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?

17 thoughts on “The Castel del Monte Voynich theory, reviewed…

  1. bdid1dr on February 18, 2014 at 4:32 pm said:

    Perhaps Signors F & O will eventually catch up with us in re the discussion of yucca root soap (xiuhammoli).
    Some other time, maybe, we can review the historical arguments (pre or post Columbus) for when syphilis first appeared in Europe. (?)

  2. Interesting castle. For VMs attributes, this is better:

  3. “Somewhere’ I read that Castel d’ Monte’s octagonal towers were spiral staircases which risers opened and widened into small rooms which had large sinks (tubs) and containers for human waste removal. Or were the small rooms entered off of the central staircase? Can we find drawings of the castle’s interior structures? Maybe not 3-D? But maybe Professors O & D might produce some such ‘engineering drawing’? Maybe ‘somewhere’ on the WWW one of Nick’s regulars might be able to illustrate?
    Too many questions, Nick? I haven’t found much discussion of the interior design; not even on the site’s World Historical Monuments status page.

  4. bdid1dr on February 26, 2014 at 3:32 pm said:

    Hamam castle. Treaties of Nymphae. Way-station for slave traders? Do I recall that the Black Plague first appeared near Marmara?

  5. bdid1dr on February 26, 2014 at 8:19 pm said:

    Other South American food products introduced to medieval Europe: chocolate/cocoa, coffee (most popular bean, today, is ‘arabica’ — long history for this item), betel, maize/corn, and maybe squash? Even today, our Hopi and Navajo grow corn, beans, squash, and sometimes red chiles–and hand-water their gardens. Corn figures prominently in their historic ceremonies/stories.

  6. bdid1dr on March 1, 2014 at 4:37 pm said:

    The pit of the fruit of the Areca palm (betel) is wrapped in a leaf which is also called ‘betel’. The leaf contains the alkaloid which
    combines with and enhances the mild ‘high’ which is achieved from the ‘betel-juice’.
    Some time ago, here in the US, we had a cartoon series (supposedly for children) called “Beetle Juice”. 😉

  7. bdid1dr on March 1, 2014 at 5:15 pm said:

    Yesterday we watched a segment of Bob Geldorf’s (Boomtown Rats, and 1985 “Live Aid”) film series: “Geldorf in Africa”. Besides clips of a slave-trading fortress (El Mina?) he also walked through a current-day market: produce, gasoline, tires, what have you, and vendors of ‘betel’ — neatly rolled , thumb-sized packets of chewing pleasure. I’m looking forward to the rest of his series.
    I’m hoping to see some segments of history (Benin bronze work, Asante gold work, and Ivory Coast elephant tusk carving).
    I don’t expect to see much manuscript production; unless ‘somebody’ finds the account books for the various medieval castlestrading posts which lined both the east and west shores of Africa.

  8. bdid1dr on March 1, 2014 at 5:20 pm said:

    Perhaps Mr. Geldorf will follow Professor Bill Gates’ trail of discovery to Timbuctu/Timboctoo?

  9. bdid1dr on March 2, 2014 at 5:58 pm said:

    That’s Professor HENRY Gates, folks. Yes, Mr. Geldorf filmed in Timbuctu, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I think Timbuktu’s libraries (private & o’wise) are still undergoing preservation and documentation. Does anyone have any new news of new developments?

  10. Diane on March 3, 2014 at 10:40 am said:

    My respect for Erwin Panofsky was increased rather than diminished by his adhering to his available data even when its insufficiency obliged him to revise his original estimation of the manuscript as “early.. Spanish or somewhere southern” and Jewish.

    That his initial evaluation needed no such revision – at least not by reference to the form given the female figures – has been demonstrated already (MS Sassoon 823). Panofsky didn’t know that manuscript or related mss recently recovered in Russia, and so, lacking any example in his own time where ‘shapely’ women occur in mss of southern, Jewish milieu earlier than the fifteenth century, necessarily he brought forward his posited earliest date.

    Our manuscript, itself, is undoubtedly one manufactured no earlier than the first quarter of the fifteenth century but (need I repeat this?) a manuscript’s date of manufacture (nor its place of manufacture) can be taken as proof of a first enunciation then/there.

    I should add that I won’t be able to respond to any answers .. I have one day in town now, then back to the wilderness for me.

    voynichimagery dot wordpress dot com

    22/07/2013 post shows detail from MS Sassoon 823

  11. bdid1dr on March 3, 2014 at 4:14 pm said:

    Diane, wilderness? Outback? Sahara? Teotihuacan? Prester John’s Jungle?

  12. bdid1dr on March 4, 2014 at 6:11 pm said:

    Gentle-folks: I’ve just recalled a television segment (couple of years ago-2010?) in which producers presented the digitization of several hundred medieval manuscripts hidden in the walled-off room which formerly was Kircher’s “Roman School/College”. The room was discovered during upgrades/remodelling of the Gregorian University which had basically enclosed the room when expanding the University campus and buildings.
    So, now I am wondering if the current-day, televised, ‘discovery’ of those manuscripts may have been stimulated by Pope John Paul II’s return in (1990-91) of the Codex Barberini, Latin 241 (aka: Libellus”) to Mexico.

    Sometimes it still is a matter of provenance and records-keeping, rather than who wrote it. My last 10 years of employment involved archives and records management for various governmental agencies and hospitals.
    I am now reading “An Aztec Herbal” by William Gates — and doing a lot of cross-referencing and indexing.

  13. bdid1dr on March 5, 2014 at 5:25 pm said:

    I’ll take this opportunity to attempt to resolve some confusion for the Aztec/Nuah-tl “xiuh-amolli” which identification is applied to TWO different plant specimens:
    The blue-flowered, small oval-leaved plant is having its ABOVE-GROUND parts macerated and BOILED.
    The second reference to ‘xiuh-amolli is applied to the illustration of the large root of an ENTIRELY different plant: the ‘yucca’ (of which there are several types). Even today, the root of one ‘yucca’ is macerated to create ‘soap suds’ and shampoo. Another ‘yucca’ (which we call aloe vera) is growing in a small pot on my kitchen window-sill. If I get a burn or scald while cooking, I immediately break off a juicy leaf and spread its ‘gel’ on the burn. I’m still looking for the yucca and aloe vera plants, themselves, in B-408.

  14. bdid1dr on March 8, 2014 at 6:30 pm said:

    Nick, a couple of months ago (on your voynich-castel-del-monte-book-launch page) I asked you if you were at all interested in my previous posts about Saffron Walden (Sir Hubert kindly responded briefly). This morning I began reading a book I rescued from our local senior center’s free books shelves.
    Adam Hart-Davis & Emily Troscianko discuss “Henry Winstanley and the Eddystone Lighthouse”. This little book is packed with illustrations and discussions of Winstanley’s Lighthouse, Saffron Walden, European competition for trade items (spices, pepper, drugs, calicoes & chintzes, tobacco and sugar…..) from America, India, Orient. Interesting to me was the lack of any mention of silk. Nor any mention of the crocus corm which tiny stigmas were threads of the spice we call ‘saffron’.
    Saffron crocuses, for quite a while, were the main product for which Saffron Walden was famous.
    Diane might find it interesting that Winstanley designed a set of playing cards which the King of Hearts was English; the Ace of Hearts was America, Ace of Spades was Africa, and V of diamonds was Agra Mongols. (Diane, are you lurking?)
    I think it is likely that you could purchase this little book from the museum at Saffron-Walden. (list price 9.99) if your local library couldn’t pull up a copy for you. It is not dull reading at all.

  15. bdid1dr on March 8, 2014 at 6:37 pm said:

    Ooops! Folio 35-r of B-408 is discussing the Crocus (Autumn-blooming) as the source of the saffron spice.

  16. bdid1dr on March 22, 2014 at 5:39 pm said:

    The “Met” (in New York City) gardeners and professors may have mix-discussed the ‘Autumn-blooming’ crocus with the ‘Saffron’ crocus — insofar as the usable parts of two very similar crocuses: The difference may be that the ‘saffron’ crocus has its bright red ‘stigma” removed and dried to make the ‘spice’ called saffron. The Met Museum curators discuss the ‘Autumn-Blooming’ crocus as being the source of yellow coloring material (stamens?) for mixing with egg-white to create the illusion of “metallic gold” for precious manuscripts.
    So — where do we go from here? (Will I be gathering the source of the ‘saffron’ trade, red stigma, or will I be donating the fluffy yellow parts of some 200 crocuses to our Society for Creative Anachronism if they should want to replicate the ‘gold’ borders of a ‘medieval manuscript’?
    Stay tuned for developments…….
    beady-eyed wonder

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