I’ve just heard about an upcoming auction for a Da Vinci Code “cryptex”. It’s allegedly one of the ones ‘potentially’ used in the film (whatever ‘potentially’ means, you’d have to ask an IP lawyer to be sure), but is believed by the auctioneers to be genuine. Which is nice.


I should add that word on the crypto street (if your street just happens to have lots of collectors) is that movie props are widely forged and can be very hard to prove genuine, so it really is a case of caveat emptor etc.

But if neither your budget nor your appetite for risk will stretch quite that far, you can buy Authorized Cryptex Replicas on eBay (of course you can, that’s exactly what eBay is for, isn’t it?).

The Daily Grail has today’s hot cipher history story: that Dan Brown’s soon-to-be-released novel “Inferno” is somehow based around the Voynich Manuscript. Apparently, the proof of this particular pudding is, well, a cipher, one apparently hidden in plain sight on Brown’s website:-


In Rolf Harris’ immortal phrase, “Can you tell what it is yet?” I hope you can, because all it is is… a 4×4 transposition cipher of “MS 408 YALE LIBRARY”. Yes, that’s it. Which is in itself a fairly underwhelming starting point, considering that the Voynich Manuscript isn’t MS 408 in “Yale Library”, but in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. But (of course) that wouldn’t fit in 16 letters. 🙂

So, the story of the story is that Dan Brown will once again be wheeling out his “symbologist” Robert Langdon in a Renaissance-art-history-conspiracy-somehow-impinges-on-the-present-day-with-terrible-consequences schtick, but this time in Florence with Dante’s “Inferno” right at the heart of it (hence the title), with only the poor, much-abused Voynich Manuscript for company.

One part I’m not looking forward to is what Brown will have Robert Langdon make of the Voynich: for of all the mysteries I’ve ever seen, the Voynich is surely the least obviously symbol-laden. There’s no “sacred geometry” there, no gematria, no heresy, in fact no religion at all: just about all you could do is tie in the Voynich ‘nymphs’ with the same kind of alt.history “goddess” thing that Brown tried to stripmine in The Da Vinci Code… but all the same, that looks fairly hollow to me. I guess we’ll have to see what angle he does take… at least we won’t have long to wait (14th May 2013).

For me, the central contrast between Dante’s Inferno and the Voynich Manuscript is that they are diametrically opposite in referentiality: while the Inferno (and in fact the whole Divine Comedy) reaches out to touch and even include all of human culture, the Voynich Manuscript’s author seems to have worked with the same kind of monastic intensity to ensure it appears to refer to nothing at all. So, when Dan Brown collides the everything-book with the nothing-book, what kind of po-faced bathos-fest are we in for?

As an aside, I don’t see any numerology in the (original) Inferno: and considering the amount of effort Dante put into satirizing astrologers, alchemists, politicians, liars, frauds and the like in their aptly tortured circles of hell, I’m reasonably sure he’d mete out the same kind of punishment to numerologists. And probably to symbologists, too. And (if we’re lucky) to bad novelists… though you’ll have to put your own candidates forward for that, I’m far too polite. 😉

However, the bit I dread most is when people start to realize that Dante Alighieri’s Inferno was only the first part (of three) of his Divine Comedy: and with the current Hollywood craze for trilogies (The Hobbit trilogy, really?), what are the odds Dan Brown will extend any success with this book out into his own money$pinning Dante-based series, hmmm? The “Ka’chingferno” three-parter, no less!

Update: Erni Lillie upbraids me (and rightly so) in a comment here for omitting to mention his substantial 2004 (though the Wayback Machine only has a copy from 2007) Voynich Inferno essay, where he proposed that the nine “rosettes” on the Voynich Manuscript’s nine-rosette page might well represent the nine layers of Dante’s Inferno. My own experience of working on that particular page would place it closer to Purgatory, but perhaps we’re closer than medieval theologians would have it. 🙂

Truth be told, I did remember that I had forgotten something to do with Dante and the Voynich, but couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was I’d forgotten. And now that I’ve found it again, I was delighted to read it all over again, Renaissance warts and all. So, hoping that it’s OK with Erni to bring his work to a new generation of interested readers, here’s a link to a copy of his paper The Voynich Manuscript as an Illustrated Commentary of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Maybe it will turn out to be what Dan Brown’s new book plagiarizes was amply inspired by this time round, who knows? 😉

Personally, I suspect the smart money is indeed on Brown’s having the Voynich’s nine-rosette map turn out to be a map: with the devastating twist *yawn* that it actually represents a physical map of Dante-related locations in Florence, which Robert Langdon is then able to decode at speed thanks to his encyclopaedic knowledge of all things symbolic and Florentine, which ultimately leads him to the dark secret at the heart of a centuries-old conspiracy which he and his unexpected accomplice must choose whether to reveal to the horror of the world.

You know, basically the same as all his other books. 😉

Anyway, looking forward to the launch party at the Duomo, darling. Of course I’d like more olives, thanks for asking, and isn’t the San Giovese simply, errrm, Divine? 🙂

It’s funny how two things can have all the same basic ingredients and yet end up wildly different. A Maclaren MP4-12C and a Fiat 500 are both cars: yet few would disagree that they’re worlds apart.

Similarly, even though Emery Borka has – in Steve Santa and the secret of the Last Parfait – succeeded in producing a novel that combines all the classic airport novella ingredients with a home-spun accidental-hero vibe, I’m sad to say that the result is less like The Da Vinci Code than a long series of knowing nods to (and in-jokes for) the writer’s family and friends combined with Internet research.

The reason I’m reviewing it here is that the Voynich Manuscript makes a solid Macguffinly appearance in it, the idea being that it is written in the Dongba language. Though, technically speaking, Dongba is a set of ideographic (and, indeed, very idiosyncratic) pictographs developed ~1000 years ago in parallel with the Naxi language, whereas I suspect Voynichese is rather more similar to the Geba syllabary more typically used to write Naxi. But that’s by the by. 🙂

If I mentioned that Borka’s story also has various modern-day Knights Templar factions, the Daughters of Tsion, Cathars, Paris, Xiamen, GulangYu, Rennes-le-Chateau, Carcasonne, Toulouse, Rocamadour, Padirac, and (yes) Black Madonnas, you’d get the idea: but even that fails to do justice to arguably the book’s best (and simultaneously worst) feature – the food.

You see, everywhere in the world that Borka’s retired, divorced, cashed-out hero pinballs onwards to, he gets to eat (and describe in depth) the most authentic-sounding regional dishes possible, while simultaneously being given high-velocity touristic mystery history by some implausibly well-informed Wikipedia page local expert. It’s a bit like being strapped to a wall and having the world’s food fired at you by a rapid succession of international chefs.

So, I have to say I’m not sure the world is quite ready for Borka’s historical mystery food tourism proto-genre: treating it as airport fiction and trying to read it too quickly would probably give you indigestion. But all the same, it is what it is and there’s no point hiding it: as Popeye said to the sweet potato, “I yam what I yam“. 😉

What would it feel like to be a footballer with no goal? An actor with no stage? A projector with no screen? Or (finally getting to the point) a pseudohistorian with no infamous historical figure to attach his/her nutty theories onto?

All of which is why I feel sorry for poor old Leonardo da Vinci. He barely counts as a genuine historical figure any longer, for he has transformed into merely a blank canvas to be doodled upon by every new generation of messed-up researchers. Even the mention of his name in The Da Vinci Code is largely risible (he no more invented the ‘cryptex’ than the microwave oven). For every nutjob theory about Michelangelo, there must be a hundred crazy Leonardo ones: how they must be laughing at him in the Florentine Renaissance fama corner of Heaven.

Still, when you put a load of these fruity theories together, I (for one) come away with a reassuring sense of constancy: that the pareidoiliac capacity of the mass of human minds remains just as capable of finding new (yet often just as manifestly false as ever) ways of reading Leonardo’s works. So here are some recent ones you may not yet have heard of… probably for good reason, in most cases. Just so you know, I’ve placed them in broadly decreasing order of plausibility, to lull you into a frog-in-a-saucepan sense of false security.

(1) Might Giorgio Vasari have sealed Leonardo’s “Battle of Anghiari” mural behind a wall to preserve it? San Diego “art diagnostic specialist” Maurizio Seracini suspects he did, for when he worked on Santa Maria Novella, he sealed Masaccio’s fresco “Trinità” behind the wall on which he painted part of his “Madonna of the Rosary” – we know this to be true, because Masaccio’s original was rediscovered in 1861. And so Seracini is trying to build the most amazing camera in the world to peer through the wall, to see if Leonardo’s fresco is still at least partially there. And the evidence? “A tiny painted green flag” in Vasari’s picture, reading “‘Cerca, trova’ — seek and you shall find.” It’s not much, but is it enough?

(2) Not many people know that top-drawer da Vinci art historian Carlo Pedretti has long been hunting for a nude Mona Lisa: it’s a kind of Holy Grail of wobbly art history. In fact, Leonardo may well indeed have painted one, for there are a number of copies originating from the school surrounding the Florentine, all apparently from an original “Monna Vanna”. But is the one in the link Leonardo’s? Almost certainly not: but keep searching, Professor Pedretti, keep searching!

(3) In his imaginatively titled (but as yet unwritten) book-and-forthcoming-feature-film-documentary “The Mona Lisa Code”, Scott Lund thinks that Mona Lisa is an anagram of “Anima Sol”, and that she stands in for Janus in a deviously-crafted stereoscopic illusion, constructed around a map of Rome. Well, if it’s good enough for the Huffington Post, who am I to disagree? Personally, I’m rather more troubled by the anagram “No Salami”: did Leonardo intend the painting as pro-vegetarian propaganda? Or perhaps “Sal (sapit) omnia“? Once you start down that idiotic road, there really is no end to it. *sigh*

(4)-(6) If you’re suffering from intellectual poverty, here’s a bargain you can’t afford to turn down: three Last Supper theories for the price of one, courtesy of at Artden. Read all about Slavisa Pesci’s 2007 mirrored image wonderment; Giovanni Maria Pala’s 2007 claim that you can read a musical score from the hand-positions; and Sabrina Sforza Galitzia 2010 claim that there are hidden signs of the zodiac, pointing to a deluge to end the world starting on March 21st 4006 (but don’t worry, it’ll all be over by November 1st 4006).

(7) But finally, arguably the best of the lot is from Michelle Legro, an editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. Her hilarious post Top Chef, Old Master starts from the seed of [I think] truth that Leonardo was commissioned to automate the Sforza kitchens (though it all ended in disaster), but which she then grows into a wonderful towering wedding cake of nonsense. Sadly, the problem is that such gentle, well-informed satire is wasted on a world for whom mad Leonardo theories are ten-a-penny. I mean, why didn’t he just use his microwave oven? Tcha!

OK, much as I deplore the relentless, adulatory stripmining of Leonardo da Vinci’s works, I do rather enjoy seeing infra-red images of paintings, glimpsing the construction marks left beneath the surface. And so I have nothing but good things to say about Discovery News’ series of infra-red images of Leonardo’s “Adoration of the Magi”. I like the detailing on the feet, and especially the unexpected sketch of an elephant. Enjoy!

The person who made the discovery was Maurizio Seracini, helpfully described by Discovery News as “the only non-fictional living character mentioned in ‘The Da Vinci Code’“. Though I’m pretty sure that doesn’t appear on the top line of his CV! 😉

The film Stigmata (1999) presses a whole lot of my buttons. At the time it was originally released, I had been researching my own novel built on broadly the same premise:  a globetrotting protagonist hunting down miraculous statues and people claiming to have duplicates of Christ’s stigmata (though that’s basically where the similarities ended). And so I was fascinated to see how the film-makers went about bringing this to life.


Even though the story and script (by Tom Lazarus, the not-quite-so-famous brother of Paul Lazarus III, director of Westworld & Capricorn One) didn’t itself think far out of the [confession] box, something magical happened in the art direction and cinematography: the use of colour, focus, light, time, sets, costume, and even make-up were all exemplary. For me, watching Stigmata was at times like being artfully collaged to death, machine-gunned with photographically (and geometrically) perfect moments: a tick on a piece of paper, Patricia Arquette lying underwater, a blood drop in a pool, blood being drawn, a blood centrifuge – all elegant, spare, swift, and focused. I highly recommend the film to anyone purely to enjoy its five-star visual treatment.

As a writer myself, however, I think the film’s problems stemmed right from the initial plotting – basically, having a priest-scientist (Gabriel Byrne) investigate the stigmata being suffered by a young atheist-hairdresser (Patricia Arquette) beneath a Vatican conspiracy managed by his control-freak boss (Jonathan Pryce) never worked as a setup for me… all too staged / stagey. The walls between the characters stopped the emotional side of the film from developing in a satisfactory way: I also didn’t much like the St Francis of Assisi (arguably the most famous stigmatic?) resolution, but you’d have to see that for yourself to see if you agree or disagree.

Watching this film a decade on, it feels a bit dated: could it be that the Da Vinci Code (and its flood of [make]-me-[rich]-too ripoffs) made the whole notion of devastating-secrets-that-would-topple-the-Church-were-they-to-be-made-public seem lightweight? And I kept wondering: was Holy Blood Holy Grail ultimately to blame?

Regardless, the film set me thinking about the kind of ur-story towards which Tom Lazarus was reaching, with his ancient Aramaic codex (based loosely on the Coptic Nag Hammadi Gospel of Thomas) triggering high-stakes factional infighting within the Vatican, with the supernatural subtext that The Truth Will Out (even beyond death).

Yes, it’s undoubtedly a cliché: and the overarching literary / cultural template at play is pretty easy to sketch out:-

  • concealed message left by an ancient (implicitly perfected) person, that requires…
  • deciphering and translation by (extremely proficient) domain experts, to expose…
  • long-held lies behind contemporary doctrinal messages, which are supported by…
  • powerful present-day conspiracies trying to maintain the (morally untenable) status quo.

Historically, does this sound familiar? After all, it is not vastly different to the entire back-story of the Renaissance (particularly during the Quattrocento). There, you had people scouring the known world for lost or concealed messages left by the Greco-Roman civilizations, to be deciphered by humanist scholars for their presumed wise (and frequently contrarian) messages.

And so I would argue that HBHG-style searches for enciphered traces of a ‘real Jesus’ are arguably little more than back-projecting our present-day cultural insecurities onto early Renaissance cultural insecurities – their search for lost classical wisdom was no different. One irony, though, is that things like the Turin Shroud (which I blogged about here and here) offer us glimpses of an entirely parallel kind of lost Christian history, far beyond the conceptual reaches of most contemporary conspiracy theorists.

What I personally fail to understand, though, is how this whole wonky ‘enciphered anti-doctrinal message’ meme has managed to endure the centuries as a literary conceit. Even my new best friend François Rabelais satirized this none too subtly in Chapter 1 of Book 1 of his alcohol-obsessed Gargantua and Pantagruel:

The diggers struck with their picks against a great tomb of bronze… Opening the tomb at a certain place which was sealed on the top with the sign of a goblet, around which was inscribed in Etruscan letters, HIC BIBITUR, they found nine flagons, arranged after the fashion of skittles in Gascony; and beneath the middle flagon lay a great, greasy, grand, pretty, little, mouldy book, which smelt more strongly but not more sweetly than roses.

Rabelais goes on to offer (“with much help from my spectacles“) his translation of the “Corrective Conundrums” found in that stinky little tome, all of them nonsensical and presumably meant to resemble some kind of vaguely prophetic quatrain-based literary genre popular in France at the time (Nostradamus fans, take note):-

The year will come, marked with a Turkish bow,
And spindles five and the bottoms of three pots, […]
This age of hocus-pocus shall go on
Until the time when Mars is put in chains

So… even though this concealed-text plot pattern was a hoary old chestnut by 1530, can anyone really explain to me how come it continues to drive a low-brow literary industry nearly five centuries later? For me, the big mystery here centres on the apparent lack of cultural progress: does Dan Brown’s success actually prove that we have learnt practically nothing in half a millennium?

Consider that your cipher mystery for the day… 🙂

What picture might outsiders paint of Cipher Mysteries in their mind? A mid-town apartment filled with books, box-files, printouts, and eBay-bought sofas filled with a continual stream of cipher groupies all surreptitiously hoping to pick up on some innocuous clue to fabulous buried treasure?

Well… that’s presumably fairly close to what the script-writer on The (all-new) Basil Brush Show (on the CBBC channel) sees when he closes his eyes, as you can tell from Episode 7 of Series 6 called “Da Basil Code“, where Basil and his friends go on a Dan Brown-esque cipher scavenger hunt.

It starts with Basil talking about how his family have long sought after the mythical Golden Teacup of Cam-Oh-Mee-Lay (*sigh*), that can give you whatever you wish for; then, Basil’s evil cousin Mortimer just happens to steal the Mona Lisa and bring it to Basil’s flat; someone just happens to spill a cup of tea over poor M’ona, revealing a concealed message in a nearly-lost language; which ditzy Madison just happens to be able to read; which just happens to lead them to a series of clues (such a huge stone sarcophagus that just happens to be in the middle of Madison’s flat) ending in a disused dishwasher in Anil’s cafe. Anil then just happens to be a member of a millennia-spanning secret organization dedicated to guarding the Golden Teacup; but when everyone just happens to wish for too much materialist stuff (as they were warned not to do right from the start), the Golden Teacup breaks. But then they go off on another scavenger hunt (so that’s alright, then).

(Incidentally, every time I watch or read one of these trashy cipher tales, each “just happens” plot device makes my stomach tighten – they’re symptoms of underlying writing laziness.)

Now, I read “Da Basil Code” as a cautionary tail :-), for those Cipher Mysteries readers who just happen to be currently plotting / writing cipher-themed books / screenplays to consider carefully. Look – if this po-faced Da Vinci Code stuff is already clichéed enough to be thoroughly parodied for the viewing pleasure of 5-9 year-olds (and not even at the hands of the Simpsons scriptwriters, who have given us Homer’s talking astrolabe), then might it simply be that the whole scrungy idea has passed its sell-by date?

Not to put a bomb under your best-laid plans, but… boom, boom! 🙂

Perhaps it’s some mysterious side-effect of the Da Vinci Code, but it seems that all of a sudden cipher challenges have become cool again (if they were ever cool before). I did a quick trawl of the Net and came up with this quicky little list, mostly from 2008:-

And so on: please don’t email me any others, this list should be plenty for most people!

It’s been a rollercoaster of a day for me at the Warburg Institute on the Early Modern Research Techniques course, like being given the keys to the world twice but having them taken away three times. I’ll try to explain…

Paul Taylor kicked Day Two’s morning off in fine style, picking up the baton from Francois Quiviger’s drily laconic Day One introduction to all things Warburgian. My first epiphany of the day came on the stairs going up to the Photographic Collection: an aside from Paul (that the institute was “built by a madman”) helped complete a Gestalt that had long been forming in my mind. What I realised was that even though the Warburg’s “Mnemosyne” conceptual arrangement was elegant and useful for a certain kind of inverted historical study, it was actually pathological to that entire mindset. Essentially, it seems to me that you have to be the “right kind of mad” to get 100% from the Warburg: and then you get 100% of what?

(The Warburg Institute is physically laid out unlike any other library: within its grand plan, everything is arranged neither by author, nor by period, nor by anything so useful as an academic discipline, but rather by an arbitrary conceptual scheme evolved to make similar-feeling books sit near each other. It’s not unlike a dating service for obscure German publications, to make sure they keep each other company in their old age.)

My second epiphany arrived not long afterwards. On previous visits, I’d walked straight past the Warburg Photographic Collection, taking its darkness to mean that it was closed or inaccessible: but what a store of treasures it has! My eyes widened like saucers at all the filing cabinets full of photographs of astrological manuscripts. I suddenly felt like I had seen a twin vision of hell and purgatory at the core of the Warburg dream – both its madness and its hopefulness – but had simultaneously been given the wisdom to choose between them.

It was all going so well… until Charles Hope (the Warburg’s director) stepped forward. Now: here was an A* straight-talking Renaissance art historian, sitting close to the beating heart of the whole historical project, who (Paul Taylor assured us) would tell it like it is. But Hope’s message was both persuasive and starkly cynical: that, right from the start, Aby Warburg had got it all wrong. And that even Erwin Panofsky, for all his undeniable erudition, had (by relying on Cesare Ripa’s largely made-up allegorical figures) got pre-1600 iconology wrong too. With only a tiny handful of exceptions, Hope asserted that Renaissance art was eye candy, artful confectionery whipped up not from subtle & learned Latin textual readings (as Warburg believed), but instead from contemporary (and often misleading and false) vulgar translations and interpretations – Valerius Maximus, Conti, Cartari, etc. And so the whole Warburgian art history research programme – basically, studying Neoplatonist ideas of antiquity cunningly embedded in Renaissance works of art – was dead in the water.

To Hope, the past century of interpretative art history formed nothing more than a gigantic house of blank cards, with each card barely capable of supporting its neighbours, but not of carrying any real intellectual weight on top: not unlike Baconian cryptography (which David Kahn calls “enigmatology”). All of which I (unsurprisingly) found deeply ironic, what with Warburg himself and his beloved Institute both being taken apart by the Warburg’s director.

The second step backwards came when I tried to renew my Warburg Institute Reader’s Card: you’re not on the list, you can’t come in. (Curiously, there were already two “Nicholas Pelling“s on their computer system, neither of them me.) It seems that, without direct academic or library affiliation, I’m now unlikely to be allowed access except via special pleading. Please, pleeeease, pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease… (hmmm, doesn’t seem to be working, must plead harder). If I had a spare £680 per year, I’d perhaps become an “occasional student” (but I don’t).

My third (and final) step backwards of the day was when I raced up to the Photographic Collection both during the afternoon tea-break and after the final lecture and had an Internet-speed finger-browse through the astrological images filing cabinets. Though in 20 minutes I saw more primary source material than I would see in a fortnight at the British Library, I ended up disappointed overall. Yes, I saw tiny pictures of a couple of manuscripts I had planned to examine in person next month (which was fantastic): but there didn’t seem to be anything else I wasn’t already aware of. Rembrandt Duits has recently catalogued these mss in a database (though only on his PC at the moment), so perhaps I’ll ask him to do a search for me at a later date…

Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seemed to me that even though old Warburgian/iconological art history is basically dead, the new art history coming through to replace it revolves around precisely the kind of joint textual and stylistic interpretation I’m doing with the Voynich Manuscript, with one eye on the visual sources, and the other on the contemporary textual sources. Yet the problem with this approach is that you have to be an all-rounder, a real uomo universale not to be fooled by spurious (yet critical) aspects along the way. All the same, though I’m no more than an OK historian (and certainly not a brilliant one), I’m now really convinced that I’m looking at a genuinely open question, and that I’m pointing in the right kind of direction to answer it.

Don’t get me wrong, Day Two was brilliant as a series of insightful lectures on the limits and origins of art historical knowledge: but I can’t help but feel that I’ve personally lost something along the way. Yet perhaps my idea of the Warburg was no more than a phantasm, a wishful methodology for plugging into the “strange attractors” beneath the surface of historical fact that turned out to be simply an illusion /delusion: and so all I’ve actually lost is an illusion. Oh well: better to have confident falsity than false confidence, eh?

As a curious aside, for me this whole historical angle on the Warburg also casts a raking light across the “Da Vinci Code”. The book’s main character (Robert Langdon) is a “symbologist”, a made-up word Dan Brown uses to mean “iconologist”: and as such is painted on the raw canvas of the Warburg ‘project’. What cultural archetype is the ultra-erudite, friendly (yet intellectually terrifying) Langdon based upon? A kind of Harvardian Erwin Panofsky? In my mind, the “Da Vinci Code” (and its ‘non-fiction’ forerunner, “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”) both sit astride the ebbing Warburg wave, both whipping at the fading waters: and so the surge of me-too “The [insert marketing keyword here] Code” faux-iconology books and novels is surely Aby Warburg’s last hurrah, wouldn’t you say?

R.I.P. 20th Century Art History: now wash your hands. 🙁