Just a short note to say that I’ve today decided to stop selling physical copies of “The Curse of the Voynich”. I first published it at the end of 2006 (the front page says “v1.0: Emma Vine (Broceto)“, if you want to try decrypting that), and it’s now time for me to leave it to the book collectors and move on. 🙂

Thanks very much to everyone reading this who bought a copy along the way – this helped recoup me some of the money I lost during the six months I worked part-time while I did the research for it. And for those who bought their copy direct from Compelling Press, I really hope you enjoyed your anagrammatic dedication – finding nice anagrams of people’s names was always something I enjoyed doing.

Incidentally, second-hand copies of “Curse” are on sale through bookfinder.com, though at prices ranging from £47 to £2500 (!): I expect the lowest price will rise to around £200 before very long, so anyone here who already has a copy is arguably now a little bit better off. Which is nice (if you’re an accountant). 🙂

Finally: for anyone who would like a copy of “Curse” in the future, please note that I plan to make an ebook version available before long (hopefully later this year). I’ll do my best, but don’t hold your breath waiting for it in the ultra-short term, because publication rights for pictures and quotations always take longer to clear than you’d like. *sigh*.

Just a quick note to let you know that a freshly printed boxful of my book “The Curse of the Voynich” arrived here today, and with shinier covers than ever. 🙂 It is, of course, a perfect last-minute cipher-mystery-related Christmas present (for others or indeed for yourself), so feel free to order a copy (click on the appropriate PayPal-linked Buy Now button at the top there, and off you go).

If you don’t know about my take on the Voynich Manuscript, I’ve posted a 1000-word summary of the book here, part of which was covered in the National Geographic Ancient X-Files half-episode you may have seen (and which YouTube has now taken down). What I like best about “Curse” is that for all the potshots people have tried to take at it, it’s all basically still standing, which – considering that this is a highly-contested field where a typical Voynich theory has a shelf-life of a few days at most – is pretty good going, I think. 🙂

As always, I sign all copies bought direct from the Compelling Press site, and offer the option of adding an anagrammatic dedication at the front: so if your name was (for example) “Leonardo da Vinci”, you could have your copy dedicated to “Vindaloo and Rice” (which remains one of the best anagrams ever, however much you happen to like “Invalided Racoon”).

Incidentally, of all the other books on the Voynich Manuscript out there, I’d strongly recommend Mary D’Imperio’s classic (1976) “An Elegant Enigma”, which is now freely downloadable from the NSA as a PDF. Anyone with an interest in the Voynich Manuscript should read this – even if it is a little bit dated in places, D’Imperio does cover a lot of ground.

…brings you to your knees too? Or ultimately makes you stronger?

In my case, I think the answer is neither: though I’m in some ways delighted that Bangladesh has found a new export market (i.e. hacking WordPress blogs), I do rather wish it hadn’t been at my expense. Anyway, wishing ill on such people is a lot like a beach cursing the sea: and though Cipher Mysteries is now back, it seems sadly inevitable that they and their successors will be back too.

Apart from that, I’ve had a basically lovely summer, with a few book reviews and some new cipher mysteries to write up for here, and lots more plans for Curse 2. Watch this space! 🙂

Back in early 2006, there came a point in my Voynich research when I suddenly realized that I knew enough to set sail. Though I didn’t have all the answers (history is rarely so extravagantly generous), at that moment I could see what happened clearly enough to tell the whole story. That quickly formed into The Curse of the Voynich, which took me a little over six months to research & write, and which I’ve had fun self-publishing and selling ever since.

Over the last few days, I’ve come to realize that I’ve now hit precisely the same point in my more recent research, and so am ready to tell an even bigger cipher mystery story. It has lots of faces and places Voynich researchers will find familiar, but plays out on a much grander historical stage. For now, let’s just call it “Curse 2”.

For Curse 1, I freely admit I was neither an experienced enough writer to give the story the treatment it deserved, nor a big enough fish for literary agents to be interested in. But fast forward to 2012 and the picture is quite different: loads of people have bought my book, 900+ blog posts have sharpened up my writing, and I’ve even been on TV. 😉

But this leaves me in a bit of a quandary.

For example, part of me thinks I should get an agent and negotiate a deal with a big publishing house – I’ve got a great story (not too technical, mind) to tell that is universal enough to stand an excellent chance of going into lots of languages and markets, making a right proper splash. However, I’ve heard that royalty advances for writers have basically gone all homeopathic, particularly if you don’t happen to already be a Named Celebrity. 🙁

Another part of me thinks I should take Curse 2 to the point of publication and only then do a deal with a publisher: I loved the cover Alian Design did for Curse 1 (even if it did blow the budget), so I have enough publishing experience to present that as a complete package. But if I can self-fund it that far, why not then go all the way?

A yet third part of me thinks I should abandon print completely and publish direct to Kindle and other e-readers, i.e. not bother with mainstream publishers but find a neat book PR company to help me get the word out big stylee. And when that’s a big enough success, only then take the print route. Incidentally, while reading a lady’s Kindle over her shoulder today (Fifty Shades of Grey, the bit about horse tranquilizers in the van? But I digress!) on the train, I noticed that there were more e-readers on view than actual books. It’s certainly reached a kind of Kindle-y tipping point in London now, it would seem.

(Though I would add that I went through all kind of hassle trying to port Curse 1 back onto a Kindle, and ultimately gave up because the pictures came out so abysmally. Perhaps doing the Kindle version first would make the print version much easier to do?)

The fourth option I thought of was to instead write it as a screenplay, and sell it to Hollywood: certainly I can see John Cusack in the title role, with Hilary Swank as his pregnant ex-army wife, and Judi Dench as his insane mother… but I’m digressing again. 🙂

Basically, I’m asking you this: what direction should I go in with Curse 2 All comments, hints, suggestions, agents’ contacts and fifth options gratefully received! Thanks! 🙂

Much as you’d expect, YouTube user weasel6666 (not me, not even slightly!) has uploaded WAGtv’s “Ancient X-Files” Series 2 Episode 4 “Sodom and Gomorrah” episode that aired on National Geographic UK only a couple of days ago. If you fast forward to 22:00, you can see the Voynich Manuscript half, which is loosely based on reprising the research I did for my 2006 book “The Curse of the Voynich” (copies still available, very reasonable postage rates, etc).

Even if you’re one of the many who don’t agree with my art history conclusions (but given that you’ll all get there in the end, I’m cool with that 🙂 ), enjoy the historical ride to Venice and Milan, and have a look-see at all the fabulous things I was able to get to for the first time, thanks to the magic of having a film crew filming my every damn move for a week. 🙂

I think it’s fair to say that the WAG team recorded enough footage for a 2-hour special and then tried to edit it down into a 22 minute half-episode slot: which in a curious way is a fair representation of my book, which similarly should probably have worked through its material at a far more leisurely pace (say, over 500 pages) than jammed into 230 pages.

But all the same… how was it for you? Leave your comments below…

Today’s New York Times has a short article by John Markoff on the Copiale Cipher, the oculist secret society initiatory document recently cracked by Kevin Knight, Beáta Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer. I discussed it in reasonable depth on this blog a few days ago, click there if you want to know more.

I do suspect that there must be hundreds of uncracked ciphers like the Copiale Cipher (though typically much smaller) languishing in <cliche>dusty European archives</cliche>, so it would be excellent to give people a chance to crack them (not just Kevin Knight & his student cadre 🙂 ).

So, archivists of the world, email me scans of your uncracked ciphers, let’s see what cipher mysteries we can crack together!

PS: before I forget, The Curse of the Voynich should finally be back on sale next week, so when it’s in I’ll email a reminder to those people who have asked to buy a copy. At £9.95, it’s far cheaper than the £32.79, £171.98, and £270.46 quoted on Amazon Marketplace! =:-o

I’ve just watched the National Geographic / Naked Science documentary on the Voynich Manuscript, courtesy of a Stateside friend (thanks!). Regular Cipher Mysteries readers will already know how my review of it is supposed to go – ‘that, despite a few inaccuracies, it was great to see the Voynich Manuscript being brought to a popular audience‘.

But actually, the whole thing made me utterly furious: it was like watching yourself being airbrushed out of a family photograph. Let me get this straight: I researched the history like crazy, reasoned my way to the mid-15th century, stuck my neck out by writing the first properly new book on the Voynich for 30 years, talked with the documentary producers, sent lists of Voynich details for them to look at, got asked to fly out to Austria (though they later withdrew that at the last minute without explanation), kept confidences when asked, etc.

And then, once the film-makers got the radiocarbon dating in their hands, my Milan/Venice Averlino/Filarete theory became the last man standing (Voynich theory-wise). So why did it not get even a passing mention, when just before the end, they thought to edit in a map of Northern Italy with swallowtail-merloned castles and the narrator starts (apropros of nothing) to wonder what will be found in the archives “between Milan and Venice”. Perhaps I’m just being a bit shallow here, but that did feel particularly shabby on their part.

However pleased I am for Edith Sherwood that her Leonardo-made-the-Voynich-so-he-did nonsense merited both screentime and an angelic child actor pretending to be young Leonardo, the fact remains that it was guff before the radiocarbon dating (and arguably double guff afterwards): while much the same goes for all the Dee/Kelly hoax rubbish, which has accreted support more from its longstandingness than anything approaching evidence.

Perhaps the worst thing is that we’re all now supposed to bow down to the radiocarbon dating and start trawling the archives for candidates in the 1404-1438 timeframe. Yet even Rene Zandbergen himself has supplied the evidence for a pretty convincing terminus post quem: MS Vat Gr 1291 was completely unknown in Italy before being bought by Bartolomeo Malipiero as Bishop of Brescia, and so its stylistics could not sensibly have influenced the Voynich before 1457. In fact, 1465 – when the manuscript was carried from Brescia to Rome and became much better known – might even be a more sensible TPQ. And that’s without the cipher alphabet dating (post-1455 or so) and the parallel hatching dating (post-1440 if Florence, post-1450 if elsewhere in Italy).

And I’ll leave you with another thought: a couple of seconds after hearing the Beinecke’s Paula Zyats say “I don’t see any corrections”, the following image got edited in – a part of the f17r marginalia that looks to my eyes precisely like an emendation.

Voynich Manuscript f17r marginalia

Really, what am I supposed to think? *sigh*

Art historians have long debated whether or not dissatisfied architect Antonio Averlino made the trip from Italy to Constantinople in 1465: one of the key pieces of evidence supporting the notion is the letter of recommendation written in Greek by Averlino’s old friend Filelfo (the humanist writer and Hellenophile) and addressed to George Amirutzes (Mehmed II’s personal tutor).

This is one of those things that is often referred to fleetingly (such as in my book “The Curse of the Voynich”), but rarely substantively: so I wondered if I could track it down. Handily, Valentina Vulpi’s dissertation had a mini-bibliography for it in footnote 148 on p.47, which directs you to:

  • Finoli & Grassi’s (1972) Italian translation of the libro architettonico, p.XXXIX (in the introduction)
  • Emil Louis Jean Legrand’s (1892) “Cent-dix lettres grecques de Francois Filelfe“, p.120
  • Lavino Agostinelli’s (1899) “Lettere volgarizzate dal greco“, p.86.

Handily, it turns out that Legrand’s book is accessible through Gallica, and here’s a link to the page where the letter transcription begins. The French translation (which you only need a GCSE in Franglais to read) of the Greek goes:-

“Le porteur de la présente lettre, Antoine Averulino, est un homme de bien en même temps qu’un de mes meilleurs amis. C’est pourquoi, en vertu de vieux proverbe, je te le recommande comme étant mon ami, devant être le tien, se trouver ainsi l’ami commun de deux personnes intimeme liées l’une à l’autre. Averulino connaît à merveille une foule d’excellentes choses et est un architecte de très grand talent. Il se rend à Constantinople dans l’unique intention de voir le pays. Tu me feras un sensible plaisir, si tu daignes l’accuellir avec amabilité et lui témoigner toute l’affection que tu as pour moi-même. Porte-toi bien.”

i.e. “He [Averlino] is going to Constantinople with the sole intention of seeing the country” (rather than working as an architect there). However, the last direct record we have of Averlino is from 16th August 1465:

Coram prefatis dominis stipulantibus nomine hospitalis . . . Magister Antonius Florentinus Inzignerius et architector h[ospitalis] novi et magni, cum salario mensuali florinorum XX vigore litterarum ducalium et conventionis per eum habente cum d[ictis] deputatis prout contra in libro conclusionum, liberali annuo et illari vultu manifesta dixit, quod ipso habente solutionem eius quod habere debet ab hospitale ab hodie retro quod eius intentio est, et ita deliberat a modo in antea, quidquid non petere nec habere a dicto hospitale omnis predicti sui salarij, vigore dictarum litterarum et conventionis nec alio jure et predicta atenta inhobilitate [!] hospitalis. Et quod se in futurum fabricari continget in hospitali, quod amore benevolo visitarit laboreria, et nichil pro mercede petet, nisi prout fuerit dispositione dominorum tunc deputatorum.”

Filelfo knew Averlino from at least 1447, when he wrote another letter of recommendation from Milan, this time to Antonio Trebano and dated 26th February 1447: this is discussed in Lazzaroni & Muñoz’s (1908) monograph on Filarete p.110-111, and transcribed in note 26 of Oettingen’s (1888) “Über das leben und die werke des Antonio Averlino: genannt Filarete“, which is available online here. Just to save you the trouble of clicking, Oettingen’s transcription (p.55 of the original, or p.70 of the PDF) reads:-

Francisci Philelfi Epistolarum familiarium libri XXXVII etc., Venetiis 1502, Liber Quintus, fol. 39 v:

Franciscus philelfus. Antonio trebano. sal. – Antonius florentinus, fictor et excussor egregius, aeque tempestate nostra atque praxitelen apud priscos memorant copanve aut phidian aliquem, et te diligit plurimum et mihi est carissimus. Itaque a me petiit, ut te in familiaritatem benevolentiamque acciperem, quippe qui mei studiosissimus sis. Cupere enim se non secus suos amicos omnes fieri meos atque ipse est. Quare ut et homini amicissimo et humanitatis officio satisfacerem, iccirco hasce litteras ad te dedi, ut tibi perpetuo testes essent singularis dilectionis erga te meae. Vale – Ex Mediolano . IIII . Kal . Mart . MCCCC XLVII.”

Fascinatingly, Francesco Filelfo also wrote a later letter to the Sforza ambassador Nicodemo Tranchedini in Florence (on 1st Feb 1466), asking him to pass on a letter to their mutual friend “Antonio architecto“: this is Riccardiana di Firenze MS 834, and is discussed by Maria Beltramini in a 1996 article (which I unfortunately haven’t seen). From this, it seems reasonable to infer not only that Filelfo did indeed expect Averlino to be back from the East within a few months, but also that Averlino had told his old friend he would be returning directly to Florence.

However, there the archival trail goes cold: we don’t have any record of a response from Tranchedini back to Filelfo, though it is entirely possible that such exists – Tranchedini certainly streamed a good volume of enciphered messages back to Francesco Sforza during his many years in Florence, and I don’t know to what extent the remains of these in the Milanese archives have been mined for information.

So… did Averlino make the trip? The only record we have of him past this date is Vasari’s claim that he had allegedly died in Rome in 1469 (and Vasari has proved notoriously unreliable on matters of specific detail). Still… there aren’t any alternative claims, so it seems likely he did die in Italy. There is some contested evidence that places Averlino briefly in Constantinople around this time, so there has to be a reasonably good chance he did make the two-way trip. Everyone seems to be waiting for some slightly more conclusive evidence to surface… but will that ever happen?

Having said that, there are two Quattrocento diaries from Rome that allegedly mention Averlino (but neither of which I’ve yet seen):

  • Iannotii Manetti De vita ac gestis Nicolai quinti summi pontificis, a cura di A. Modigliani, Roma 2005 (Fonti per la Storia dell’Italia Medievale – RIS3, 6) – page 80.
  • La mesticanza di Paolo di Lello Petrone, a cura di F. Isoldi, Città di Castello 1910-1912 (RIS2, 24/2), pp. 1-63 – page 59.

Might these hold a clue? Possibly… (but probably not, alas).

In the last few days, several people have independently asked me to summarize my “The Curse of the Voynich” Voynich Manuscript theory (that it is an enciphered copy of Antonio Averlino [Filarete]’s lost books of secrets). Good theories generally improve when you retell them a few times: for example, back when I was first pitching my new type of security camera [i.e. my day job], it would take me about an hour to explain how it worked, but now it takes me about a minute. So… can I condense 230 pages from 2006 into a thousand words in 2010? Here goes…

The first part of my art history argument places the VMs in Milan after 1456 but before about 1480, and with some kind of architectural link to Venice:-

  • “Voynichese” uses a “4o” verbose cipher pair (but not as Arabic digit pairs, i.e not 10/20/30/40). This appears in North Italian / Milanese ciphers dating from 1440 to 1456 and is linked with the Sforzas, yet here forms part of a more sophisticated cipher system. This points to a post-1456 dating, locates it in Northern Italy (specifically Milan), and links it somehow with the Sforza court.
  • One of the rosettes in the nine-rosette page contains a castle with swallow-tail merlons and circular city walls. However, the only towns traditionally depicted with circular walls are Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Milan, of which Milan is the only one in Italy. Therefore, I conclude that this is probably Milan.
  • Also, the Sforza castle in Milan only had swallow-tail merlons after 1450. This gives a probable earliest date & place for the VMs of (say) 1451 in Milan.
  • Late in the 15th century, swallow-tail merlons were covered over to protect the defenders from flaming projectiles. This gives a probable latest date for the VMs of 1480-1500.
  • I argue that the central rosette shows a (slightly scrambled) view of St Mark’s Basilica as viewed from the Campanile beside it, linking the author of the VMs with Venice.

The second part highlights (what I consider to be) very close parallels between the VMs and the “little works” of secrets mentioned by Antonio Averlino in the later phases of his libro architettonico (but which have been presumed lost or imaginary), and which he compiled between 1455 and 1465.

  • The subjects of Averlino’s lost little books were: water (spas), agriculture, engines, recipes, glass-making, and bees.
  • I think Quire 13 depicts water – both spas and plumbing machinery / engines
  • I think that Herbal A pages are agriculture (grafting, herbiculture, etc)
  • I think that Herbal B pages contain engines (but visually enciphered to resemble strange plants). I also suspect that Averlino was the author of the lost mid-Quattrocento “Machinery Complex” manuscript postulated by Prager and Scaglia.
  • I think f86v3 specifically depicts bees (Curse pp.138-140)
  • After publishing my book, I discovered that Averlino did indeed have his own herbal, written “elegantly in the vernacular tongue

The third part outlines what I suspect was Averlino’s opportunity and motive for creating the VMs, based on well-documented historical sources (plus a few specific inferences):-

  • Antonio Averlino was interested in cryptography, specifically in transposition ciphers. His libro architettonico partly fictionalizes himself and many of the people around the Sforza by syllable-reversing their names – for example, his own name becomes “Onitoan Nolivera“.
  • Averlino was friends with the powerful cryptographer Cicco Simonetta, who ran the Sforza Chancellery: when Averlino suddenly left Milan in 1465, he left his affairs and claims for back pay in Simonetta’s hands.
  • Disenchanted by his experience of working for Francesco Sforza, Averlino planned to travel from Milan across Europe to work in the new Turkish court in Istanbul – his friend Filelfo drafted a letter of introduction for him.
  • I infer (from the peculiarly intentional damage done to the signature panel of his famous doors in Rome) that Averlino travelled to Rome in the Autumn of 1465, perhaps even with the party travelling from Brescia with what is now known as MS Vat Gr 1291.
  • I also infer (from a close reading of Leon Battista Alberti’s small book on ciphers) that an unnamed expert in transposition ciphers debated cryptography practice in detail with Alberti in late 1465, and I suspect that this expert was Averlino, who would surely have sought out his fellow Florentine humanist architect while in Rome.
  • Some art historians have put forward particular evidence that suggests Averlino did indeed travel to Istanbul around this time to work on some buildings there.
  • However, this happened not long after the notorious incident when Sigismondo Malatesta’s favourite painter Matteo de’ Pasti was arrested in the Venetian-owned port of Candia in Crete. His crime was attempting to take a copy of Roberto Valturio’s book on war machines “De Re Militari” to the Turks, punished by being hauled back in chains to Venice for interrogation by the Council of Ten.
  • Though not always 100% reliable, Giorgio Vasari asserts that Antonio Averlino died in Rome in 1469: so there is good reason to conclude that if Averlino did indeed travel East, he (like his old friend George of Trebizond) probably travelled back to Italy before very long.
  • Overall, my claim is that if Averlino made (or tried to make) the dangerous trip East in 1465 and wanted to take his books of secrets (which, remember, contained drawings of engines just like “De Re Militari”) along with him, he would need to devise a daring way of hiding them in plain sight. But how?

The fourth part of my argument describes how I think Averlino trickily enciphered his books of secrets to make them seem to be sections of a medieval herbal / antidotary written in a lost language. However, given that this section is extraordinarily complicated and I’m rapidly closing in on my thousand-word limit, I’ll have to call a halt at this point. 🙂

Three years after committing all this to print, I still stand by (pretty much) every word. Obviously, it’s a tad annoying that the recent radiocarbon dating doesn’t fit this narative perfectly: but historical research (when you do it properly) is always full of surprises, right? We’ll have to see what the next few months bring…

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all!

Today’s brief news is that 100 copies of “The Curse of the Voynich” have just arrived from the printers, so those 20-odd people who ordered one from Amazon this month should be receiving it by the New Year (post willing). Alternatively, if you’d like your own shiny signed copy, order one via PayPal using the “Buy Now” [UK, Europe, R.O.W.] buttons at the top of the Compelling Press book page, let me know by email, and I’ll add a suitable anagram on the front page for you. 🙂