I recently blogged here about the difference between skepticism (which has at its heart both a guarded optimism and a realistic take on the practical difficulties involved in gaining knowledge) and cynicism (which by way of contrast is a denialist position, that says it is safer to believe nothing rather than get hurt by believing something that will turn out to be incorrect): but what I didn’t really go on to say was that I think there’s currently rather more cynicism at play in the Voynich research world than is properly healthy – and that perhaps the Wikipedia article simply reflects this critical imbalance.
So here’s my small wish for the day: that Voynich experts should try to use their insightful brains and creative historical imaginations not to construct yet more reasons why existing theories are wrong (which is, lets face it, about as hard as machine-gunning fish in a barrel), but instead try to construct questions they would really like to see answered. By doing this, we can start to map out the edges of our collective knowledge, and get some kind of frontier research mentality going again – perhaps it is simply this which is currently most conspicuous by its absence of late.
In this spirit but putting the codicological and palaeographical frontiers to one side (because the Beinecke doesn’t seem to be at all interested, and I suspect it will start to become clear over the next few months why this is so), here’s my proposal for an entirely new research front to open right up: Rome 1465-1467.
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The central cryptographic paradox of the Voynich Manuscript is that it manages to combine the simplicity of 14th century monoalphabetic ciphers (language-like and with a restricted alphabet size) with the mathematical inscrutability of 16th century polyalphabetic ciphers, yet has a (claimed) radiocarbon dating that sits between the two. Similarly, it contain a cipher letter pair (‘4o’) which was in use around Milan between 1440 and 1460, yet its cipher system is tangibly more sophisticated than anything found in the cipher ledgers of the day.
I’m going to put the radiocarbon dating on one side for the moment, and run with 1465-1467 – this was specifically when Leon Battista Alberti started researching in Rome not only how to break ciphers, but also how to make unbreakable ciphers. In fact, this precise time and place marked the birth of polyalphabetic ciphers, and arguably of modern cryptographic (and cryptologic) practice.
So far so well documented. But there’s a crucial element missing from this – the company Alberti kept in Rome while he was doing this. One of the only things I learnt from Gavin Menzies’ dismal “1434” (which I can’t even bring myself to review) was that while Regiomontanus was in Rome between 1461 and 1465, he often met up with Alberti and Paolo Toscanelli at Nicholas of Cusa’s house, though the mystery is what he was doing between 1465 and 1467 when “he seems to have disappeared”. [p.143] Of course, Nicholas of Cusa died in 1464, and though Toscanelli was a good friend of Nicholas, he only rarely ventured out of Florence, so this is already something of a simplification.
Yet here we have a critical moment when four polymathic giants of the Renaissance did somewhat more than cross paths (and one might throw others such as Filelfo, George of Trebizond, and [dare I say it] Filarete into this same mix): one might even speculate whether combining Nicholas of Cusa’s interest in concave lenses (De Beryllo, 1441) with Regiomontanus’ astronomy and with Toscanelli’s cosmography did indeed provide the conceptual spark that was to grow into the telescope (and then the microscope) during the course of the following century (even if the raw technology to make such an object was not yet there).
Might this intellectually rich time and place in some way be the loamy bed in which the seed of the Voynich Manuscript grew to its full fruition? To my eyes, there’s something innately multidisciplinary about the VMs, that speaks of subtle collaboration – people contributing to make something more than merely the sum of its parts.
Hence the new research frontier I propose is based on a single question: what are the archival resources that historians have used to reconstruct these meetings (and this community) in Rome in 1465-1467? Perhaps if we now revisit these same resources, we might notice a fleeting mention of the VMs in conception, in construction, in motion, or in retrospect, who knows?
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So, what question would you like answered? What research frontier would you like opened up in 2010?