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.

* * * * * *

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?

* * * * * *

So, what question would you like answered? What research frontier would you like opened up in 2010?

17 thoughts on “Circa 2010, what are the frontiers of Voynich knowledge?

  1. Diane on June 24, 2010 at 2:22 pm said:

    1464. Cosimo just dead. Ficino went to finish his final four years study before ordination to the priesthood. I think I’d like to know whether they linked up with him, too.

  2. Diane on June 24, 2010 at 3:20 pm said:

    N. of c. was involved in printing. The Roman society for Propagation of the Faith (or whatever it was called in Latin at that time) was involved in disseminating texts in various languages around this time, and collected so many, and such rare fonts that Napoleon nicked quite a few when he arrived later.

    So how about this for a cipher: devise a phonetic transcription, for each element then pick a letter from any one of the several hundred alphabets and syllaberies available. String the elements together. Only you and your mates know whether the forms are/are to be read literally. So an ‘o’ in one form means ‘o’ but in another might mean ‘k’. That could explain (for example) the seemingly systematic open- and closed- variants for letters which I noted in the month-names.

    Just a passing thought-bubble. Maybe nothing in it of course.

  3. Diane: we’ve probably got a rich enough mix already without Ficino (who never actually ventured beyond Florence?), so best not overegg our Renaissance cake. 😉

  4. Diane on June 24, 2010 at 5:53 pm said:

    OK can I have another wish then? Not exactly on your point but..

    In the centres where languages were a major interest: in Rome, in Malta where the “8” were taught etc. Is there any record of a multi-functional phonetic script being developed to assist students? I expect if so, it would be linked to the preaching orders, some of whom learned to preach and talk, but not necessarily to write, in many languages including ancient and Islamic ones.

    (I’ll settle for an address at the vatican from which an answer is likely to come)

  5. what are the frontiers of Voynich knowledge WRT its “art” and drawings? Any idea on what the author intended to convey? Can it be established the author of the text and drawings are one and the same, based on ‘handwriting’?

    Personally I think some of it is dream art–art to convey the author’s dream world.

  6. neo: the Voynich Manuscript’s ‘art’ is a really hard thing to pin down. When I started studying the VMs a decade ago, I tried to apply all kinds of historical research angles to its pictures… but, sadly, I never really gained a lot of (as the business jargon goes) ‘traction’. These days I tend to approach it more from a pure art history angle (i.e. analyzing the techniques used to execute the drawings), which for example tells me that there every reason to think that the drawings were done by a single person (though there’s currently no clear way of telling if that’s the same person as the person who wrote the text), but that in a number of interesting cases this appears to have involved several consciously-planned passes. Personally, it is the combination of this codicological deliberateness with the subtlety of the Voynichese ‘syntax’ and ‘grammar’ that leads me inexorably to the conclusion that the VMs is an object of ‘hyperrationality’ rather than hoax, madness, whimsy or dream art, but everyone is free to draw their own inferences from the same basic evidence. 🙂

  7. tim t on July 16, 2010 at 11:43 am said:

    Has anyone pursued the initials “h?r” scribbled on F86v3 and f66v. It’s clearly the same downward swept doodle of two or three letters (h?r), and because it is repeated in two folios, leads one to speculate its the initials of either the author, or an owner.

    Seems to be some decent fodder for the 15th century historians.


  8. Tim: some years ago, I suggested that these might well be Georg Baresch’s signature, perhaps as an ink blot transfer – they certainly look far more like accidental marginalia than deliberate marginalia. Marke Fincher also once pointed out that there’s a possible link with the motion of Venus and the f86v3 page.

    Having said that, if you reorder Q8 (Quire 8) to have the astronomical (non-herbal) pages at the back, and follow Glen Claston’s suggestion and insert the nine-rosette quire between Q8 and Q9, what you unexpectedly find is that the f66v and f86v3 doodles move extremely close together. If this is correct, it would imply that the doodles were added very early on in the life of the VMs, probably earlier even than the fifteenth-century hand quire numbering (and hence probably early-to-mid 15th century). Even though I covered a lot of ground in “The Curse”, there’s still a lot to be figured out about the VMs’ codicology! 🙂

  9. Any ideas what meanings the pictures are intended to convey?

  10. tim t on July 19, 2010 at 10:11 pm said:

    Nick, interesting, although I don’t see the link between the initials and Georg Baresch. Just want to ensure that everybody sees the small “h” and captial “R”, repeated on both folios 66v and 86v3. I’ve been staring at these for years and just assumed its old news, but a quick search in the archive came up empty. The letters are clear, and they clearly repeat in the same downward sweeping, form. It takes little imagination to see these as initials (h?R) or (R?h).

    Just making sure all stones are turned over.


  11. Tim: as I said, I suggested they might be an ink blot transfer, and hence reversed. But these days, I’m more inclined to link these in with Glen Claston’s reordering theory, which would tend to date these to the early-to-mid 15th century, a long time before Baresch. 🙂

  12. Tim: in the mailing list archives, Jon Grove suggested (11 Sep 2002) that “It seems to consist of three connected downstrokes followed by a longer upstroke with a loop and final flourish, almost like ‘wR’ but not quite. It’s certainly not a random scribble. If it is a signature or monogram then it might help to establish dates and/or locations for the MS. ” To which Dana Scott replied: “Notice that the single line ‘signature’ in f66v is essentially the same as the top line ‘signature’ in f86v (there are some differences to the right of each line).”

    Jorge Stolfi then noted that “some of them may be remains of the underlying illustration (the so-called “garden of Eden”). Specifically, it seems to me that the southwest “plant” originally had at its tip a large trumpet-like “flower” with serrated edges. The dot-filled “fishtail” below the scribbles is only the middle 1/3 of that “flower”. The regular zigzag lines in the “scribbles” seem to be what remains of the “flower”‘s serrated edge. In fact it seems to me that the “jet” issuing from “Adam”‘s hand ends with a miniature version of the same “flower”: trumpet-like, with its middle sector filled with dots.”

  13. tim t on July 20, 2010 at 10:27 am said:

    Thanks Nick for the mail archives, I should have know it was in there somewhere. I’ll close by saying I see 4 possibly 5 “h?R” signatures on F86v3 and 1 possibly 2 on f66v. Seems remote to be “remains of underlying illustration”

    Thanks for the help. Back to my cipher work.


  14. Diane on July 21, 2010 at 8:23 am said:

    What if it’s a pen-testing doodle? I don’t know if anyone else has a standard scribble, but for some reason when I try out a new pen, I tend to write a monogram “JB” – and in a rather nice imitation copperplate, as a matter of fact.

  15. Diane: ummm, I don’t think it’s a pen-testing doodle because (at least on f86v3) I’m pretty sure it’s back to front? But perhaps closer codicological examination of the page might prove me wrong, so who knows for sure?

  16. D.N. O'Donovan on March 15, 2016 at 9:42 am said:

    As you know, my view is that the basic stratum of the imagery in MS Beinecke 408 is early Hellenistic, the later additions being dated in my opinion, to the early centuries ad (to 3rdC AD) and then more around the mid-twelfth to early fourteenth centuries.

    Other details suggest a pretty constant application to the overland and maritime ways between east and west – as you know.

    The written part of the text may, for all I know, have been first composed in the thirteenth century or as late as.. well, as late as the Beinecke is proposing now.

    Point is, as I’m compiling a list of Hellenistic works certainly known to medieval Europe before 1438, a fair number of copies of Thucydides were gained from Crete, and in that context George of Trebizond’s name came up.

    I’m also interested for other reasons in the Aegean, and in Crete because of Leo Grech, but as usual checked here to make sure I wasn’t re-treading paths you’d taken yourself, in earlier years. So what I thought I should check first with you – given the recent Paris 7272 cipher and its implications – is whether you’d like George of Trebizond left you you? Happy to do so, if you prefer.

  17. Diane: please feel free to tread (over) whatever path you like. I’m not competing with anybody.

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