Over the past week or so, I’ve spent some time patiently going over Fallacara & Occhinegro’s book which tries to connect the Castel del Monte with the Voynich Manuscript. The two guys are clearly intelligent, hard-working architecture historians who have spent several years trying not only to understand the Castel del Monte’s physical construction, but also to reconstruct how it was built and the purposes for which it was designed. But they have additionally posited a connection between the building’s design and numerous key design features found within the Voynich Manuscript, and have made lots of follow-on claims yada-yada-yada.
Hence what I’ll do here is look at their architecture bit first, and then move on to the Voynich layer perched atop their architectonic stuff. OK? Let’s go.
A River Ran Through It
The Castel del Monte in Puglia has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996, and over the years its unusual physical configuration has attracted numerous fringe theories claiming to explain its many odd features. To what degree have these two authors succeeded in looking past the façade of history and documentation to the actual building underneath?
Actually, I think their architectural research project has been a great success. What emerges from the (admittedly carefully chosen, but nonetheless strongly relevant) fragments of evidence presented in their book is that, contrary to its modern appearance, the site originally was very probably home to a natural spring thought at the time to have health-giving properties. A river even ran close by in previous centuries, as evidenced by the way the area is represented in the Tabula Peutingeriana.
On this location, Frederick II had a curious octagonal edifice built, one too small to be a proper castle but also not really functionally suitable for being a hunting lodge. Fallacara & Occhinegro have picked up on suggestions made by previous architectural historians as well as on numerous physical and archival clues, and have pieced together a reading of the Castel del Monte as a hamam – a restorative Turkish bath complex of the type that at that time was just starting to become fashionable in Europe.
This all aligns with what we find in Pietro da Eboli’s bath-praising poem De Balneis Puteolanis, which has been mentioned on Cipher Mysteries a fair few times, and which arguably helped to start the whole balneological ‘craze’. So up to this point, I don’t see anything at all wrong with the two authors’ reading of the Castel del Monte.
But are they justified in also reading the evidence as of an alchemical obsession by Frederick II? Their evidence in this regard seems to be no more than some circular-shaped stains on the floor, from which they somehow infer alchemical activity on the site. This seems decidedly thin: and I’m fairly certain that the idea of alchemy as promoting eternal life is something that came in many centuries later – in Frederick II’s Europe, chrysopoeia (‘gold-making’) was alchemists’ almost total focus.
This whole idea extends further to spagyria (herb-based alchemy, or herbal medicine made using alchemical-style processes), which as both a term and a practice dates to Paracelsus (much later in the 16th century). I therefore don’t see a way to accept their argument that Frederick II would have designed a building focused on spagyric alchemy with the purpose of retardatio senectutis, because that would simply be anachronistic.
Finally, the authors try to make some play about the 8-sided structure, but I personally see the likelihood of there having been some kind of Platonic or numerological basis for this as basically zero. So-called “sacred geometry” is one of those secret history things that sounds nice in an airport novel, but in almost every case disappears when you look for it in the cold light of day. The Castel del Monte has a nice little design, sure, but… anything beyond that is just too much hand-waving for me to bear.
So, in summary, I like the chain of inference that leads to the Castel del Monte’s being a hamam, at the forefront of the whole balneological fever: but extending this claim to include alchemical or numerological significance seems speculative at best, if not just plain wrong-headed.
All That, And The Voynich Manuscript Too?
Well… no, not really. Given that I don’t accept the link they claim between the Castel del Monte and alchemy or spagyria of any sort, the evidence they present in their book attempting to link the Castel to the Voynich Manuscript is a thin, unnourishing soup indeed.
For example, the image from the book’s cover tries to conflate the (apparently) hexagonal-bodied, round-turreted magic circle page in the Voynich Manuscript with the Castel del Monte’s (very definitely) octagonal-bodied, octagonal-turreted design. Personally, this looks to me no different to other super-selective Voynich theories: really, you have to do better than one partially suggestive image match to back up a claim of a systematic “philological” match between these two very different things.
And similarly for the plants: a palmful of comparisons with carefully selected individual drawings plucked from a broad set of medieval herbals really isn’t methodologically good enough. The bigger problem with comparing the Voynich Manuscript with medieval herbals is that quite a few of its drawings are apparently drawn from life, a practice which happened before and after the Middle Ages (if after, say 1425 or so), but not really during them.
The authors are also aware that it is a long way back from the (early 15th century) radiocarbon dating to the (early 13th century) court of Frederick II (the Castel’s Decretio Regis dates from 1240), and so conclude, unsurprisingly, that it must have been copied by a later dumb copyist etc etc. There are indeed a number of codicological features that suggest that the Voynich Manuscript was in some way a copy.
But there are many problems with a 13th century dating for its original content, which is why nobody has seriously re-proposed Roger Bacon as its author for several decades now. Never mind the 15th century stuff I keep going on about, the crossbow technology depicted in the Sagittarius archer’s hunting crossbow points to “the first half of the 14th century”: while Erwin Panofsky famously opined “as he came to the female figures (in conjunction with the colors used in the manuscript) he came to the conclusion that it could not be earlier than the 15th century“. The hair-styles and clothes (such as they are) are all thought to be 15th century (or possibly later) – which is an inexact method of dating, sure, but it really should be good for the nearest century.
I also don’t buy into their ideas about “proto-toilets”: having read numerous earnest-sounding books on the secret history of toilets over the last decade (I kid you not, and recommend Lawrence Wright’s (1960) “Clean and Decent”), I really don’t think 13th century engineers were even remotely close to getting that nailing that tricky jelly to the garderobe wall. Yes, they did have limited water engineering and hypocausts: but my own reading is that toilets only became a plumbing possibility once Vitrivius had been revived in the 15th century. So that suggestion doesn’t work for me either.
Hence I think it’s going to take a lot of saving hypotheses (mainly around embellishing copyists, rather than time-travelling Gallifreyans) to pull a 13th century dating back from the cliff-edge sheer drop its feet are pedalling rapidly over, Wile E. Coyote-style. And while that’s still possible, it’s not very likely on this showing.
I don’t know, really. Fallacara and Occhinegro were very kind to send me a copy of their book, and I do wish them luck with their ongoing research into the Castel del Monte, which offers a reasonably solid hamam-based angle on a nice and genuinely mysterious piece of Puglian tourist history. But I can’t even remotely endorse the 13th century Voynich story they want to tell (which will probably come as no great surprise to them): unfortunately, it mars what is otherwise a perfectly nice (if fairly specific) piece of architectural / balneological history.
I think the simple truth – or as close as we can get to it without going excessively TL;DR – is that the Castel del Monte was on the leading edge of European nobility’s obsession with thermal baths, while the Voynich Manuscript was far closer to its trailing edge. Fifty or a hundred years yet further on, baths were thought (wrongly) to be the cause of syphilis and all kinds of other STDs: and so the whole craze abruptly stopped, with baths (and books about baths, which flourished in the 15th century) falling rapidly into disrepair. Perhaps the last century’s craze for unsupportable Voynich theories will abruptly stop some time in the future too? Well… I can dream, can’t I?