as an architect there. I have argued (from his defaced 1445 dedication on his doors on St Peter’s Basilica, see Curse p.120) that he travelled from there to Rome – it is hardly unlikely, particularly given that Vasari believed Averlino died in Rome 1469. Note also that that Averlino may well have accompanied Domenic Dominici (the bishop of Brescia) who took the beautifully-illustarted copy (now known as Vat. Gr. 1291) of Ptolemy’s Handy Tables from Brescia to Rome in September 1465 – this is the codex which Rene Zandbergen has strongly argued was some kind of visual source for the Voynich Manuscript’s zodiac ‘nymphs’.

Now… today’s particularly intriguing observation is that the highly influential astronomer / astrologer Regiomontanus (1436-1476) lived in Rome until 1467: between 1461 and 1465, he worked for Cardinal Bessarion at his palace (which was effectively a de facto Academy / humanities research centre), where he built astrolabes, sundials, etc for his patron.


What is relevant here is that Bessarion was born in Trebizond and was a sch0olfriend of Filelfo – and so it seems extremely likely to me that Bessarion would have been one of the key people Averlino would have planned to meet in Rome. It’s also important to note that Rome circa 1465 was not the sprawling metropolis it now is: a meeting would doubtless have been arranged.

So, if you accept that Averlino was in Rome 1465, and that he would have wanted to meet Bessarion, I think it is almost inevitable that he would have met Regiomontanus at some point. I have previously noted that Regiomontanus’ ephemerides (both in print and in manuscript, such as MS Prag 742) contained information connecting the stars with agriculture: and it is well-known that his tables also detailed appropriate positions of the moon for blood-letting. However, what is perhaps even more interesting for us is what he omitted from his tables (for that truly would be a secret), and which he apparently failed to complete before his relatively early death.

The data that was was missing was a special commentary (somewhat like a Director’s Cut?) on using astrology for medicine, for human births, and for foretelling the future. It seems seem extremely likely to me that this would have been based on the sign (and very possibly the degree) of the moon, and based on earlier (probably Arabic) works, probably via one of Pietro d’Abano’s manuscripts.

Could it be that the Voynich Manuscript’s zodiac pages, with their 30-item one-per-nymph datasets, encode the same data that Regiomontanus promised (but never delivered)? And might it have been that Regiomontanus got that per-degree data from Antonio Averlino in Rome around late 1465 – or might Averlino have instead got it then from Regiomontanus?

Of course, the spooky thing here is that this is basically what Steve Ekwall said was encoded in the zodiac nymphs. But you knew that already, right?

PS: did anyone ever find an online copy of Vatican MS 1906?

17 thoughts on “Regiomontanus and Filarete…

  1. TravisMitchell on May 26, 2009 at 5:32 pm said:

    Total Newbie here, but I just started studing the Voynich myself (have no idea where to begin) and stumbled upon this by Regiomontanus, Natürlicher kunst der Astronomey. Just so happens a copy is on ebay as well, here is a link to the book. I was hoping to purchase but already out of my range.

    another link to read!

    Interesting illustrations that to a layman (computer nerd) appear similiar to some of the astrological diagrams. Also thought the fish look very similiar as well

    Is it fair to say that these printed 1529 illustrations were likely not done by Regio himself but taken from his notes. If so these could be polished version of voynich?

    Also am I mistaken but was Regio library lost or destroyed? Seems hard to imagine he would not have known about this?


  2. Hi Travis,

    As far as Regiomontanus goes, “His lectures on the Muslim scientist al-Farhani [at the University of Padua] have not survived” (according to this page), and I don’t know of any Regiomontanus archive, sorry!

    I would say that the best place to begin with the Voynich Manuscript is my book “The Curse of the Voynich”: not that I’d expect anyone to agree with my conclusions, rather that I think that it gives a detailed, contemporary look at the kind of features and research methodologies you may well find useful in order to make sense of it yourself.

    Failing that, this page might help. 🙂

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  3. Diane on March 4, 2012 at 12:51 pm said:

    I really can’t see what all the excitement is re Vat.Gr.1291.

    It’s obviously a fair-enough attempt at copying a late-classical original.

    But we have a fair number of other examples of late-classical art – this could as easily have been copied from a mosaic or wall-painting as from an older ms. The most interesting part of it is the form taken by the crown, I think.

  4. Diane: its composition is a strong visual parallel with that of the zodiac nymphs (circular bands of carefully posed nymphs), and it was briefly (around 1465) famous within Italy as it was carried to Rome and sold. Yet it is an individual object that did not, as far as I can tell, spawn any copying tradition: it is its own thing. As such, if the Voynich zodiac nymphs were in some way derived from it, and it was entirely unknown before 1450, then that suggests an earliest date for the manuscript itself of around 1450. Though of course you would disagree. 😉

  5. Diane on May 1, 2016 at 7:11 pm said:

    Well, yes, I did look into it, and I couldn’t go along with the posited line of connection – sort of like a piece of gossamer across a chasm: the line is clear enough, and seems bright, but breaks at the slightest pressure.

    The note is more about my being excited to discover that in regard to the peculiar-looking object held by the figure at the top of f.80v, the story as I tell it begins in in Asia Minor, focuses on Sinope ( part of the Byzantine empire of Trebizond in late medieval times), and then believe it or not goes to Italy, including Padua. And then:

    “In Italy (1461–c. 1465), Regiomontanus perfected his Greek, lectured at the University of Padua, read widely in Bessarion’s Greek library.”

    – but it’s still not German! 🙂

  6. Diane: it wasn’t intended as the last word on the matter, but as possibly the first word. Though… seven years on, the room remains eerily silent. =:-o

  7. Diane on May 2, 2016 at 2:43 am said:

    Nick, I should have said I looked into the posited connection to Vat. Gr. 1291..

    I can’t accept the Filarete proposition yet because it requires me to suppose that persons such as Goldschmidt, Panofsky, the Keeper of Manuscripts at the Brit. Museum (Library as now is), and various other persons of similar weight and experience completely missed noticing a text written in a hand more like the humanist than the Carolingian. Can’t quite see that being likely.

    Steele and Panofsky each said, independently and quite specifically, that the manuscript showed no evidence of Renaissance style (not counting some of the pigments). To accept the Filarete proposition, I’d have to suppose they missed the signs. Can’t quite.

    There’s also the requirement that a person formally trained as an architect (which then included most other forms of graphic art) in fifteenth century Italy, and mixing in circles where perfection of form and classical style were adored, not only could (which is doubtful) but would produce something as very not-classical Roman as the imagery in MS Beinecke 408.

    So the story seems to me as un-duck as anything (if it doesn’t… ). But the more I know doesn’t lessen what I don’t know, as the chap with the hair said, so I try to prepare myself for the day when we know for sure.

  8. Diane: nobody has ever batted an eyelid at the idea that Filarete’s very substantial libro architettonico was written for him by a Milanese scribe in a humanistic hand circa 1460 (i.e. he didn’t write it himself), so I struggle to see where any of your argument touches the ground, so to speak.

    Here’s a link to a tolerably high-resolution image from the libro: http://de2d2g2qlnqhe.cloudfront.net/content/ucpjsah/70/1/18/F8.large.jpg

  9. Diane on May 2, 2016 at 10:19 am said:

    Thanks for the link.

    Beautiful, neat, ruled drawings. No problem with closed box shapes. Page ruled out meticulously and line by line. Pagination not forgotten – written in the same hand.

    Imagery all about the works of man. Human figures perfectly in proportion, even the tiny ones: in proportion by European style.

    No doubt about it. Even ignoring the content of the text, I think you could say at a glance that’s a page from a European Latin work of the late fifteenth century or so.

    Though if an experienced palaeographer or codicologist or a keeper of manuscripts or someone of that sort judged differently, I’d probably defer to their experience. 🙂

    I’ve also seen Filarete’s notebooks. Frankly, I doubt he could have made the Vms, and rather doubt he would have paid a scribe who produced figures like the ‘ladies’. But Padua sure looks good at the moment.

  10. Diane: having studied Filarete extensively over a period of several years, I don’t believe there is any such thing as “Filarete’s notebooks” – but please feel free to point me in the direction of anything you think would fit that description so I can see what you are talking about.

  11. bdid1dr on May 2, 2016 at 2:47 pm said:

    Nick & Diane: !

  12. Diane on May 3, 2016 at 7:58 am said:

    A civil question deserves a civil answer, so I’ll see what I can do. I saw the book with the reproduction of two or three sheets a few months after first reading your book, so that would be mid 2012 or early 2013. I’m now a seven-hour round trip from that library, but next time I go to the city, if there’s time, I’ll try to find it again.

    I’m surprised too that you don’t know all there is to know about Averlino and his works; I sort of assumed you would.

  13. Diane: all I’m saying is that if there is a notebook attributed to Averlino somewhere out there, I don’t believe it is mentioned in any of the (supposedly definitive) biographies, articles or dissertations I’ve read over the past 10+ years.

  14. Diane on May 3, 2016 at 2:18 pm said:

    I’ve done a quick check in JSTOR but nothing there – it looks as if Filarete went off the boil around 2011. I expect you know the journals. I was very interested by Hub’s article (from which I think you had that illustration?). Perhaps your next book might be about Ciriaco? Actually, I found it almost uncanny how well you might fit the story of Averlino into the context evinced by the imagery. It occurred to me that it would be a good scenario to suggest the Vms is a ‘greeked’ prep for the Golden Book, or something along those lines. In reality the drawing style, cultural cues and whatnot prevent its being true, but still it might be pretty plausible as a story, don’t you think?

  15. Diane: in terms of academic cooking temperature, Filarete has always been on a low gas – papers do keep appearing (and I try to track them as best I can), but not at anything approaching a fast boil. 🙂

    For Filarete, the Golden Book is itself already the main ‘greeked’ prop (or perhaps “Golden MacGuffin”?) within his story-within-a-story-within-a-sales-portfolio. I instead saw the Voynich as more closely connected to the various books of secrets he described (or, rather, dropped somewhat heavy-handed hints about): and unless he was the Machine Complex Artist partially reconstructed by Prager and Scaglia, nobody has ever seen any of those books of secrets, so constructing a disproof-by-dissimilarity relative to something that nobody has seen would be somewhat difficult. 🙂

  16. Diane on May 4, 2016 at 4:09 pm said:

    When I see “book of secrets” I expect technical information – tricks of the trade but not necessarily a text enciphered.

    I found it interesting that most of the italian articles – at JSTOR – called him Filarete, not Averlino. Seems to express a fondness, somehow.

  17. Diane: that’s exactly how “books of secrets” are defined and recognized. Some of them are enciphered, either entirely (as per Fontana) or partially (as per Brunelleschi’s descendant’s zibaldone): so I don’t see any category difference or incongruity in considering that the Voynich Manuscript might similarly be an enciphered book of secrets.

    One of the dissertations I relied upon used Filarete to refer to the (self-made) mythical architect – the “PR” figure, if you will – and Averlino to refer to the man himself (i.e. stripped of his self-aggrandizing mythology): this seemed like a useful distinction to make, so I adopted the same scheme in my book (largely).

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