When I was writing “The Curse of the Voynich” a decade ago, my friend Philip Neal very kindly translated Cicco Simonetta’s Treatise on Decipherment (BNF Fonds Italien 1595 ff. 441r-442r) into English for me. This was a huge help, because this is one of the few accounts of fifteenth century code-breaking we have.

With Philip’s permission, I posted this onto the Cipher Foundation website earlier this year: it’s a straight-down-the-line, properly accurate translation.

But all the same, the source document is – as indeed is most writing of the period – somewhat verbose. So I thought it would be useful to extract the core details of what Simonetta’s document is describing and to then re-present them in a more modern idiom.

So here’s a very much stripped-down modern version. Enjoy!

Cicco Simonetta’s Treatise on Decipherment

(1) If the words in a ciphertext have five or less different word endings, the plaintext is probably Italian (or if not, then it’s Latin). Alternatively, look at all the single-letter words: Latin normally has only one kind (‘a’), but Italian tends to have more.
(2) If the ciphertext has many two- or three-letter words, the plaintext is probably Italian.
(3) If the plaintext is Italian, then you already know what letters are vowels (because they’re the last letters of words). If one of these often appears as a single-letter word, it’s probably ‘e’.
(4) Two letter words in Italian very often begin with ‘l’: lo / la / li / le.
(5) The most common three letter word in Italian is ‘che’.
(6) However, if the plaintext is Latin, the letters that appear at the end of words are vowels, s, m, or t. (Apart from ab, ad, and quod, which are very common).
(7) In Latin plaintexts, single-letter words are normally ‘a’ (but possibly e, i, or o).
(8) In Latin letters, the most common two-letter words are et ut ad si me te and se. Less common A fuller list of two letter words would be: ab ac ad an and at; da de and do; ea ei eo et ex and es; he hi id ii in ir is and it; me mi na ne and ni; ob os re se and si; tu te ue ui and ut.
(9) Latin three-letter words where the first letter is the same as the third are: ala, ama, ara, ede, eme, ere, ehe, ixi, iui.
(10) Any Latin letter that appears three times in a row within a word is ‘u’, as in ‘uvula’. [Though Simonetta writes ‘mula’]
(11) Latin letters that appear doubled, and particularly in four-letter words, are probably ‘ll’ or ‘ss’, e.g. esse and ille.
(12) A final rule that holds true for both Italian and Latin: if you see a letter that is always followed by only one possible other letter, then this is ‘q’ followed by ‘u’: moreover, the letter following the ‘u’ will be a vowel.

However, these codebreaking rules can be defeated in many ways, e.g. using a mix of Italian and Latin; inserting nulls, particularly into one-, two-, or three-letter words; by using a mixture of two completely different cipher alphabets; and by using an extra cipher for ‘qu’.

Klaus Schmeh, a German encryption professional who over the last couple of years has become increasingly fascinated by the cipher mystery of the Voynich Manuscript, has just been interviewed by the sparky skeptics at Righteous Indignation for their Episode #76 – Klaus’ VMs section runs from 25:50 to 45:45, and gives a fairly pragmatic introduction to the Voynich Manuscript. This was prompted by his Voynich talk at the 14th European Skeptics Conference in Budapest earlier this year (2010).

In fact, it’s quite revealing to see how far he has come from a 2008 German skeptic conference he also talked at (discussed here) [where he fell in behind the mainstream 16th century hoax position] and a 2008 article he wrote (which I reviewed here): it’s nice to see that he’s moved from seeing pretty much everything Voynichese as a combination of pseudoscience and pseudohistory to a rather more nuanced (and realistic) position.

But all the same, looking forward, to where should Voynich skepticism go from here? From what we now know, I’d say there are no obvious grounds for a hardcore skeptical position any more – the vellum seems genuinely old, with the ink freshly written on it, and the radiocarbon dating broadly meshing with the kind of evidence I’ve been working on for the last 5+ years, vis-à-vis:

  • The ‘4o’ verbose pair’s brief appearance in various Northern Italian cipher keys 1440-1456 (see The Curse Of The Voynich pp.175-179)
  • The parallel hatching which I suspect pretty much forces a post-1440 date if it was made in Italy, or post-1410 if Germany
  • The two 15th century hands in the marginalia which pretty much force a pre-1500 date for the VMs
  • Sergio Toresella’s very specific dating claim, based on his lifetime with herbal manuscripts – that it was made in Northern Italy (probably Milan or the Venice region) around 1460

The swallow-tail merlons on the two castle walls (on the nine-rosette page) that Klaus mentioned in the podcast have actually been debated for at least a decade: although these don’t prove that the Voynich Manuscript was constructed in Northern Italy (where they were an unmissable feature of many castles), they clearly do help to shift the balance of probability that way away from Germany (the #2 candidate region).

And I suppose this is where all this is going: by carefully combining all these pieces together, we can now try to think about the Voynich in terms of probabilities. Even if you discount my Antonio Averlino hypothesis, I don’t honestly mind being what I call “the right kind of wrong” – i.e. looking in the right culture, place, and time, but perhaps finding a false positive to match a very specific forensic profile. Just so you know, I’d currently rate the likelihood of the VMs’s origin’s being Northern Italy at ~80%, Savoy ~10%, Germany ~5%, and anywhere else ~5%.

Hence, if someone were to tell me tomorrow that they’d just uncovered a fifteenth century letter clearly describing the Voynich Manuscript as having been written by Giovanni Fontana, Cicco Simonetta, Brunelleschi, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Leon Battista Alberti, or any one of the hundreds of other desperately clever Northern Italian polymaths who were right there at the birth of the Renaissance, I’d be utterly delighted: for I think that is the cultural milieu linking pretty much all the strands of tangible (as opposed to merely suggestive) evidence to date.

The notions that we know nothing about the VMs and/or that it is somehow destined to be proven a meaningless hoax are not ‘skeptical’ in the true sense of the word: rather, they are postmodernist non-positions, uncritical ‘meh‘s in the face of the interconnected mass of subtle – but nonetheless tangible – historical evidence VMs researchers have carefully accumulated. In the case of the Voynich Manuscript, I think the real “beliefs that are taken for granted by most of the population” at which skeptics should be pointing their weapons of mass deconstruction are not this kind of painstakingly-assembled gear-train, but the widely-disseminated (and utterly fallacious) claim that the VMs is a 16th century hoax for financial gain.

In a way, this would turn Klaus’ own skeptical research chain back on itself – and in so doing would hopefully set him free. “More Schmeh, less meh“, eh? 🙂

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…

It’s been an interesting day: Edith Sherwood’s Voynich website got Slashdotted – given that Cipher Mysteries picked up 4900 visitors from that tsunami of geeky clicks, edithsherwood.com itself must have had (say) 30000 or more.

And then (just now), ORF released a teaser press release for next week’s “DAS VOYNICH-RÄTSEL” documentary to their (German-language) website. So, the real big news of the day is that the Austrian film-makers are certain that the VMS is even older than previously thought (though they don’t say by how much, or in comparison to which theory). The page says that they also took a number of ink and paint samples for analysis, and examined a number of key sections under UV light for erasures / emendations (all of which is good, exactly the kind of thing I hoped they’d do).

And here’s a site which is even more specific as to the date range and place revealed by the documentary: that it was made between 1404 and 1438 (in the “flat” part of the radiocarbon dating curve, hence the tight range), and in Northern Italy (probably or certainly?). Prepare yourself for the massed onslaught of Voynich doubters to disagree…

So, might the VMs actually turn out to be by Cicco Simonetta in his early days in the Sforza roving Chancellery? Marcello Simonetta would be pleased, but it’s still early days (I thought I’d be the first to mention it)…

PS: is it just me, or can anyone else still hear Steve Ekwall saying “It’S oLdEr ThAn YoU tHiNk“?

UPDATE: see the follow-up post “Voynich Manuscript – the state of play” for more on the Austrian documentary

Once upon a time, when I was trying to research the cryptographic history of Sforza Milan 1450-1500, it became painfully obvious that I had to build up a proper understanding of Francesco Sforza’s chancellor Cicco Simonetta: more than just a ‘gatekeeper’ or even a ‘lynchpin’, Simonetta was the very lintel above the door, the central architectural feature silently and powerfully holding the whole enterprise together.

However, for the most part histories have tended to treat Simonetta as a marginal figure, as if he was simply some gouty old henchman beavering away in the Sforza family’s shadows. Only when contemporary historians (Evelyn Welch perhaps most famously, but there are now quite a few others) began relentlessly chiselling away at the Sforza propaganda facade did Cicco become foregrounded as a useful object of study.

Despite my efforts to collate what fleeting references to Cicco I could find, he remained an elusive figure. But then I found a relatively unknown book in Italian called “Rinascimento Segreto: Il mondo del Segretario da Petrarca a Machiavelli” (2004) by Marcello Simonetta: chapters III and V covered the key people & period I was particularly interested in. The author’s surname is no coincidence: when Marcello went to Yale in 1995, his professor from the palaeography class (the very excellent Vincent Ilardi) “immediately suggested that [he] write a biography of [his] ancestor Cicco Simonetta“. Poignantly, Marcello had been born in a hospital in Pavia “only a few yards from where Cicco Simonetta was imprisoned at the end of his long life.

I should have been delighted: but my Italian comprehension has only ever been tourist-plus, and “Rinascimento Segreto” was written in (to me) full-on academese. Yet even though reading it was a hard, hard slog, it really did have everything I needed to build up a fuller picture, as well as plenty on other related stuff (such as the Visconti, the Pazzi conspiracy, Roberto da Sanseverino, Filfelfo, and so forth). In many ways, Simonetta’s book was one of the ten or so key texts that substantially contributed to my research back then.

Since then, Marcello has been busy digging further trenches within the same Quattrocento patchwork of fields. Most notably, in 2001 he uncovered (in the Ubaldini family archive in Urbino) an enciphered letter from Federico da Montefeltro to his envoys in Rome, dating from 14th February 1478 – a mere ten weeks before the Pazzi conspiracy attack on Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici. Marcello had already accumulated plenty of material implicating Federico in the whole plot: and so wondered whether this letter might be connected…

During 2002 or 2003, he therefore decided to see if he could break the letter’s cipher using only the set of “Regule” (rules) famously written down by Cicco Simonetta in his diary: these described how to break unknown ciphertexts. “After a few weeks of hard work“, Marcello was finally able to decipher it: and it revealed, just as he had inferred from other documents, that Federico da Montefeltro had indeed been utterly involved with the whole plot against the Medicis. Marcello published his results in the well-respected Archivio Storico Italiano: but it was not historians who responded in 2004, but the world’s media, bringing him a small measure of international fame: in 2005, a documentary even came out on the History Channel describing Marcello’s story.

Fast forward to 2008, and here’s Marcello’s brand new popular history book “The Montefeltro Conspiracy“, which does everything you’d expect: it tells the interlinked stories of Cicco Simonetta, Gian Galeazzo Sforza, Federico da Montefeltro, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Pope Sixtus IV, and the whole Pazzi conspiracy (and the subsequent Pazzi war), particularly focusing on the political machinations from 1476 to 1482, together with the story of the ciphered letter.

Well, that’s the making-of-the-book covered, the kind of human-interest story PR people love to feed to tame journalists (not that I’ve received a single PR release to date, let alone a review copy of anything): but what is the book actually like?

For the first 50 pages, I have to say that I really didn’t enjoy the book. To me they read like 19th century jut-jawed Italian popular histories, such as Count Pier Desiderio Pasolini’s “Catherine Sforza“. Even though I happened to love that book, it’s really not something that could be sensibly released nowadays, because sensibilities and presentation styles have moved on so far: modern history is so much better than that.

All the same, beyond that point, Marcello progressively got into the swing of it: and by about page 150, he had really got the measure of the material and the pacing, and his story was really flying. Yet the very final section appended to the structure (where he proposes a link between Botticelli’s uber-famous “La Primavera“, his “Punishment of Korah” (the fifth fresco on the walls of the Sistine chapel), and the whole Medici-Pazzi thing) just doesn’t work at all (sorry); and so the whole book ends on a bit of an historical down note, which is a shame.

Having tried my own hand at writing an accessible historical account of the mid-Quattrocento (and it is a far harder challenge than it looks), I’d put the lull of the first 50 pages down to popular writing inexperience on Simonetta’s part (trust me, he can do full-on academese just fine): so in the end, I’d still recommend his book overall as a good piece of historical writing on a fascinating era.

As an aside, an article last week by Juliet Gardiner in the Sunday Times eulogizing contemporary British historians (almost to the point of hagiography, it should be said) also criticized European historians’ writing for being too polarized between high and low culture:-

“[Richard] Evans makes the point that, on the Continent, the divide between academic and popular history is far deeper. Elsewhere in Europe, history is seen as a social science (Wissenschaft), so it tends to be written in ‘high academese’, a theoretical, technical style that is all but impenetrable to all but the committed specialist. In Britain, history is seenas a branch of literature, rather than science, and the tradition of writing narratic, empirical history, often with an emphasis on biography, provides a vivid ‘story’ that can be appreciated by the educated reader.”

I would say that “The Montefeltro Code” amply demonstrates of all these historiographical trends: yet I do look forward to further historical books by Simonetta, particularly as his popular writing style continues to improve (as it undoubtedly will).

However, when considering his book as a piece of cryptographic writing, I have a whole heap of issues. Despite the huge influence of the Da Vinci Code on the publishing trade, there are very few recent books that could genuinely qualify as both historical and cryptographic non-fiction (Simonetta’s “The Montefeltro Code” and my book “The Curse of the Voynich” are pretty much the only two I can think of right now), as long as you put the torrent of titles on the whole Enigma / Bletchley Park thing to one side.

In this context, Simonetta would have been aware that cryptography historians would take a keen interest in his book, and should therefore have checked his work accordingly. Unfortunately, this seems not to have happened.

I’ll give some immediate examples from p.26. Though his mention of “the insecure roads of Europe” is true for most cipher dispatches, my understanding is that Sforza cipher dispatches were (according to Francesco Senatore) folded up inside a littera clausa, powerfully deterring anyone from even trying to peek inside. In each cipher, Marcello says “there were about 250 random symbols, which stood for single, double, and triple characters“: actually, they stood for single letters, doubled letters, and nulls, as well as some common short words, and occasionally common consonant-vowel or vowel-consonent pairs. In fact, Cicco Simonetta’s Regule pointed out that the only Latin word with a tripled letter is “uvula” (egg), making this an even more obvious mistake (even though Cicco himself seems to have miscopied this as “mula“). “Some fifty other[ symbol]s designated people or powers“: actually, this number varied widely. “Every few months, the sets were completely changed“: I don’t think this is true at all – Tristano Sforza’s cipher was changed only after about 15 years in use, and only because of Tristano’s petulance (his old cipher wasn’t ornate enough for his position) rather than any cryptographic need. In fact, as far as I know, the only Milanese cipher of the period that was updated much was the one to Tranchedino in Florence… and so on.

All very minor and (frankly) unnecessary: but it is Marcello’s claims relating to Federico da Montefeltro’s ciphered letter that require the most careful scrutiny. In a recent email, Augusto Buonafalce flagged to me that Marcello had not made it transparently clear how he had decoded the nomenclator (the list of people/place/etc, each represented by a single symbol): and that this was central to whether his deciphering claim was cryptologically valid or not.

Certainly, when Simonetta first published his findings in 2003, he had (though this is not made clear anywhere) only guessed at the “persons and powers” code-table section of the nomenclator: many of these symbols appear in the two pages he reproduced (for example, you can see instances of c24, j6, p1, p2, p12, r1 dotted around the page). In January 2004, I suggested to him that he should examine the Urbinate Lat. 998 cipher ledger (held in the Vatican), which contains various Urbino ciphers, and pointed out that, from what I had seen, it seemed to be common practice in Urbino to reuse & extend codebooks rather than to create entirely new ones. When Marcello had a look at Urb. Lat. 998 in the summer of 2004, he was pleasantly surprised to find two symbols reused from a (then ten-year-old) cipher codebook: yet the remainder were still educated guesses on his part. Though he included two small images of the “Montefeltro Codebook” on p.91 (but with no folio reference), these are not at the level of cryptographic proof that would satisfy a Cryptologia readership: his code-table cracks were based more far on historical inferences than on cryptography.

Though Marcello took several weeks to break the cipher, it should also be pointed out that this was because Cicco’s rules were simplistic (and, I suspect, hardly ever used in practice): had Marcello passed his transcription to a cryptologer, it would probably have yielded up its secrets in mere minutes – code-table aside, it was a very simple cipher.

Ultimately, the irony of the situation is that the Sforza camp (and specifically Cicco Simonetta, I argued in my book) had provided the Montefeltro camp with far better ciphers than this since the 1440s: yet because Federico was now moving his loyalty away from Milan, the new cipher his administrators created for him was far simpler – but one unknown to his former allies.

All this points towards what I found so maddeningly annoying about “The Montefeltro Code”: that neither the cryptological methodology nor the cryptographical history were treated fairly and in context. In the end, the book presents a good historical rendering of a fascinating period with only a light dusting of crypto confetti on the surface – much as I liked its historical side (and would indeed have walked across broken glass to get a copy of it when writing my book), anyone hoping for a brilliant synthesis of that with cryptography may well come away disappointed.

A copy of Marcello Simonetta’s new book “The Montefeltro Conspiracy” (2008) has just arrived in the post (I first mentioned it here). I must admit to being a bit excited, as he covers a lot of ground I’d had to wade slowly through in the Italian sources when writing my own book – Cicco Simonetta, Francesco Sforza, the death of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Italian cryptography – as well as the fascinating web of intrigue and treachery threaded through so many of the condottieri and(mainly Florentine) princes which forms the book’s focus.

Really, it’s the kind of book I aspired to in “The Curse“: a historical account of the politics of cryptography (though the cryptography aspect here is fairly light by comparison). And, quite unexpectedly, Marcello cites my book (though admittedly only in the endnote to p.24 – but hey, it’s in the bibliography too, every little citation helps).

Even at a glance, it’s obvious that his book is well illustrated, with even some nice pictures of the Urbino intarsia I mentioned here only a few days ago. But I’m getting way ahead of myself now: I have to go away and read it ASAP so that I can post a proper review here…

Once upon a time, history was a really hard subject to enjoy: a dreary rollcall of [macho/loser] kings and [powerful/scheming] queens, endlessly (a) conspiring against other, (b) fighting expensive wars where both sides tended to lose, and/or (c) endlessly frittering extorted tax money on self-glorifying monuments masquerading as high culture.

Then along came a new generation of “social historians”, who despised the superficial cheesiness of relying on historical records left by the victors, and wanted instead to read “history from below“. To do this, they sought out “authentic” (i.e. non-propagandized) documents to try to give a voice to ordinary people through the centuries and so reconstruct histories of the mundane, the plebeian – the salt rather than the spice.

Of course, each of these two kinds of history is no more or less a lie than the other. For all the self-aggrandizement and posturing implicit in ‘Big Man’ history, the truth of any matter will normally find a way of squeezing through the cracks in the text, particularly with the big-brain close readings of the modern linguistic turn to help it on its way. And even supposedly non-propagandistic items such as wills, inventories and account books are subject to understatement in the age-old “sport” of tax evasion. And so attempts to reduce history to a totalising big picture (whether from above or from below) simply don’t work: historians cannot avoid having to “sweat the small stuff“, because the answer all too often lies in simply getting the details right.

It is in the tension between these two extrema that I look at Evelyn Welch’s “Shopping in the Renaissance: Consumer Cultures in Italy 1400-1600” (2005, Yale University Press). When I was researching my own book on Filarete, her “Art and Authority in Renaissance Milan” (1995, also Yale University Press) was permanently by my elbow, always at the ready to prevent me becoming entrapped by the sticky bubble of historical propaganda inflated around the Sforza court by Cicco Simonetta (and all too readily accepted as fact by older historians): so I had high hopes for her “Shopping”.

On the one hand, Welch’s book is a slab of social history par excellence, teasing out numerous otherwise marginal strands of ordinary life in the early Renaissance – street-sellers, auctions, lotteries, indulgences, fairs, shoes, shopping hours, pawnshops, feast days, credit, charlatans, and so forth. Yet on the other, Chapter Nine (“Shopping with Isabella d’Este”) is from the diametric opposite end of the social scale, an account of the elitist shopping habits of someone who would have been aghast to find out she had been born 350 years too soon for haute couture. After 240 textured pages of closely observed text riffing on various social historical shopping themes (richly illustrated with wonderful images of the ordinary), I felt somehow betrayed by the abrupt switch: a (quite literally) materialist snob like Isabella d’Este had no right to be there.

As is typical with horizontal historical studies, if you stick with them long enough you’ll find a prize to return home with: in my (Voynichological) case, pp.151-158 contained splendid descriptions and images of apothecaries’ shops, many including the kind of albarelli I put so much time into researching six years ago. A very pleasant surprise!

The one thing I found irritating about the text itself was the jarring style used for the incipits and desinits in each chapter. Rather than using the elegant yet spare historical prose of the chapter bodies themselves, these chatter with the abstracted, vacuous tokens of contemporary sociology-speak: space, surveillance, visibility, environment, transience, consumption, embedded, relations, networks, production. It is as if these were written by another hand, perhaps one attempting to weave together the threads of a decade’s-worth of individual papers into a tangibly coherent theoretical tapestry. If so, I think it was a failed experiment: social history is an activity based not around synthesizing the kind of vaguely structural frameworks beloved by sociologists, but around reconstructing the texture of ordinary lives. Essentially, the rich tapestry was already fully present, so there was no need to embellish the edges as well. Oh well!

Here’s a book I’m really looking forward to reading: “The Montefeltro Conspiracy“, by Marcello Simonetta (due for hardcover release 3rd June 2008, 304 pages). Readers in Italy will get to see it earlier: Rizzoli will be publishing the Italian version first, on 26th April 2008… the 530th anniversary of the well-known Pazzi conspiracy.

And here is why I’m so excited…

Several years ago, I uncovered an apparent cryptographic link between the ‘4o’ letter pair in the Voynich Manuscript and a number of ciphers apparently constructed by Francesco Sforza’s cipher minions, both before and after his takeover of Milan. Sforza’s long-time chancellor was Cicco Simonetta: and so, I reasoned, if there was anything out there to be found, it would be sensible to start with him. However, as normal with the history of cryptography, most papers and articles on Cicco dated from the 19th century, when the subject was last in vogue. *sigh*

After a lot of trawling, the best recent book I found was “Rinascimento Segreto” (2004) by the historian Marcello Simonetta (FrancoAngeli Storia, Milan). Even though Marcello’s eruditely academic Italian was many levels beyond my lowly grasp of the language, I persisted: and my efforts were rewarded – the book’s chapters III.1 and IV.1 had everything I hoped for on Cicco.

Initially, Marcello Simonetta’s interests in Cicco Simonetta seem to have been stirred up simply by their shared surname, rather than by any focus on cryptography per se: but over time this developed into something much larger. And when Marcello found a ciphered 15th century letter in the private Ubaldini archive in Urbino, he couldn’t wait to try out Cicco’s Regule (rules) for cracking unknown ciphers, to see if they actually worked. And they did!

What he found was that it was in fact a letter detailing an inside view of the Pazzi Conspiracy, a 1478 plot to kill the heads of the Medici family (Lorenzo only just managed to get away). When Marcello’s discovery was announced (around 2004), there was a bit of a media scrum: but since then he has kept his head down and written an accessible book (I hope!), and got a deal with Random House (well done for that!).

Cryptographically, the supreme irony (which I hope Marcello picks up in his book) is that we have no evidence that Cicco Simonetta’s Regule were ever used to break real ciphers in the wild – to me, it seems likeliest that the Regule were instead mainly used to keep the Sforza’s code-clerks honest, as they spent their (probably abundant) spare hours cracking each others’ ciphers. But perhaps Marcello has more to say about this in his book… we shall see! 🙂

Here’s a cryptography story from Italy that is astounding (though perhaps not for good reasons). I found it thanks to an Italian blogger who called it the new Voynich (‘il nuovo Voynich’), but that’s perhaps a little bit strong.

While on trial accused of a “massacre” (‘strage Erba‘), the accused writes down a long series of enciphered notes in a bible… the cipher then gets broken (by Andrea Rizzi, Gregorio Guidi, and Roberto Frigerio), revealing the defendant’s thoughts on many (probably too many) aspects of the case. The trial continues: there is extensive coverage on the Wildgreta blog (in Italian). I’ve tried to find online pictures of the cipher (without success): but as it has already been definitively cracked (it would seem), there’s no huge sense of urgency.

Cryptographically, the tragedy is that it sounds (by all accounts) like a monoalphabetic cipher with a few nulls that even Cicco Simonetta’s Regule could have cracked 550 years ago (I’m sure Augusto Buonafalce and Marcello Simonetta would agree); while the Voynich Manuscript (from the same era) still can’t be decrypted today. Madness. 🙁

Sorry for posting like an overexcited puppy, but my Voynich book‘s first citation is surely worthy to me of a minor celebration: less than a backflip, but more than a raised eyebrow.

The just-published (January 2008) Cryptologia article where it is mentioned is “Cicco Simonetta’s Cipher-Breaking Rules“, by Augusto Buonafalce, who so generously reviewed my book in the same journal last year. It’s a nice little piece to introduce cryptologers and cryptography historians to Cicco Simonetta [there’s a nice Italian page on him here], with the added bonus of a good translation of his “regulae” (rules): it even has a black and white reproduction of a painting of Cicco I was not previously aware of.

Augusto rightly dismisses the thought of a powerful Milanese statesman “engaging in the encryption of the Voynich manuscript“: but that’s not really a summary of my book’s argument. What I actually argue is that the presence of the “4o” token in a good number of mid-Quattrocento Northern Italian cipher alphabets (including the Voynich Manuscript) points to a continuity of cipher thinking, one which seemed to travel around with the Sforza miltary caravan… just as Cicco Simonetta did from an early age.

To be precise, I don’t claim that Cicco wrote the VMs, or even designed its cipher alphabet. Far from it: rather, that its “4o” token points to a deep-rooted connection between its cipher-system and the ciphers constructed and used by the Milanese Chancellery. My book conjectures that this “4o” ‘verbose cipher’ trick may have been disclosed in the 1465 meeting between Antonio Averlino and Cicco Simonetta, at which the former placed his outstanding Milanese affairs in the hands of the latter before leaving Milan forever. But in the world of tenuous Voynichological hypotheses, this is one at least that did actually happen! 🙂

For all its merits, it would be wrong to characterize Augusto’s Cryptologia article as being the final word in the cryptographic history debate over Cicco Simonetta’s Regulae: the conclusions I (and others) draw from the available data are quite different, and (in the absence of more conclusive evidence) we can politely agree to differ – and that’s OK.

As a side-note here, when I cited (on my p.182) a 1970 article on Cicco’s Regulae, I contacted its very-much-still-alive author (Walter Hoeflechner) to see if anyone else in the intervening 36 years had shown an interest – and only the ubiquitous David Kahn had. From that, it’s easy to see that the discussion of the intriguing intersection between cryptography and politics offered by Simonetta is very much out of fashion: which is a bit of a shame.

And therefore, I think it would be very nice if Augusto’s article proved instead to be the first word in a rather more modern debate over the Regulae: the new generation of historians and researchers who have taken an interest in seeing what the Sforza-era bureaucratic archives have to tell us would almost certainly be bound to find new angles and approaches, and might well carry us all forward in new and interesting directions.

Finally… for me, what is nicest about Augusto’s citation is that it is one of those rarest of hen’s teeth: a Voynich-related book or paper getting cited outside of the Voynich literature. It is far too early to say that this marks the point where the VMs goes fully mainstream… but it’s a start, surely?