The recent Austrian Voynich documentary gave a nice clear radiocarbon dating (1404-1438 at 95% confidence) for the vellum, and finished by suggesting (based on the swallow-tail merlons on the nine-rosette castle) a Northern Italian origin for the manuscript. But I have to say that as art history proofs go, that last bit is a little bit, ummm, lame: it’s a single detail on a single page, that might just as well be a copy of a previous drawing (or a drawing of a description, or an imaginary castle) as a real castle.

Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of sensible art history reasons to suspect Northern Italy 1450-1470, for example:-

  1. Swallow-tail merlons on the nine-rosette castle are reminiscent of those on many Northern Italian (and Southern Italian, too) castles of the 14th and 15th centuries
  2. The rendering of the sun faces on f67v1 and f68v1 are reminiscent of the Visconti sun raza, most notably as per  in the Milan Duomo’s “Apocalypse” apse window (1420), so arguably point to a post-1420 dating
  3. Voynichese seems to be a more advanced version of those ciphers in Sforza / Urbino cipher ledgers that have the same verbose ‘4o’ character pair
  4. Handwriting is strongly reminiscent of Milanese “humanist” hands circa 1460-1470
  5. Dots on ‘pharma’ glassware (f89r1 and f89r2) are strongly reminiscent of post-1450 Murano glass decoration
  6. Decoration on barrels / albarelli is most reminiscent of 1450-1475 Islamic-influence maiolica
  7. The kind of baths apparently depicted in the balneo quire became most fashionable in Italy between 1450 and 1490
  8. The costumes and hair styles of the many Voynich ‘nymphs’ have been dated as belonging to the second half of the 15th century (and typically dated later rather than earlier)
  9. Parallel hatching only appeared in Florence in 1440, and in Venice (and elsewhere in Italy) from about 1450 onwards, before giving way to cross-hatching from about 1480 onwards.
  10. (etc)

But Northern Italy 1404-1438? Actually, apart from the first two above (which I have to say are probably the least persuasive of all), the evidence falls away to almost nothing, rather like an oddly disturbing dream fading away as you wake up in the morning.

But what about Germany circa 1404-1438? After all, Erwin Panofsky thought a German origin most likely (though perhaps he took a little bit too much notice of Richard Salomon’s readings of the marginalia), and there’s a touch of Germanic influence in the “augst” marginalia month name for the Leo zodiac page. Others have suggested Germany over the years, most recently Volkhard Huth (though I somehow doubt it’s Jim Child’s pronounceable early German, or Beatrice Gwynn’s left-right-mirrored Middle High German, while Huth’s 1480-1500 dating now seems a little adrift as well).

Art history links with Germany are thin on the ground in the Voynich Manuscript: it’s a (very) short list, comprising the general stylistic similarity between the VMs zodiac’s central rosettes and early German woodblock calendars, and the recent (but very tenuous) cisioianus comparison with f67r2: Panofsky also pointed to Richard Salomon’s reading of some clumps of marginalia as German, and to the fact the VMs eventually surfaced in Prague… but this is all pretty optimistic (if not actually hallucinatory) stuff. Basically, you’d need to do a lot better than that to build up any kind of plausible case. (Though I don’t know if Volkhard Huth added any new observations to this list).

But one thing that emerged since I wrote my parallel hatching history page is that the technique actually seems to have emerged in Germany before it appeared in Florence. I mentioned that there was a German master engraver known as “Master E.S.” (also known as the “Master of 1466”), who produced a number of hatched and cross-hatched pieces in the period 1450-1467: and I was content with the generally accepted art history notion that the technique probably spread northwards from Florence to Venice and Germany at roughly the same time (i.e. 1450).

However, the problem with this presumed ‘Italy → Germany’ model is that there was another German engraver (“Meister der Spielkarten”, “The Master of the Cards“) who was active (1425-1450) a generation or so before Master E.S., and who includes fine parallel lines in his work, most notably in the oldest known set of copperplate playing cards (1440). Anyone who wants to read up on this should probably rush to get themselves a copy of Martha Anne Wood Wolff’s 1979 Yale PhD thesis “The Master of the playing cards: an early engraver and his relationship to traditional media”. (Please let me know if you do!) Alternatively, you might well find things of interest in Martha Wolff’s paper “Some Manuscript Sources for the Playing Card Master’s Number Cards” , The Art Bulletin 64, Dec. 1982, p.587-600.

Of course, I don’t think for a moment that The Master of the Cards’ clear line and nuanced material rendering has anything directly to do with what we see in the VMs. Rather, it just seems worth noting that the existence of parallel hatching in the VMs is consistent with a post-1420 origin if German, with a post-1440 origin if from Florence , or a post-1450 origin if from elsewhere.

14 thoughts on “Pre-1450 German Voynich possibility…?

  1. Nick,

    I have to agrree with you that the ghibeline merlons are rather architectural than geographical synbols. For instance, Italian architects built Kremlin walls in Moscow (around 1480) with swallow-tail merlons as well. Also, the artist who drew the castle in the VM need not necessarily be from that area. The universities nearby hosted many foreign students who could also draw pictures :-).

  2. Rene Zandbergen on December 21, 2009 at 2:57 pm said:

    To add to the confusion…. 😉
    I just found a very nice illustration from a pre-1450 manuscript
    which is more Voynich Herbal-like than anything I can remember, yet
    is neither from Italy nor from Germany:

    (Hope that link works…)

  3. Rene Zandbergen on December 22, 2009 at 7:49 am said:

    Apparently, the link does not work for everyone…

    The MS I was looking at is BL Sloane 335, described as a medical
    miscellany, and dated to the last Q of the 14th or the 1st Q of the 15th C.
    This is the MS link:
    Beside the image of ff. 81v and 82r, there are also interesting other
    images, e.g. a crossbow on f5v.

    If the above link doesn’t work either, use the search page:
    and enter key word ‘herbal’, start date 1350 and end date 1450 (for example).
    There are lots of other nice MS’s of course 🙂

  4. The ‘Visconti’ sun is better called the Barberini sun, the reason for its adoption as an heraldic motif having to do with contemporary notions of the nobles’ link to pre-Roman cultures of the peninsula.

  5. Diane: the Visconti sun ‘raza’ came at least a century before the Barberini sun, so it is likely that the latter has no relevance to the VMs, right?

  6. Not sure how you get that conclusion, Nick. I mean, if I want to paint a picture, today, of an Etruscan vase, it’s still a picture of an etruscan vase.

    The point is the source for the picture. In the case of the Barberini, the motif is directly related to the pre-Roman culture of the Italian peninsula, in particular of the home-town of the Barberini, and the origins of the Palestrina villa… but that’s not what I came for today.

    I wanted to let you know that the form of the horned merlon (‘swallowtail’ so called) is certainly known to some in the Italian peninsula a century or so before the manuscript bought by Voynich was made.

    It is, of course, in a merchant’s manual which I fully expect I may not be the first to mention here. Anyway, see
    Merchant culture in fourteenth century Venice: the Zibaldone da Canal, trans. and notes by John E. Dotson, Binghamton NY (1994) as Volume 98 in the series Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies. A nice illustration as Fig. 4 p.54 of Dotson’s book. Oh, and there’s a rat-and-cat story, and lots of other things to excite.

    Of course, the whole thing may well be adapted from North Africa, via Norman Sicily, and that’s certainly where the Venetians got their “ship division” method, too.

    (aside to Nick… and of course I’m feeling smug about the North African connection, as you will surely appreciate)

  7. Ultimately, there are few ideas or visual motifs we cannot trace back to antiquity in some form: yet this does not mean that everything is Etruscan or Mesopotamian, nor does it mean those things enjoyed continuous usage inbetween. For example, the Barberini family only found themselves in a suitable position to appropriate classical tropes as marks (if not marques) of their prestige in the sixteenth century: if we are looking at an artefact of the 15th century, then the Barberini’s vanity is plainly not a pragmatic starting point.

    Actually, I think you’re the first person to mention the Zibaldone da Canal (which, incidentally, is Beinecke MS 327, and was sold by Hans Kraus to Thomas E. Marston, who donated it to the Beinecke) here: incidentally, Beinecke MS 327 contains lots of interesting non-mercantile stuff – astrology, astronomy, charms, spurious letters, etc.

  8. Diane on April 8, 2013 at 12:37 pm said:

    How curious – the translation I have doesn’t include very much dubious matter at all. Oh well.

    My reason for posting now, though, is something many must have noticed on Rene’s site, but to which Dana (intentionally or otherwise) has just drawn attention by a link to that page at which reports the arrival and exhibition of Voynich’s collection.

    The Chicago Daily Tribune Volume LXXIV. – No. 242 C. Saturday, October 9. 1915, part 1, p.1 lists the highlights:

    First, Habsburg library and some of its(?) valuable items – alluding to Giotto, Boccacio etc..


    Among the other priceless articles …a Latin New Testament of the tenth century, a work by Roger Bacon in cypher.. a map used in a Magellan expedition, .. discovered the binding of a Genovese book three centuries old, and the oldest known set of playing cards, also found in the binding of an old book.

    I’m supposed to know a bit old cards – but I have absolutely no idea which these are supposed to be. No mention of Voynich in Dummett’s big book, nor in Kaplan vol.1, nor in any other standard.. not even in my own ‘big book’ manuscript. No reference to Voynich and cards.

    So which cards were these? Where they obtained? And please, please let them have come from another Genovese binding.

  9. Diane on April 8, 2013 at 12:40 pm said:

    Oh Nick,
    About the Barberini. Point is that attachment to their destroyed village and total obsession with antiquity (to the point where people seriously argued descent from Trojans, Argonauts and Phoenicians) meant revival of imagery which may have been lying around in Italy since first made. Emblematic, you see. As a ‘green man’ or ancient stone cross might be today.

  10. Tricia on July 19, 2013 at 2:00 pm said:

    Who’s Richard Saloman? I saw R.Salomon & thought for a second it meant rabbi.

  11. Panofsky’s answers to Friedman’s questionnaire would make a very interesting paper for a suitably qualified historian. but to suppose a man of Panofsky’s professional calibre would ever be so mistaken in a first evaluation that it would need to be entirely altered, without reference to the original work, some twenty years later… is a little naive.

    But since I’ve already written on the subject, I’ll say no more here.

  12. I’ve done more research into the question of Panofsky’s responses and am now convinced that Panofsky never meant to cooperate in any way with Friedman; and that Panofsky’s writing ‘R.Salomon’ is not an error but a reference either to Rashi or Rashi’s son in law.

    The oft-repeated ‘mussteil’ response has always read to me as a legal judgement of some sort, and Panofsky had already said to Anne Nill that he thought the Vms Jewish.

    Put the two together, you have this “R. Salomon” someone known for their legal judgements (halakhah) – so well known that they were remembered in the mid-20th century.

    ‘R. Salomon’.is the title given Rashi in a work published in Lyons in 1539 by William of Paris (Guillaume de Parisiensis) and Rashi is one of the most famous scholars ever to comment on the law.

    Lyons is also the city from which a correspondent later sent Kircher a script resembling Voynichese (thanks to Berj Ensanien for finding and sharing that years ago),
    and from Lyons too a seventeenth century printer issued numerous works on the subject of eastern materia medica.

    This printer being, at that time, also the nominated printer for works produced for the Jesuits, including translations from or texts into foreign languages.

    I’ve already written on these subjects.

    I mention Rashi’s son-in-law too because he is the one quoted by the Jewish Virtual Library on the the general subject of the widow’s entitlement – see ‘Dowry’. (Rashbam BB 149b).

    I do not think that Panofsky meant to ‘deceive’ Friedman, so much as to protect himself while refusing to assist. Friedman was one of those people who did not ask intellectual questions of himself or of others and did not enoy discussing much. More interested in amassing data than pondering the nature of things, I’d say.

  13. The Salomon mentioned by Panofsky (on both occsions) is beyond any doubt:
    Richard_G._Salomon (wikipedia).

    If I add the link, the response seems to get blocked.

  14. Thanks Rene
    I didn’t see your response here till I came just now to correct myself. Panofsky knew at least two R. Salomons, one being R.G. who wrote about the Voynich in 1934

    ‘Review of Manley’s critique of Newbold’s Decipherment’

    He’s surely the one d’Imperio means (Elegant Enigma) when she repeats the matter.

    I wonder if it isn’t written in that article or in that letter from Salomon to Panofsky which is in the Friedman correspondence?

    Would you happen to have seen that?

    You’ll know that Philip Neal looked into the legal term but others mightn’t and he should be cited here:

    Probably moot though – does anyone still accept that reading for marginalia on folio 66?

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