Word just arrived here by breathless carrier pigeon (well, the little chap had flown from Italy, after all) about a conference in Gotha on 14th-16th February 2013 (yes, this very week!) on historical cryptography. And here’s the rather nice conference artwork:-


Lots of interesting sessions on all manner of European historical stuff, such as from top Italian cipher-breaker Filippo Sinagra, who you may remember from the Nat Geo “Ancient X-Files” Voynich half-episode not so long ago. Filippo’s talk is on Sforza-era cryptography, for which he patiently trawled through the Milanese archives (he very kindly passed me scans a while back). Fascinating stuff that’s right up my street, I just wish I could be there (though sadly that’s not possible this particular time, oh well!)

There’s also a talk on historical code-breaking methodology (or, more accurately, the apparent lack of anything like one) being given by a certain German cipher skeptic – yes, it is indeed that man again, Klaus Schmeh. His introduction notes that: “Publications devoted to the particular methods of cryptanalysis regarding historical ciphers are rare. The presence of numerous works in which decrypted historic secret texts are presented should not obscure the fact that a comprehensive theory is lacking in this area.” Amen to that, Brother Klaus!

Another nice thing is that Christiane Schaefer will be discussing the Copiale Cipher (which she, Beáta Megyesi and Kevin Knight successfully broke) and her team’s follow-on project, an “interactive digital platform” called “CADMUS” for early modern cryptology. All of which sounds a lot like a call to European historians to send them your enciphered early modern documents and they’ll crack ’em… or you could just send them to me c/o Cipher Mysteries, that would work too. 😉

But perhaps the wild-card of the conference will prove to be Dr. Michael Korey, whose session is intriguingly entitled “Hidden steganography and burned substitution. Some little‐known cypher equipment from the cabinet of curiosities (Kunstkammer) of Dresden”. The description (which I hope it’s ok to reproduce here) goes like this:-

“In the middle of the 16th century, the German territories were considered to be not very progressive by foreign countries in regard to their ability to encrypt their messages or decrypt those sent by others. Matteo Argenti, secretary of cyphers at the Vatican, said the Germans and their neighbours understood so little about cyphers that they preferred to shred and burn the encoded dispatches they received instead of trying to decrypt them. In retrospect, this assessment seems quite premature, considering two pieces coming from the electoral Saxon cabinet of curiosities (Kunstkammer), that so far have not attracted much attention and will be presented here.”

It should be no surprise that I rather like the sound of that. Ummm… I hope someone takes a photo or two (hint, Klaus, *cough*). 🙂

For everyone going, I hope you have a great time, it looks like a great conference!

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…

If you simply can’t bear the idea of waiting a whole week until National Geographic airs its Voynich half-episode of “Ancient X-Files” in the UK, then you now have the option of watching the French dubbed version (courtesy of DailyMotion). Fast forward the time-slider to 22:00 to see a whole load of Venetian & Milanese Averlino Voynich theory stuff, including Francesco da Mosto doing his delightful historian thing. Love that guy.

I should perhaps also add that if you can’t find the UK airing of the same episode in your various TV channel guides, it may be (a) because it’s listed under “Sodom and Gomorrah” (which occupies the first half of the show), and (b) because the half with me in is listed as focusing on the “Voyinch Manuscript” *sigh*. Perhaps I spent last week at the Livva Mongradone in Crasfati, too, and never realised it. Oh well!

PS: my behind-the-scenes page is here, if you somehow managed to miss that.

WAGtv’s “Ancient X-Files” Voynich episode will first air at 20:40 on 10th May 2012 on the National Geographic channel in France, where the series has been retitled “De l’ombre à la lumière“. Though the episode is entitled “Sodom and Gomorrah” (“Sodome et Gomorrhe” in French), be reassured that 50% of it is the Voynich part. 🙂

And by a nice coincidence which Nat Geo’s schedulers seem, errrm, mostly unaware of, this is also when I shall be in Frascati preparing for the upcoming Voynich Centenary conference the following day. It’s time to tell some of the story behind the documentary…

1. “The Curse of the Voynich” Meets WAGtv…

Back in 2006, the general consensus was that the Voynich Manuscript was an extraordinary late 16th century hoax, constructed to part an extraordinary fool (Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II) from his extraordinary money (600 gold ducats). And without the 2009 radiocarbon dating (which dated its vellum to 1404-1438 with 95% confidence) to help ground the whole debate, the Voynich was arguably even more like a blank historical canvas (upon which you can paint whatever theory you like) than it is today. Sad, really.

2006 was also the year that I wrote and published “The Curse of the Voynich” (copies still available, and at very reasonable air mail rates 😀 ), with the aim of summing up the research I had built up over several years – basically, that the Voynich Manuscript may well have been written by Northern Italian Quattrocento architect Antonio Averlino (better known as “Filarete).

However, put these two things together and it should be no great surprise that, a couple of nicely appreciative reviews aside, my tree of research fell onto the Voynich research community’s forest floor with a deafening silence. (If, indeed, it fell at all.) Personally, I still think my book is a great piece of historical detective work (I posted a nice summary of it here), but I suspect it remains too “out there” for almost all Voynich researchers, most of whom seem to rely more on lightweight inductive logic than on the kind of heavyweight hyper-deduction I had to employ. 🙂

Fast forward to early 2010, when London-based factual television production house WAGtv were working on the the first series of Ancient X Files for National Geographic. Their producers approached me to ask if I would contribute to a 22-minute documentary segment based on “The Curse of the Voynich”: though it just missed the cut for series 1, I was delighted to be able to take part when they subsequently wanted to include it in series 2.

This whole Voynich segment was filmed over five days last summer [2011] in locations centrally linked to Antonio Averlino’s life and works, such as the Ospedale Maggiore & Castello Sforzesco in Milan, and the Campanile in Venice (looking down onto the onion domes of St Mark’s Basilica). Just so you know, the televisual conceit was to visually reconstruct the evidence chain and associated reasoning that led to my whole Averlino theory. In case your inner historian finds this somewhat annoying, please take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that “it’s just television” – if you want to read up on it properly, there is at least a 230-page book you can buy that presents all the evidence in a reasonably compelling way. 😉

2. Meet The Experts…

Naturally, there are few things more boring than seeing some random expert (yes, even me) expound to camera for 20+ minutes (which is, of course, why Dr Who always has an assistant). Hence the producers assembled a delightfully eclectic set of experts for me to talk with on camera, basically with the idea of placing the various deductive leaps I patiently ground out of the academic literature into their helpful mouths:-

Filippo Sinagra, a well-known Venetian code-breaker with a lifelong interest in historical & Mafia ciphers;

Stefano Calchi Novati, a Milanese architect (whose motorbike I sadly couldn’t ride because of insurance issues);

Rosa Barovier Mentasti, a thoroughly delightful glassware expert descended from the Murano glassmaker Angelo da Barovier, but whom I somehow managed not to capture on camera (the image is from Mauro Vianello’s nice glass blog);

A magnificent Murano master glassblower whose name unfortunately escapes me, and whose wonderfully rich Venetian accent proved near-impenetrable even to our Italian translator; and…

Well-known Venetian architect and historian Francesco da Mosto, presenter of several top-rated BBC series with the power to make many British women of a certain age swoon unashamedly.

OK, now that we’ve got past all the raw factuality, what really happened while filming?

3. Nine Top Secret Things That Happened On The Shoot

(1) I’d only previously been to Venice out of season (if you’re going, I recommend December), and July 2011 turned out to be a raging heatwave. Despite that, John Blystone (the director) had me marching back and forth across endless Venetian bridges to the point that I nearly got heatstroke, and had to sit down in a quiet corner eating ice cream for an hour while I cooled all the way back down to merely hot. Note that I don’t hold this against him – John’s a driven guy and wanted to get the best possible coverage going into the edit, and if he can make a bald historian bloke like me come out tolerably OK on camera, I have to say he’s pretty much on fire. 🙂

(2) While getting over heatstroke, I found out that Cesira (the translator) used to run short film festivals, though she bemoaned the fact that Italian film-makers were typically so talky that they thought 20 minutes should qualify as ‘short’. I then told her how I used to write stories in 30 words or less as a writing challenge: she didn’t believe that that was even remotely possible, so insisted I write her one there and then. Knowing that the crew was flying on to Rome to film a Da Vinci-related segment, this is what I squeezed into a mere 15 words:-

Not again, Lisa!
Every time you fart, you do that smile.”
Sorry, Maestro Leonardo!

(3) While in the Piazza San Marco, I suddenly noticed that the columns of San Marco and San Theodoro were leaning very slightly towards each other. Luckily I managed to straighten them up before any tourists got crushed by falling stones: an excellent result!

(4) I’d be a lying hound if I didn’t say it was more than a bit of a thrill meeting Francesco da Mosto & his lovely family in their Venetian palazzo, and lightly zipping around the canals with him in his near-iconic blue boat. Francesco is an enthusiastic, positive, laughter-filled big-kid-puppydog of a man that made me want to smile every time he opened his mouth: probably half the shots were ruined because we were having too much fun to look serious in an appropriately documentary-style way. I love the guy to bits, and wish him the very best of luck with finishing his historical novel “The Black King” (which, spookily enough, one online description I read said revolved around John Dee and a mysterious enciphered manuscript).

(5) When we got back to San Marco after filming (and eating late) in Murano, the tide was so high that we couldn’t get a boat into the canal near the apartment (“Casa Cioccolata”, a nice little place). This meant the crew had to carry all the equipment barefoot across the waterlogged piazza in the moonlight: a thoroughly surreal experience!

(6) Once nice thing in Venice which didn’t make it into the final edit was that the newly-restored clock tower close to St Mark’s Basilica has a 24-hour clockface Voynich researchers may well find eerily familiar:-

(7) Another scene which didn’t make the final cut involved comparing the pinion gears in that same clock with some of the (remarkably similar) gear-shaped leaves in the Voynich Manuscript. This didn’t quite fit the narrative the producers & editors wanted to extract from “The Curse”, so never made it in. If you do get a chance to take a tour around the insides of the Horologia clock, please do – highly recommended!

(8) While we were filming in Antonio Averlino’s Ospedale Maggiore in Milan, I was showing the curious pipework in the Voynich Manuscript’s Quire 13 to the architect Stefano Calchi Novati when there was a surprised call from around the corner. The sound recordist (Stefano Varini) had noticed some decaying ancient terracotta pipework embedded in the fabric of the building – I knew it was supposed to be there, but had never actually seen it. Thanks to the “access-all-areas pass” a well-accredited film crew has, we had gone through to the far quadrant of the Ospedale that I hadn’t previously seen. It was really wonderful to see for myself what I can only conclude was Averlino’s original pipework still in situ – and that it turned out to be so very similar to the Voynich’s pipework was an even greater surprise.

(9) For me, the most amazing thing of all actually came after the documentary had finished shooting. Late on the last day, I had taken a picture from the right end of the middle wall of the Castello Sforzesco, looking out over the front wall: the reconstructed Filarete tower is in the middle, and the Duomo is clearly visible in the distance just to the right of it.

But it later struck me that if I had taken the same shot from the right-hand corner of the backmost wall (which is the only part of the castello that Averlino is known to have actually built), the Duomo would have ended up looking remarkably like the blue smudge behind the castle in the castle rosette.

Here, all the places Averlino worked are in green, the two rows of swallowtail merlons are in blue, and the place where I think the Voynich castle rosette drawing was made from (the middle of the rear courtyard) is in red. The two red lines mark the extents of the blue smudge just above the Voynich castle rosette.

4. Crew Credits

Seeing as this isn’t even remotely included in IMDb (shame!), I thought I ought to include the crew credits, give them their fifteen seconds of fame:-

Director: John Blystone

Camera: Peter Thorne

Sound: Stefano Varini

Fixer: Dario Canciello

Translator: Cesira de Vito

They were all a pleasure to work with, and I hope to work with them again very soon on the feature-length sequel “The Da Voynich Code” (though possibly not in 3D). 😉


National Geographic episode rollout (I’ll update this as it propagates through the Nat Geo listings, please let me know if I’ve missed any!):-
* Indonesia: Fri, 11 May 2012 8:00 pm
* Hungary: Titkok és ereklyék (‘Secrets and Relics’): Szodoma és Gomora – 23-24 May 2012.
* UK: 9pm 22nd May 2012, and then several times a day all the way through to the 27th May 2012

…where I’ve been filming in Venice and Milan for a Voynich documentary to come out (I guess) in late 2012. So, I’m very sorry if I’ve been somewhat quiet of late, but this process has involved a fair amount of behind-the-scenes preparation to try to get the most out of all the different locations.

Apart from nearly getting sunstroke in the 35-degree heat one of the days, 🙁 it turned out to be a thoroughly great experience. The crew were all fantastic to work with (even at the end of a 12 hour working day), while the impressive historical and technical experts assembled by the production team were also a pleasure to meet and work with. What’s more, in all the different filming locations, we managed to gain access to unusual corners of places that normally remain locked to visitors, and this turned up a good number of historical surprises I for one wasn’t expecting at all… but more on all those once the programme has aired.

You may be wondering whether this documentary will somehow resolve all the unanswered questions about the Voynich Manuscript. Errrrm… of course not, that would be ridiculous. Even so, the things I saw were historical eye-openers for me (and I’ve seen a lot of stuff), and I very much hope you will enjoy the ride! 🙂

Regular Cipher Mysteries readers will know that I’m pretty good at digging historical things up, at shining lights under long-unmoved archival rocks. Well… my challenge this week was to find some mid-Quattrocento Milanese enciphered letters, and though I’ve possibly got most of the way to an answer, I’ve ended up a bit stuck, and would really appreciate some help from all you good people!

The starting point was that I was sure that the Archivio di Stato in Milan contains a vast number of documents from the period I’m most interested in (Milan’s Francesco Sforza era, i.e. 1450-1465), so that ought to be the first place to look for these. But (as is normally the case) relevant manuscript catalogues are few and far between online, so I initially drew a blank.

Then I (somewhat luckily) stumbled across a 1995 book online called “Fifteenth-century Dance and Music: Treatises and Music” by A. William Smith. Page 6 of its “Fifteenth-century Italian Dance Sources” chapter mentions a letter: “26 July Archivio di Stato milanese. Potenze estere. Napoli 1455. in cifre from Albrico Maletta, Sforza ambassador in Napoli to Duke Francesco Sforza in Milano.” Interestingly, f20v of the famous Tranchedino cipher ledger is marked as “Cum Francisco Maleta” (though this is sandwiched between a 1458 cipher and a 1459 cipher, so might well have been entered into the ledger later than 1455): all the same, it would be interesting to compare the two. But how to find the manuscript reference for this?

The first thing to note is that “Potenze Estere” is actually the name of a large set of documents within the Milanese Carteggio Sforzesco archive. Obviously, I then searched like crazy for (I’d guess a scan of a 19th century) inventory of this, but without any luck. So where next?

Then I remembered Aloysius Meister’s “Die Anfaege Der Modernen Diplomatischen Geheimschrift” (1902): p.30 contains a (surprisingly complex, I think) Milanese cipher key and nomenclator dated 14th March 1448, with the reference “Mailand, Staatsarchiv. Pot. Est. Cifre Fasc. 2 Nr 5.” There’s also a 1483 cipher (p.31) noted as “l. c. Fasc. 1 Nr 15” (interestingly, this contains a “4o” composite character (for ‘z’) but with the ‘o’ attached to the downstroke of the ‘4’), and a 1530 cipher key (p.32) listed as “l. c. Fasc. 4 Nr. 53 Grofs 4o”.

(I should add that Meister 1902 also lists ciphers for Modena, including one [p.35] dated 23rd June 1435 “In Milano” which fascinatingly contains “4” for ‘Q’ and “4o” for “Qua”. [“Canc. duc. Arch. Proprio Mappe II. Nr 1.”]: and for Florence, he lists the Cifra di Galiotto Fibindacci da Ricasoli 1424, which similarly uses “4o” for “Q” [p.50])

So there you have it: it seems that the Carteggio Sforzesco’s Potenze Estere archive contains several specific bundles of cipher documents (“Cifre Fasc[iculus/-i]”) that sounds like what I’m looking for. But then again, Meister was writing over a century ago and much may well have changed there: specifically, here’s a link to the best listing I could find for the pre-1535 part of the Potenze Estere archive, but note that there is no obvious cipher bundle or subset to be seen. And that would seem to be the end of the line – though I’d expect the 1455 letter from Naples listed by Smith is probably filed in the Napoli section of the Pot. Est. archive (which is more or less entirely arranged geographically).

At the end of all that, I don’t know whether I’m really close or really far away. Are the cipher bundles Meister referred to still in the Potenze Estere, and what do they contain? Or have they been moved, split, stolen or lost at some point during the last century? Regardless, where do I need to go to see them and what should I ask for? Any pointers you can turn up to help me answer these questions would be much appreciated! [Please leave comments on the page below, or email me at the normal address]. Thanks!

Update: I subsequently found a more detailed listing on p.927 of this sizeable inventory: it says that the Atti Ducali (1392-1535) section of the Archivio Sforzesco contains “Cancelleria segreta 1450-1535, scatole 11. Raccolta di documenti relativi all’attività quotidiana della cancelleria: sommari, cifrari, occorrenze (carta, inchiostro ecc.), archivio, documenti relativi alla biblioteca del castello di Pavia.” So perhaps the cipher documents Meister saw were later moved over to this Atti Ducali section?

Alternatively, the Carteggio Sforzesco’s Potenze Sovrane archive also holds a section marked “Cancelleria segreta – Chiavi e cifrari (scatt. 1591, 1597 – 1598)”, which is what Lidia Cerioni relied on for her book “La diplomazia sforzesca”, and might instead be what I’m looking for (it’s hard to tell). Oh, and just a few bundles away, the same archive has the intriguing-sounding scat. 1569: “Miscellanea, astrologia, occultismo, superstizione etc.” Really, what historian of mysteries could resist sneaking a peek? 😉

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*

For a while, I’ve had an itch (a Voyn-itch, if you prefer) I couldn’t work out how to scratch.

You see… about six years ago, I found an old history book digitized on archive.org (if I remember correctly): it related how Francesco Sforza assembled an ongoing ad hoc council of representatives of various city-states surrounding Milan, told them all the inside news of what was going on, and even asked their opinions on what Milan should do – Big Tent politics, Quattrocento-style. These representatives then wrote copious letters back to their rulers, passing on as many of Milan’s secrets as they could remember. Fascinating stuff, so I made a mental note to look the reference up again, because it would be a great place to see if I could find a critical edition of whichever of those despatches still existed, to use them to read around critical dates in my reconstructed Averlino/Voynich narrative, to see if any detail either strengthened or refuted my hypothesis.

But do you think I could ever find that book again? That’s right – not a hope.

So anyway, I’d practically given up on finding those despatches when, while (inevitably) looking for something completely different  this evening, I stumbled upon one stonkingly huge set of them. The sixteen volume series is entitled Carteggio degli oratori mantovani alla Corte Sforzesca (1450-1500), with each slab containing 500 to 700 pages of letters sent from Milan back to the Gonzaga court in Mantua. The ones that seem to have been published so far are:-

1. 1450-1459 / 2. 1460 / 3. 1461 / 4. 1462 / edited by Isabella Lazzarini
5. 1463 / edited by Marco Folin
6. 1464-1465 / 7. 1466-1467 / 8. 1468-1471 / edited by Maria Nadia Covini
10. 1475-1477 / edited by Gianluca Battioni
11. 1478-1479 / edited by Marcello Simonetta
12. 1480-1482 / edited by Gianluca Battioni
15. 1495-1498 / edited by Antonella Grati, Arturo Pacini 

For me, the two most interesting things to look at would be the reception in Milan of the De Re Militari incident which happened sometime in 1461 [Vol.3]; and also August / September  1465 [Vol.6], which is when Domenic Dominici the Bishop of Brescia rode into Milan with his copy of what is now known as ‘Vat. Gr. 1291’ (René Zandbergen’s favourite circular Byzantine nymph-fest, which Fulvio Orsini would then buy), before then leaving  for Rome with (I strongly suspect) Antonio Averlino in tow.

Of course, any other fleeting mention of Antonio Averlino / Filarete in the 1450-1465 volumes of these despatches could well turn out to be extraordinarily useful, never mind any rumours or talk of a mysterious unreadable herbal as well! 🙂 One day I’ll get a chance to go through these myself (because the British Library has a copy of all of the above), and who as yet knows what’s there to be found?

In the meantime, please leave a comment here to tell me if there are any other sets of despatches published or currently being edited that were sent out from Francesco Sforza’s ‘Big Tent’ in Milan circa 1450-1465, thanks very much!

For the most part, constructing plausible explanations for the drawings in the Voynich Manuscript is a fairly straightforward exercise. Even its apparently-weird botany could well be subtly rational (for example, if plants on opposite pages swapped their roots over in the original binding, in a kind of visual anagram), as could the astronomy, the astrology, and the water / balneology quires (if all perhaps somewhat obfuscated). Yet this house of oh-so-sensible cards gets blown away by the hurricane of oddness that is the Voynich Manuscript’s nine-rosette page.

If you’re not intrigued by this, you really do have a heart of granite, because of all the VMs’ pages, this is arguably the most outright alien & Codex Seraphinianus-like. Given the strange rotating designs (machines?), truncated pipes, islands, and odd causeways, it’s hard to see (at first, second and third glances) how this could be anything but irrational. Yet even so, those who (like me) are convinced that the VMs is a ‘hyperrational’ artefact are forced to wonder what method there could be to this jumbled visual madness. So: what’s the deal with this page? How should we even begin to try to ‘read’ it?

People have pondered these questions for years: for example, Robert Brumbaugh thought that the shape in the bottom left was a “clock” with “a short hour and long minute hand”. However, now that we have proper reproductions to work with, his claim seems somewhat spurious, for the simple reason that the two “hands” are almost exactly the same length. Mary D’Imperio (1977) also thought the resemblance “superficial”, noting instead that “an exactly similar triangular symbol with three balls strung on it occurs frequently amongst the star spells of Picatrix, and was used by alchemists to mean arsenic, orpiment, or potash (Gessman 1922, Tables IV, XXXIII, XXXXV)” (3.3.6, p.21).

Back in 2008, Joel Stevens suggested that the rosettes might represent a map, with the top-left and bottom-right rosettes (which have ‘sun’ images attached to them) representing East and West respectively, and with Brumbaugh’s “clock” at the bottom-left cunningly representing a compass in the form of the point of an arrow pointing towards Magnetic North. You know, I actually rather like Joel’s idea, because it at least explains why the two “hands” are the same length: and given that I suspect that there’s a hidden arrow on the “bee” page and that many of the water nymphs may be embellished diagrammatic arrows, one more hidden arrow would fit in pretty well with the author’s apparent construction style.

This same idea (but without Joel’s ‘hidden compass’ nuance) was proposed by John Grove on the VMs mailing list back in 2002. He also noted that many of “the words appear to be written as though the reader is walking clockwise around the map. The words inside the roadway (when there are some) also appear to be written this way (except the northeast rosette by the castle).” I’ve underlined many of the ’causeway labels’ in red above, because I think that John’s “clockwise-ness” is a non-obvious piece of evidence which any theory about this page would probably need to explain. And yes, there are indeed plenty of theories about this page!

In 2006, I proposed that the top-right castle (with its Ghibelline swallowtail merlons, ravellins, accentuated front gate, spirally text, circular canals, etc) was Milan; that the three towers just below it represented Pavia (specifically, the Carthusian Monastery there); and that the central rosette represented Venice (specifically, an obfuscated version of St Mark’s Basilica as seen from the top of the Campanile). Of course, even though this is (I think) remarkably specific, it still falls well short of a “smoking gun” scientific proof: so, it’s just an art history suggestion, to be safely ignored as you wish.

In 2009, Patrick Lockerby proposed that the central rosette might well be depicting Baghdad (which, along with Milan and Jerusalem, was one of the few medieval cities consistently depicted as being circular). Alternatively, one of his commenters also suggested that it might be Masijd Al-Haram in Mecca (but that’s another story).

Also in 2009, P. Han proposed a link between this page and Tycho Brahe’s “work and observatories”, with the interesting suggestion that the castle in the top-right rosette represents Kronborg Slot (which you may not know was the one appropriated by Shakespeare for Hamlet), with the centre of that rosette’s text spiral representing the island of Hven where Brahe famously had his ‘Uraniborg’ observatory. Kronborg Slot was extensively remodelled in 1585, burnt down in 1629 and then rebuilt: but I wonder whether it had swallowtail merlons when it was built in the 1420s? Han also suggests that other features on the page represent Hven in different ways (for example, the three towers marked ‘PAVIA?’ above); that the pipes and tall structures in the bottom-right rosette represent Tycho’s ‘sighting tubes’ (a kind of non-optical precursor to telescopes); that one or more of the mill-like spoked structures represent(s) Hven’s papermill’s waterwheel; and that the central rosette represents the buildings of Uraniborg (for which we have good visual reference material). Han’s central hypothesis (on which more another day!) is that the VMs visually encodes information about various supernovae: the suggestion here is that the ‘hands’ of Brumbaugh’s clock are in fact part of the ‘W-shape’ of Cassiopeia, which sits close in the sky to SN 1572. Admittedly, Han’s portolan-like ‘Markers’ section at the end of the page goes way past my idea of being accessible, but there’s no shortage of interesting ideas here.

Intriguingly, Han also points out the strong visual similarity between the central rosette’s ‘towers’ and the pharma section’s ‘jars’: D’Imperio also thought these resembled “six pharmaceutical ‘jars'”. I’d agree that the resemblance seems far too strong to be merely a coincidence, but what can it possibly mean?

Finally, (and also in 2009) Rich SantaColoma put together a speculative 3d tour of the nine-rosette page (including a 3d flythrough in YouTube), based on his opinion the VMs’ originator “was clearly representing 3D terrain and structures”. All very visually arresting: however, the main problem is that the nine-rosette page seems to incorporate information on a number of quite different levels (symbolic, structural, physical, abstract, notional, planned, referential, diagrammatic, etc), and reducing them all to 3d runs the risk of overlooking what may be a single straightforward clue that will help unlock the page’s mysteries.

All in all, I suspect that the nine-rosette page will continue to stimulate theories and debate for some time yet! Enjoy! 🙂

Perhaps because of its geography (spanning a mountain range) or its powerful neighbours (France, Milan), Savoy is one of those nebulous, hard-to-grasp historical regions with a perimeter seemingly made of rubber.

Here’s a map of 15th century Savoy courtesy of the very useful sabaudia.org: as landmarks, you can see Milan, Turin, Genoa and Lyon – just off to the lower left are Marseille and Avignon (home to antipope Clement VII and antipope Benedict XIII between 1378 and 1403, at which time the latter escaped to Anjou following a five-year siege by the French army). The green shapes mark mountain passes:-

The same site also has a nice timeline for Savoy events (in French), from which I’ve summarized a few points of interest between 1350 and 1450 below. The initial historical context is that Amadeus VII is ruling the House of Savoy, with the separate Savoy-Achaia line ruling over Piedmont (but please don’t ask me to summarize the history of Achaia and how it’s linked here, that might well bore you to death):-

  • 1385: Amadeus VII acquires the Barcelonnette region.
  • 1388: Amadeus VII loses Nice to Jean Grimaldi.
  • 1401: Amadeus VIII acquires the County of Geneva after the last Count Humbert dies childless.
  • 1403: Louis of Savoy-Achaia moves the House of Savoy’s capital to Turin, and creates the University of Turin as part of the first State of Savoy.
  • 1406: Amadeus VIII receives the homage of the Seigneur de la Brigue and negotiates with the Count of Tende to establish a direct route between Nice and Turin.
  • 1411: Amadeus VIII buys Rumilly, Roche, and Ballaison, the House of Geneva’s last remaining possessions.
  • 1411: The Savoyards briefly occupy the Val d’Ossola to ensure control of the Simplon pass (though the Swiss Confederates subsequently drove them out in 1417).
  • 1416: after a magnificent reception at Chambery, the Emperor Sigismund, visiting Amadeus VIII for the third time in four years, grants him the ducal title – the House of Savoy become the Duchy of Savoy.
  • 1418: following the last Savoy-Achaia’s death, Amadeus VIII regains control of Piedmont.
  • 1427: the Visconti yield Vercelli to Amadeus VIII.
  • 1434: Louis of Savoy marries Anne of Lusignan in Chambery, a union which binds the Savoy royal family to the Lusignan kings (from Cyprus and Jerusalem) & hints at an Eastern policy for the Duke.

From this, you can see the shadow of the Holy Roman Empire hanging over the legitimacy of the House of Savoy’s 1416 transition to become the Duchy of Savoy: so it is should be no surprise that if you look at the rear of Turin’s Palazzo Madama (which was started by the Savoy-Achaia line in the 14th/15th century), you can still see make out its swallowtail merlons embedded just below the top of its towers.

Now all this historical framework is in place, you should be just about able to make some sense of this hideously overcomplex historical map of Savoy (from William Shepherd’s Historical Atlas of 1923-1926), courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin.

For my own Voynich Manuscript research, what has become clear to me from this is that rather than Savoy in the larger sense, it is probably Piedmont (as gained by the Duchy of Savoy in 1418) I should be specifically interested in. But what Piedmontese historical archives should I be looking at? Questions, questions, questions…