Back in 2006, I reasoned (in The Curse of the Voynich) that if the nine-rosette page’s circular city with a castle at the top…

…represented Milan (one of only three cities renowned for their circular shape), then the presence of swallowtail merlons on the drawing implied it must have been drawn after 1450, when the rebuilding of the old Porta Giovia castle (that was wrecked during the Ambrosian Republic) by Francesco Sforza as [what is now known as] the Castello Sforzesco began.

Ten Years Later, A Challenge

However, Mark Knowles recently challenged me on this: how was I so sure that the older castle on the site didn’t also have swallowtail merlons?

While writing Curse, for the history of Milan I mainly relied on the collection of essays and drawings in Vergilio Vercelloni’s excellent “Atlante Storico di Milano, Città di Lombardia”, such as these two pictures from Milano fantastica, in “Historia Evangelica et actos apostolorum cum alijs illorum temporum eventibus cum figuris crebioribus delineatis”, circa 1380:

…and this old favourite (which Boucheron notes [p.199] is a copy probably made between 1456 and 1472 of an original made in the 1420s)…

On the surface, it seemed from these as though I had done enough. But coming back to it, might I have been too hasty? I decided to fetch down my copies of Evelyn Welch’s “Art and Authority in Renaissance Milan” and Patrick Boucheron’s “Le Pouvoir de Bâtir” from the book overflow in the attic and have another look…

Revisiting Milan’s Merlons

What did I find? Well: firstly, tucked away in a corner of a drawing by Galvano Fiamma (in the 1330s) of a view of Milan (reproduced as Plate IIa at the back of Boucheron’s book), the city walls appear to have some swallowtail merlons (look just inside the two outermost towers and you should see them):

And in a corner of a drawing by Anovelo da Imbonate depicting and celebrating the 1395 investiture of Gian Galeazzo Visconti (reproduced in Welch p.24), I noticed a tiny detail that I hadn’t picked up on before… yet more swallowtail merlons:

Then, when I looked at other miniatures by the same Anovelo da Imbonate, I found two other (admittedly stylized) depictions of Milan by him that also unmistakeably have swallowtail merlons:

So it would seem that Milan’s city walls may well have had swallowtail merlons prior to 1450. The problem is that the city walls aren’t the same as the Porta Giovia castle walls (built from 1358, according to Corio): and I don’t think we know enough to say whether or not the castle itself had swallowtail merlons. It’s debatable whether the drawing of the 1395 investiture (which took place in the Porta Giovia castle) depicts the castle itself having swallowtail merlons: I just don’t know.

But the short version of the long answer is that because the Porta Giovia castle was only built from 1358-1372 (or thereabouts), we can’t rely on texts written before then (such as Galvano Fiamma’s). And there seems quite good reason to suspect (the Massajo drawing notwithstanding) that the Porta Giovia castle may well have had swallowtail merlons when it was used for the Visconti investiture in 1395. But I don’t know for certain, sorry. 🙁

There are texts that might give us an answer: for example, the (1437) “De Laudibus Mediolanensium urbis panegyricus” by Pier Candido Decembrio (mentioned in Boucheron p.74), or Bernardino Corio’s “Storia di Milano”. There are plenty of documents Boucheron cites in footnotes (pp.202-205), including “Lavori ai castelli di Bellinzona nel periodo visconteo”, Bolletino della Svizzera italiana, XXV, 1903, pp.101-104 (which I’ll leave for another day). But it’s obviously quite a lot of work. 🙁

Finally, I should perhaps add that a few details by Anovelo da Imbonate have an intriguingly Voynichian feel:

Though there were plenty of other miniature artists active in the Visconti court in Milan in the decades up to 1447, parallels between their art and the Voynich Manuscript’s drawings haven’t been explored much to date. Perhaps this is a deficiency in our collective Art Historical view that should be rectified. 🙂

28 thoughts on “Voynich nine-rosette page: (Part 1) Milan and swallow-tail merlons

  1. Mark Knowles on April 16, 2017 at 7:21 pm said:

    I should just mention in passing that Bernardino Corio’s “Storia di Milano” is available as a FREE Ebook on Google Books though I haven’t yet managed to find a picture of the castle battlements.

  2. Mark: I was hoping to find clues in the text there (rather than in any pictures). But as I recall there’s quite a lot of it… =:-o

  3. Mark Knowles on April 17, 2017 at 11:23 am said:

    Nick: First of all I should commend you for the overall thoroughness of your research here and elsewhere. I downloaded the pdf’s of the 3 volumes of Bernardino Corio’s “Storia di Milano” and did some searching inside; of course one big advantage of having electronic copies. In the second volume I was pleased to find quite a few references to an illustrious Valsesia and Novara family in particular a Francesco of that family. In the second volume I searched for “merlo” and found a few references “Google Translate” translates this as Blackbird, however I thought this term refers to battlements in general not just swallow(or blackbird)-tail battlements. I also searched for “giovia”, but I wonder if you would suggest other more suitable search terms or another approach to the book.

  4. Mark Knowles on April 17, 2017 at 2:39 pm said:

    Nick: I thought I would mention my favourite quote from you in the BBC 4 documentary.

    “Emperor Rudolf was a LOVELY guy I’m sure, but basically mad. He invited all the alchemists from Europe to his court and if they couldn’t produce what he wanted he KILLED them.”

    I don’t feel these statements are wholly compatible. Madness aside, lovely people don’t go round killing other people.

    Otherwise I would say in all honesty I felt, when I first watched this documentary, at the time that I just started delving into the Voynich, that you were the most impressive person in the documentary, so I merely mention my previous point in jest.

  5. Mark Knowles on April 17, 2017 at 5:30 pm said:

    Nick: Before I went to University I read a book on the Philosophy of Maths. One thing the author criticised is that when one studies Maths, and I would think many other subjects, one learns what the end product of an amount of research is and not the process by which a researcher arrived at the end result. So for example one might study say Calculus and the standard formal derivations, but one doesn’t study how the original inventor/discoverer, say Newton, Leibniz or Archimedes, really developed their theory over time.

    So how is this relevant? Well your book is great, but it is largely presented as the end result of a period of research rather than the journey you took leading you to the end result. Obviously your book is told as a story which makes perfect sense for popular academic books, although it is not ideally in the form a researcher might like. For example footnotes would have really helped. The book is great and I am glad I bought it, but for someone researching this area knowing what sources you used would be really valuable.

  6. Mark Knowles on April 17, 2017 at 6:49 pm said:

    Nick: Apologies, I hadn’t spotted that. Thanks

  7. Mark Knowles on April 18, 2017 at 10:34 am said:

    Nick: One thing I believe you used for your dating of the manuscript between 1450 and 1460 is the occurrence of the “4o” character in ciphers of that period, but not appearing in earlier ciphers. I have looked at the Biblography and it isn’t immediately obvious to me where you found these ciphers. This is something I have been very interested in, in general, for some time. I am sorry if you have provided this information elsewhere. By the way, what were your other reasons for your manuscript dating?

  8. Mark: I covered a lot of them in Curse, but I’ll have a look in the blog, see if there’s a post on this already.

  9. Mark Knowles on April 18, 2017 at 1:24 pm said:

    Nick: It would also be useful to know about all the Northern Italian and specifically Milanese ciphers say after 1380 that you have collated. I don’t want to put a lot of work on your plate, so whatever you have readily available would be really appreciated. Many Thanks!

    This could represent in the future a basis for starting my research into this area. The Curse is great, but anything relevant that isn’t contained in their could also be useful.

  10. Mark: as I recall, the ciphers in the 4o table in Curse were either from the 1440 Urbino cipher or from the Milanese Tranchedino cipher ledger (I don’t have a copy of Curse with me right now, I’ll check it at home tonight).

  11. Mark Knowles on April 18, 2017 at 3:34 pm said:

    In the Curse you say it crops up in the Urbino cipher and the Milanese ciphers dated 1450, 1455 and 1456. So you are right about that. Sorry for your inconvenience I think I have tracked down the references in the Bibliography now. Interestingly the 1440 date of the Urbino cipher starts to approach my 1431 date. If I understand correctly from what you say you are not aware of any examples surviving of Milanese ciphers from the early 15th century, so it would be impossible to determine if the “4o” symbol was used prior to 1440.

  12. Milen Chakarov on April 21, 2017 at 2:36 pm said:

    I do not know why, but Nine Rosettes Page strangely reminds me of Moscow Red Square with St.Basil’s Cathedral(center rosette) and the

    Moscow Kremlin(the long walls with swallow-tail merlons, small and big towers).More exactly, reminds me of a walk around the cathedral

    of St. Basil, starting from the top right rosette in the clockwise direction.I think the whole drawing is made schematic,by

    memory.This explains the differences (Saint Basil has eight towers and one central, not six as the figure in the central rosette), but

    the most impressive details such as the shape and pattern of the domes and the stone pedestal of the cathedral are shown.Explore the

    cathedral from all sides and you will understand what I mean.The same applies to the Moscow Kremlin.Only the most impressive details

    are shown.The “tower in the hole” and the tower just below it are very similar to some of the angular towers of the Kremlin,the castle

    we see under the right top rosette (normally upside down) reminds us of the Kremlin’s Nikolskaya Tower.Explore Kremlin from all sides

    and you will understand what I mean.For long walls with smaller towers and swallow-tail merlons there is no need to comment anymore.I

    guess the other eight rosettes also schematically and in memory describe other sights of Moscow.On the issue of the walls and towers of Kremlin Wikipedia says:1)”Grand Prince Ivan III organised the reconstruction of the Kremlin, inviting a number of skilled architects from Renaissance Italy, including Petrus Antonius Solarius, who designed the new Kremlin wall and its towers”;2)” The Kremlin walls as they now appear were built between 1485 and 1495.” This, grossly taking into account the uncertainty in the time of radiocarbon dating(50-60 years),coincides with the presumed time of creating the manuscript (or at least the parchment).On the other hand, St. Basil’s Cathedral was built from 1555–61 on orders from Ivan the Terrible(Wikipedia).This does not coincides with the presumed time of creating the parchment, but…at least the manuscript?

  13. Mark Knowles on April 21, 2017 at 3:42 pm said:

    Milen: I wouldn’t worry about the Carbon Dating people generally interpret that in whichever way best fits their theory. So for example if they think the manuscript was written by Wilfred Voynich then people will say that he used very old parchment and pigments and that explains the carbon dating.

  14. Milen Chakarov on April 21, 2017 at 4:41 pm said:

    Thank You,Mark.
    I just wanted to be more precise about such people. I do not want to get into a dispute about dates, facts, details and so on, because that way this site is becoming a simple chat. I want to read real news and not empty disputes .A few months ago I sent a comment to Mr. T.Spande with a nickname OutSiter. I prefer to stay like this and read so much more before I decide to say something.

    Cheers (and You Tom)

  15. Mark Knowles on April 22, 2017 at 6:56 pm said:

    Milen: I hope I didn’t sound rude, but I would be careful about coming to a date for the manuscript so much later than the Carbon Dating. Of course it is possible the author used old inks and old parchment or that the Carbon Dating is incorrect. However I would suggest that you need a very strong theory before you can justify that conclusion.

    The problem we all face is that some drawings can easily look similar to many different buildings or other things. So the central rosette certainly resembles St.Basil’s Cathedral, but it also resembles many places and things. For example it could be said to resemble a salad bowl next to some salt and pepper grinders, but I really don’t think that is what it represents,

    I would suggest one needs to try to explain every aspect of a drawing not just some and also one should explain why it differs from the thing you believe it represents, so the domes of St. Basil’s are joined together in real life whereas on the map they appear quite separate and therefore it does look different from St. Basil’s.

    I believe the central rosette represents the Pope, not a place like the rest of the map. My own interpretation is that it shows a crown surrounded by chalices; note there is what appears to be the rim of another crown on the outer edge of the central rosette and the Pope’s tiara consisted of more than 1 crown. A combination of a crown, as the Pope was the king of his own state, and chalices, which are obvious religious symbols, explains my conclusion. The identification of the Pope also goes neatly with my other identifications on the map.

    You can see my full analysis of the map the page below:

    Feel free to ask questions and pose criticisms.

    For example one question that could be asked of my identification is why the “chalices” all look different from one another. The answer is I don’t know. My speculation is that they may represent different cardinals or different parts of the Pope’s dominion. There are other details of the drawing that could lead me to ask questions. However my identification of the central rosette seems to be the most complete and internally and externally consistent that I am aware of.

  16. Mark Knowles on April 23, 2017 at 12:09 pm said:

    Milen: Analysing the map is very difficult, because we know the map is not a completely accurate representation of an area of land in the way a modern map would be. Also we know the author has incorporated artistic or design themes as part of their drawing, so inevitably meaning it deviates from reality. We also know the author was more ignorant of the actual geography of the area of land the drawing refers to than we are today. In addition the author probably didn’t feel the expectation that we have today that the map should be an accurate geographic representation.

    So we are stuck with the problem that we know it doesn’t accurately represent the real world, but we need to determine which part of the real world it does nevertheless represent,

  17. Mark Knowles on April 23, 2017 at 1:14 pm said:


    Milen: So what level and kind of deviation from reality is acceptable in our interpretation of the Voynich map? The simplest answer is as little deviation from reality as possible. Obviously where there is deviation it should be as far as possible consistent throughout the map. Does the deviation make logical sense? Does it fit within an artistic/design paradigm? Can one find a good justification for the difference?

    In my opinion constructing a simple fairly plausible theory of the map is easy constructing a strong theory is very hard. I, personally, have done my best, but I am still faced as anyone would be with the questions I have listed above.

  18. Mark: the structural problem with all theories that move from Voynich Manuscript images (whether nine-rosette page, nymphs, plants, jars or whatever) outwards to some presumed historical milieu is that they are almost always plastic enough to adapt themselves around details in a way that feels good, yet without any obvious way of gaining any external connectivity that could point back in. Tricky. 😐

  19. Mark Knowles on April 23, 2017 at 2:38 pm said:

    Nick: You are absolutely right, though one has to inevitably accept that whilst that is a problem, some theories have a better fit than others. So for example I could postulate that the manuscript represents Oxford, the town in which I live, to make that theory work I believe I would require a more plastic theory than the Switzerland theory that I have posed, in my opinion. Furthermore a theory that claimed the map represents Australia would require a huge level of plasticity for that to fit. Whilst it might have seemed very frivolous this was a point I was trying to illustrate with my twerking example. So one naturally aims to find a theory with the minimum need for plasticity that one can create; what I call a theory of best fit. So in a theoretical sense one could come up with a hierarchy of theories in terms of their ability to fit the evidence of the map.

    It is the case that to a significant extent my map theory was grounded in ideas of yours and to some extent others, so was not wholly dependent on geographical considerations. However I have been diligent in doing the best I can to challenge and criticise my theory every step of the way and as much as possible avoid unwarranted plasticity. I certainly did not go into my analysis with Switzerland on my mind, far from it, I found myself forced into it, because it just seemed to make much more sense than anywhere else, certainly within the framework of the Milan identification.

    You make a very good point, there is a difficulty with on the one hand trying to interpret new details within an existing theory and making new details fit an existing theory, like forcing pieces to fit within a jigsaw even when they are not quite the right shape. (By new details I mean evidence that has not yet been examined like features of the map not yet looked at.) Getting the balance right is really hard.

    In terms of questions of authorship or in my case the Council of Basel these details can be connected back to real history and examined in this context. Also the appearance of certain buildings or geographic features at the time of writing of the manuscript are important to giving a historical anchor to a theory.

    Partial map theories allow for much greater plasticity than a whole map theory. To take an extreme example a theory which identifies only one building on the map is really much easier to fit. So I am inclined to believe one should aim to explain as many of the details, even the very minor details, on the map not just the obvious details; I feel this challenges the theory more to see if it can handle explaining as much as possible.

    At the moment my whole map theory seems to me to be a significantly better fit than any others that I am aware of. However maybe someone will come up with a better theory than mine which in one way I will find disheartening, but in another exciting as it will represent progress.

    Also in general any theory of any kind of the manuscript is a theory of best fit. We are all trying to find the optimal model which explains the manuscript.

    But, finally you are right it is all very very tricky and anyone who is not very conscious of this is very likely to produce a poor to bad theory. Anyway, ultimately one has to do the best one can and I have and continue to try to do so.

  20. Mark Knowles on April 24, 2017 at 4:00 pm said:

    Nick: One thing I feel increasingly is important is the ability of a theory to make predictions that can be subsequently tested. I think to some extent there can be a parallel made with scientific theories.

    So for example, in Physics a theory like Electromagnetic Theory, Relativity and so on have been developed on the basis of empirical evidence, however they have also been used subsequently to make predictions about the physical world which have then been observed experimentally.

    Whilst one does not do experiments with the Voynich one can make predictions on the basis of a theory one has developed about evidence that one has not yet analysed. The ability of a theory to make correct predictions can be viewed I think as a measure of its effectiveness or validity.

    I fully accept that one needs to be careful in applying this parallel between scientific research and historical research too far. Although I think if one is very careful this can serve as a useful frame of reference.

    My map theory makes a variety of predictions such as:

    In 1431 the tower of the Abbey of St.Gall was under construction or in a state of destruction. This corresponds to what I think is termed “the hole in a hole” on the Causeway between the top left rosette and the top centre rosette, but I view as being the Abbey of St.Gall in the valley of St. Gallen.

    As is so often the case with the Voynich finding the evidence in this case is difficult, although I know this Abbey experienced significant conflict and turbulence during the early 15th century.

    You are aware of some other predictions my theory makes and has made. Such as the precise visual appearance of the crown of Milan. I can find a description in words which fits, but an image would be much better.

    I have made many predictions of locations or appearance which I think I come out with an unexpectedly high level of accuracy.

    Still the question remains if 1 prediction is incorrect does one decide the whole theory is wrong or can one justify modifying the theory to explain the mistaken prediction.

    Whilst I can’t say every prediction I have made has come out the way I expected I think I have had a significantly higher success rate than one would otherwise anticipate most markedly as the theory has developed i.e. my predictions have got significantly better as the theory has become more complete whilst still non-obvious Whether the predictive power of the theory is good enough is far from certain, but I think, personally, well beyond mere coincidence.

  21. Gentlemen, I am unable to see in any of the predominant blogs (Bax, Zandbergen, here and the V Temple) any chart or list of substantial findings with regard to the VM. A couple of possibles exist with regards to plants and buildings, more with cosmological charts but nothing about the language.
    Am I wrong in thinking that there has been no attempt to lay the manuscript open before an Indian linguist, specifically one who has expertise in Northern Indian dialects?

  22. petebowes: there’s a guy called Sukhwant Singh who has been trumpeting his Voynich theory for some time, I’m surprised that your searches so far haven’t uncovered his many, many, many claims. (Particularly on YouTube.)

    Also: Stephen Bax and his linguistic acolytes have put a lot of effort into uncovering so-thin-they’re-almost-transparent links between all manner of languages and Voynichese. However, if they’ve managed to make any progress beyond triumphant and self-congratulatory press releases, I’ve yet to see it.

  23. Thanks for that ….

  24. Peter on April 25, 2017 at 9:20 am said:

    Looking closer at page 76v, she tells us a story. On the upper right you can see how she is standing in a vessel and distributes something. That will probably be the sowat.
    Then we see a kind of protective cover and hold a plant in your hand. This is probably the Hege and the harvest.
    Then we see the dry, we know from old pictures of pharmacies.
    So, in the next step, we see the first step that crushes, and at the same time separate that by the seven.

    Why should someone put women in pots?
    So it is probably plants where the horoscope part is represented, it is also obvious that the bathing mermaids are plants.

    The timing of planting and harvesting has been defined by the calendar thousands of years ago.

    Therefore, it is more than just logical to me what he represents here.

  25. Peter, women may have bathed while standing in a waste water pot in the days a home didn’t have a bathroom.
    Just a thought.

  26. Petebowes: And in the horoscope part they still wear the clothes in the pot because the washing machine was not yet invented 🙂

  27. … either that or the illustrator was a randy old goat for every month of the year.

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