A vast constellation of curious books revolves around the hazily uncertain core of the Voynich Manuscript: as with most things, some are outright good, some are just plain bad, while most live in a mixed-up zone in the middle.

Henry Carrington Bolton’s (1904) ” The Follies of Science at the Court of Rudolph II” is a poster-child for that mixed-up zone – equal parts fact and fiction, Bolton’s oeuvre contains more than a dash of both historical sense and hysterical nonsense. Though it does go on to cover many varied aspects of Rudolph’s court, the first half of it amounts to a greatest-hits compilation of the credulous alchemical mythology surrounding John Dee’s Bohemian adventure – “Now That’s What I Call Bohemian Alchemy #1“, if you like. 🙂

However, for all the hallucinogenic tableaux he conjures up via the shewstone of his historical imagination (and for all the brazen liberties he takes with the facts), Bolton clearly did go to a great deal of trouble to fabricate his Ikea mansion out a lot of, well, basically good stuff. Hence the reader (though often deeply suspicious) finds hundreds of genuine factual nuggets embedded into the walls of the proto-scientific passageway Bolton has tunnelled through the Rudolfine era.

So, my question to you is this: is the following particularly shiny nugget (pp.37-38) gold or lead?

[...] when conversation was interrupted by the
entrance of Martin de Rutzke, bringing with him a beautifully
illuminated and rare manuscript rescued at the dispersal of
the library of Wresowitz, who was reputed to have been a
successful experimenter. The work was entitled "The True

Path of Alchemy," and was written by Antonio of Florence
in the year 1475; being couched in exceedingly obscure and
mystical language, hinting only at the secrets of the black
art, it was particularly admired by Rudolph who ordered his
treasurer to pay the high price demanded for it, and instructed
his librarian to add it to his valuable collection.

For a start, this “beautifully illuminated and rare manuscript… couched in exceedingly obscure and mystical language, hinting only at the secrets of the black art” bought by Rudolph for a “high price” does sounds terrifically like the Voynich Manuscript as described by Dr Raphael Mnishovsky (according to Johannes Marcus Marci in 1665).

Furthermore, even if I just happened to have a time machine in my shed I could barely have engineered a more blatant archival link between Rudolph II and a mid-Quattrocento Florentine called “Antonio”. (Note that Antonio Averlino is reported by Giorgio Vasari to have died in Rome around 1469, but given that there is no documentation to support or refute this, 1475 is entirely possible.)

As far as the book’s 16th century provenance goes, Wolfgang von Wresowitz died on 21st March 1569, while Bernhard Wresowitz died in 1571, and presumably the alchemical “library of Wresowitz” Bolton mentions was dispersed not long after: Rudolph moved his court to Prague in 1583, but it would probably take someone like Rafal Prinke to trace the Wresowitz alchemical library connection any further.

All in all, the big research question then becomes: did Bolton just make up this whole thing (the document name, author name, date, price, and provenance), or was he reporting something he found while trawling relevant books for intriguing-sounding alchemical stories? He comments elsewhere that he made use of the books by Czech historian Josef Svatek (1835-1897), so perhaps that’s one place to start.

Normally, the first proper place one would look for this would be the 1607-1611 Kunstkammer inventory drawn up by miniaturist Daniel Fröschl, as described in detail in Rotraud Bauer and Herbert Haupt’s (1976), “Die Kunstkammer Rudolfs II“. Unfortunately, the relevant gifs have long disappeared from the voynich.nu Bauer-Haupt page, so doing this will probably require someone (i.e. probably me) to spend a day at the library. However, I should also caution that, because Rudolph II may well have presented the same book to Sinapius around 1608 when he gave him the “de Tepenecz” title (i.e. while Fröschl was drawing up the inventory), it is entirely possible that it may not appear there – so, absence of evidence there would (as ever) not be evidence of absence.

However, the problem with this is that Fröschl’s inventory was completely unknown to historians until the middle of the twentieth century, and hence was unknown to Bolton: so, whatever Bolton’s source for this story, the one place we can be sure it didn’t (directly) come from is that inventory.

But all the same: if not there, where on earth did Bolton happen to read about “The True Path of Alchemy“? If we could answer that question, we might well be able to find out about the Voynich Manuscript’s very early history… definitely worth a closer look, I’d say… 🙂

PS: quick reminder not to forget the London Voynich pub meet at 5pm tonight!

PPS: thanks to a high-speed reply from Rafal Prinke, it now looks as though this is not (after all) the Voynich Manuscript (which is a shame, but what do you expect if you rely on Bolton?) – and possibly closer to a chicken nugget than to a gold nugget. Even so, expect a further post on this shortly! 😮

10 thoughts on “Earliest archival reference to the Voynich Manuscript…???

  1. Giorgio Vasari wasn’t even born until sometime in the 16th century – I don’t trust him on 15th century death dates 😉

    The next time you go out to your shed, would you care to make a short stop in 1904 and ask Bolton for his source? Because this does seem to add to your theory’s credibility – and that’s a good thing.

    By the way, why is voynich.nu in such a terrible state? Going to the site, it looks like something from the mid-nineties, and it doesn’t give me the impression that René has updated it since then either, despite the “Copyright René Zandbergen 2004” line in the bottom.

  2. If you knew much about Giorgio Vasari, you wouldn’t trust him on 16th century death dates either. 😉

    Unfortunately, I’m missing some parts for the DeLorean in my shed, so (unless I just happen to fly back from the future with those parts for myself later today) we’ll just have to work out Bolton’s sources in the normal way. 🙂

    voynich.nu is in the state it’s in precisely because Rene Z hasn’t updated it since 2004 or so – as I recall, he passed the site on to Dana Scott a few years ago, but that’s the last thing I heard about it. But in this instance, the gifs may possibly have been removed for copyright reasons, I don’t know.

  3. “La via vera dell’alchimia”, perhaps?

  4. Rene Zandbergen on August 31, 2009 at 12:37 pm said:

    Henry Carrington Bolton also writes a fair amount about Jacobus Horcicky. Some of this
    fits with what we (think we) know about his life, and some of it does not. Does anyone
    know whether he also took this information from Svatek, or in other words, who knows
    what exactly Svatek wrote about Hocicky?

    I primarily remain amazed about the coincidence of someone (HCB) writing this story
    just 8 years before Voynich finds the Voynich MS, and it has all these ingredients:
    Mysterious book sold to Rudolf for lots of money, Dee and Kelley at his court at the time,
    Tepenece selling his aqua sinapia…

    I realise, of course, that part of this is spurious.
    Dee and Kelley probably have nothing to do with the VMs; it’s just the same
    imagination as Bolton’s.

  5. Hi Rene,

    According to Jan Hurych, Svatek is very much a Czech twin brother to Bolton: so wherever the latter embellishes on the former’s embellishments, the end result is almost inevitably “nonsense squared”. 🙁

    You’re (of course) right that the level of coincidentality is a bit high – but let’s not ipso facto rule out the possibility of a rational explanation for all this that doesn’t involve WMV’s faking the VMs. Well… give me a day to work on it, at least. 🙂

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  6. Rene Zandbergen on August 31, 2009 at 1:41 pm said:

    Lest there be any misunderstanding: I don’t believe for one second that Voynich
    faked the VMs 🙂


  7. Sounds to me as though the letter with the Vms had been a source of legend and rumour for quite a while. Understandable ~ only thing anyone can read. Who knows, maybe Beckx or someone even earlier asked around Prague whether anyone recognised the script in this ms which had been sitting in the college for more than three centuries. The legend of “Kircher’s alchemical text” would be the sort of gossip which lasts ~ like the legend that Gebert d’Aurillac was a magician. (That one’s still going)

  8. Anton Alipov on August 23, 2014 at 10:05 pm said:

    Don’t know if it’s still of interest, but if to speak of Svátek, Bolton (hypothetically) could use Svátek’s “Kulturhistorische Bilder aus Böhmen” published in Vienna in 1879. I was not able to locate a digital copy on the Internet, but its title suggests that it is written in German – a language surely familiar to Bolton who received his Ph.D. in Goettingen, Other major works of Svátek seem to be all in Czech, so it’s less probable that Dr. Bolton used them.

    There is a two-volume “Obrazy z kulturních dejin ceských” published in 1891 in Prague, which is digitally available here: http://kramerius.nkp.cz

    Its title suggests that it is a reissue of “Kulturhistorische Bilder aus Böhmen” in Czech language, but I’m not sure.

    The library site allows to download only 20 pages at a time, plus my OCR software is not particularly good in Czech (nor am I, although it turns out that Czech has much common with Russian), so I was able of only “at-a-glance” perusal. I did not find anything about “Antonio of Florence” there. Perhaps a Czech-speaking reader will find more than me.

    However, there surely are interesting sections in that book, e.g. the chapter with intriguing name “Poslední dnové sbírek Rudolfových v Praze” (last days of Rudolf’s collection in Prague) or chapters about alchemists. For example, some lines are dedicated to Budek who, according to Svátek, “zanechal po sobě obsáhlý rukopis (nyní v c. k. dvorní knihovné vídenské), jenž obsahuje sbírku traktátů alchymistických bud původních, bud přeložených, z nichž některé jsou i tajným pismem pšany”. (The question whether this Budek’s manuscript could be the VMS was once discussed on the Voynich mailing list, but the conclusion was in the negative).

  9. Anton: nice find, thanks! I’ll definite have a look at this, see where it leads… 🙂

  10. Nick – I’ve just come across the old thread in the Voynich mailing list. Wondering what Simon Tadeus Budek’s secret writing looked like. Just curious, you understand. No theories a-simmering. 🙂

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