Here’s what I think the Voynich Wikipedia page ought to look like. Enjoy! 🙂

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History of a Mystery

Once upon a time (in 1912) in a crumbling Jesuit college near Rome, an antiquarian bookseller called Wilfrid Voynich bought a mysterious enciphered handwritten book. Despite its length (240 pages) it was an ugly, badly-painted little thing, for sure: but its strange text and drawings caught his imagination — and that was that.

Having quickly convinced himself that it could only have been written by one particular smart-arse medieval monk by the name of Roger Bacon, Voynich then spent the rest of his life trying to persuade gullible and/or overspeculative academics to ‘prove’ that his hunch was right. All of which amounted to a waste of twenty years, because it hadn’t even slightly been written by Bacon. D’oh!

Oh, so you’d like to see some pictures of his ‘Voynich Manuscript’, would you? Well… go ahead, knock yourself out. First up, here’s some of its ‘Voynichese’ script, which people only tend to recognize if they had stopped taking their meds a few days previously:

A nice clear example of Voynichese

Secondly, here’s one of the Voynich Manuscript’s many herbal drawings, almost all of which resemble mad scientist random hybrids of bits of other plants:-

Finally, here’s a close-up of one of its bizarre naked ladies (researchers call them ‘nymphs’, obviously trying not to mix business and pleasure), in this case apparently connected up to some odd-looking plumbing / tubing. Yup, the right word is indeed ‘bizarre’:

voynich f77v central nymph Q13 and Voynich balneology sources...?

Did any of that help at all? No, probably not. So perhaps you can explain it now? No, I didn’t think so. Don’t worry, none of us can either. *sigh*

Back to the History Bit

Anyhow, tucked inside the manuscript was a letter dated 1665 from Johannes Marcus Marci in Prague, and addressed to the well-known delusional Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher. Marci’s letter said that he was giving the manuscript to Kircher both because of their friendship and because of Kircher’s reputation for being able to break any cipher. The manuscript seems then to have entered the Jesuit archives, which is presumably why the Jesuit college near Rome had it to sell to Wilfrid Voynich several centuries later, just as in all the best mystery novels.

But hold on a minute… might Wilfrid Voynich have forged his manuscript? Actually, a few years back researchers diligently dug up several other 17th century letters to Kircher almost certainly referring to the same thing, all of which makes the Voynich Manuscript at least 200 years older than Wilfrid Voynich. So no, he couldn’t have forged it, not without using Doc Brown’s flux capacitor. (Or possibly the time machine depicted in Quire 13. Unless that’s impossible.)

Incidentally, one of those other letters was from an obscure Prague alchemist called Georg Baresch, who seems to have wasted twenty or so years of his life pondering this curious object before giving it to Marci. So it would seem that twenty lost years is the de facto standard duration for Voynich research. Depressing, eh?

So, Where Did Baresch Get It From?

Well… Marci had heard it said that the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II had bought the manuscript for the ultra-tidy sum of 600 gold ducats, probably enough to buy a small castle. Similarly, Wilfrid Voynich discovered an erased signature for Sinapius (i.e. Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz, Rudolf II’s Imperial Distiller) on its front page. You can usefully assemble all these boring fragments of half-knowledge into a hugely unconvincing chain of ownership going all the way back to 1600-1610 or so, that would look something not entirely unlike this:-

Which is a bit of a shame, because in 2009 the Voynich Manuscript’s vellum was radiocarbon dated to 1404-1438 with 95% confidence. Hence it still has a gap of roughly 150 years on its reconstructed CV that we can’t account for at all – you know, the kind of hole that leads to those awkward pauses at job interviews, right before they shake your hand and say “We’ll let you know…

Hence, The Real Question Is…

Fast-forward to 2012, and Wilfrid Voynich’s manuscript has ended up in New Haven at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Yet many Voynichologists seemed to have learnt little from all that has gone before, in that – just as with Wilfrid himself – they continue to waste decades of their life trying to prove that it is an [insert-theory-here] written by [insert-historical-figure-here].

If repeatedly pressed, such theorists tend to claim that:
* the ‘quest’ is everything;
* it is better to travel than to arrive; and even
* cracking the Voynich might somehow spoil its perfect inscrutability.
All of which, of course, makes no real sense to anyone but a Zen Master: but if their earnest wish is to remain armchair mountaineers with slippers for crampons, then so be it.

Yet ultimately, if you strip back the inevitable vanity and posturing, the only genuine question most people have at this point is:

How can I crack the Voynich Manuscript and become an eternal intellectual hero?

The answer is: unless you’re demonstrably a polymathic Intellectual History Renaissance Man or Woman with high-tensile steel cable for nerves, a supercomputer cluster the size of Peru for a brain, and who just happens to have read every book ever written on medieval/Renaissance history and examined every scratchy document in every archive, your chances are basically nil. Zero. Nada. Zilch. Honestly, it’s a blatant exaggeration but near enough to the truth true: so please try to get over it, OK?

Look, people have been analyzing the Voynich with computers since World War Two and still can’t reliably interpret a single letter – not a vowel, consonant, digit, punctuation mark, nothing. [A possible hyphen is about as good as it gets, honestly.] Nobody’s even sure if the spaces between words are genuinely spaces, if Voynichese ‘words’ are indeed actual words. *sigh*

Cryptologically, we can’t even properly tell what kind of an enciphering system was used – and if you can’t get that far, it should be no great surprise that applying massive computing power will yield no significant benefit. Basically, you can’t force your way into a castle with a battering ram if you don’t even know where its walls are. For the global community of clever-clogs codebreakers, can you even conceive of how embarrassing a failure this is, hmmm?

So, How Do We Crack It, Then?

If we do end up breaking the Voynich’s cipher, it looks unlikely that it will have been thanks to the superhuman efforts of a single Champollion-like person. Rather, it will most likely have come about from a succession of small things that get uncovered that all somehow cumulatively add up into some much bigger things. You could try to crack it yourself but… really, is there much sense in trying to climb Everest if everyone in the army of mountaineers that went before you has failed to work out even where base camp should go? It’s not hugely clear that even half of them even were looking at the right mountain.

All the same, there are dozens of open questions ranging across a wide set of fields (e.g. codicology, palaeography, statistical analysis, cryptanalysis, etc), each of which might help to move our collective understanding of the Voynich Manuscript forward if we could only answer them. For example…
* Can we find a handwriting match for the marginalia? [More details here & here]
* Can we find a reliable way of reading the wonky marginalia (particularly on f116v, the endmost page)? [More details here]
* Can we find another document using the same unusual quire numbering scheme (‘abbreviated longhand Roman ordinals’)? [More details here].
* Precisely how do state machine models of the Voynich’s two ‘Currier language’s differ? Moreover, why do they differ? [More details here]
* etc

The basic idea here is that if you can’t do big at all, do us all a favour and try to do small well instead. But nobody’s listening: and so it all goes on, year after year. What a waste of time. 🙁

A Warning From History

Finally: I completely understand that you’re a busy person with lots on your mind, so the chances are you’ll forget almost all of the above within a matter of minutes. Possibly even seconds. And that’s OK. But if you can only spare sufficient mental capacity to remember a seven-word soundbite from this whole dismal summary, perhaps they ought to be:

Underestimate the Voynich Manuscript at your peril!

Now ain’t that the truth!?

I’m just starting to put together my talk for the upcoming Voynich centenary conference. The session is provisionally titled “Between Vellum and Prague”, with a summary along the lines of…

“The Voynich Manuscript first pinged on the cultural radar in Prague circa 1600, yet its vellum has recently been radiocarbon dated to the first half of the 15th century. So… what happened inbetween? Nick Pelling has long been intrigued by this wide-open question, and in this session presents a summary of a wide range of codicological evidence that holds the promise of answering it.”

In many important ways, I don’t care much for Voynich theories (not even my own): the important thing for me has long been developing an evidence base that we can use to eliminate bad theories (long-time Cipher Mysteries readers will no doubt recall various times I’ve ranted about Popperian ‘falsification’, Karl Popper’s notion that theories are there to be knocked down, not puffed up).

But what would such usable ‘evidence’ look like? Mainstream history as currently practised is predominantly based on close reading of original documents within the context of large bodies of parallel evidence – even Art History falls within this methodology, as it places tiny observed details within an overall historical canon of evolving technique and materials.

The Beinecke’s splendid scans have enabled us to closely read the original document’s surface, so in some ways we’re halfway there: but as for “the large bodies of parallel evidence” part of the equation, we have at the same time too many and too few such bodies to choose from – by which I mean too many possible, too few probable.

As a result, the Voynich Manuscript remains an uncomfortable topic for historians, because even after a century of study it resolutely resists being pigeonholed within any cladistic strand or tradition. Basically, it is this core uncertainty about its internal nature and external tradition that dissuades many academics from wading too deeply into the Voynichian swamp… and frankly, I don’t blame them, because you’d need a wetsuit, not wellies.

It therefore seems much more prudent to me to go hunting for evidence than for yet more speculative theories. However, you need to have a really clear research question in mind when you do it, or it is likely that your efforts will be for nothing. For me, the best questions by a mile all relate to the Voynich Manuscript’s life before its apparent appearance at Rudolf’s Imperial Court in Prague: and so the class of evidence to look for is that which helps to bring out this otherwise invisible history.

As a result, I’m not hugely worried about things such as letters hidden in Voynich plants except insofar as they suggest links between the Voynichese hand and the marginalia hand. Similarly, the parallel hatching used in some of the drawings is not in itself important except for the way that it apparently directly conflicts with the radiocarbon dating (and indeed it would seem we have various 15th century hands in play, as John Matthews Manly noted over 80 years ago, which would seem to stop any kind of 16th century theory dead in its tracks).

The Voynich’s unusual quire numbers are puzzling too, and perfectly consonant with a mid-to-late 15th century dating. Yet frustratingly nobody has yet discovered a single example of another document with the same abbreviated longhand Latin ordinal numbering scheme: finding even one document using that same numbering style would surely open up a fascinating door into the manuscript’s early past.

But personally, I think there’s a high chance that the final page (f116v) marginalia will turn out to be some kind of scrappy French Secretary Hand, with “michiton oladabas” perhaps even saying nichil or even nichil obstat. The top marginalia line of f116v could also be a dedication or note to a “Simon Sint”, it’s hard to tell. These offer such tangible promise of connecting the Voynich to real people or places, yet so many speculative readings have been proposed that it’s all too easy to just ignore them.

And yet all the same, perhaps the richest vein to tap has been the raw internal codicology of the Voynich drawings themselves. If we could only find some ingenious way of connecting pages together (comparing DNA fingerprints of different bifolios, multispectral scans of inks or vellum, mapping the varying thicknesses of pages along their edges, etc), we could make a really great stab at reconstructing the original page order.

As examples, I discussed Q9 (“Quire 9”), Q13 and various out-of-order herbal pages at length in “The Curse of the Voynich”, while I’ve also discussed Q8 and Q20 here (as well as Q20’s paragraph stars), and indeed on Glen Claston’s thoughts on the nine-rosette foldout Q14 as well the ‘chicken scratch’ marginalia on its back.

But as should be apparent from the constellation of links strung through the preceding paragraphs like fairy lights, this remains an utterly fragmented research area. In each individual case, I can tell a speculative story about what I think happened to the manuscript to leave a particular set of details in the curious manner we find them arranged today, but I’m completely aware that that’s simply not good enough, even if I do try to take the totality of evidence into consideration at each point.

All the same, I continue to be of the opinion that it may not be to everyone’s tastes but studying the Voynich Manuscript’s codicology is pretty much as good as we can get – that finding historical parallels for individual drawings or indeed matching the roots of individual plants will never be enough to snip through its Gordian knot. Finding out what happened is the most pragmatic stepping stone back in time we have – so we should try harder to make what we have solid enough to step on, right?

Last week  (3rd February 2011) saw the US premiere of “The Book That Can’t Be Read”, the long-awaited National Geographic channel airing of the recent ORF documentary on the Voynich Manuscript. Though it prominently features the benign beardiness of everyone’s favourite Voynich expert Rene Zandbergen, for a pleasant change the star of the show is undoubtedly the manuscript itself, with the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library’s acquiescence to radiocarbon dating of the vellum the shining jewel in the Austrian documentary makers’ crown. If you missed it, it’s showing again shortly (10th February 2011, 4PM): it’s a fairly up-to-the-minute introduction to the VMs, so you should definitely fetch a mid-sized bag of toffee popcorn and settle down on your sofa for this one.

Interestingly, I don’t know if they significantly re-edited the programme for an American audience, but I was pleased – no: delighted, actually – to see some scans of the manuscript the film researchers had taken dotted among the set of low resolution Voynich promo photos on the NatGeo webpage (all © ORF). For example, slide #11 has the infamous erased signature on f1r (the frontmost page of the manuscript), which – with a bit of low-impact Gimp-fu – looks like this:-

Voynich Manuscript f1r, "Jacobj a Tepenece" signature, uv, enhanced

Voynich Manuscript f1r, erased signature

Having long ago slaved to produce not-quite-as-good versions of this from the RGB scans, it’s a pleasure to finally see this in its non-visible ultra-violet glory: to my eyes, it reads “Jacobj à Tepenece / Prag”, but I’ll happily defer to palaeographers working from higher resolution scans.

Slide #12 contains another UV scan, this time of my personal favourite piece of Voynich marginalia – the tiny letters at the top of f17r. Despite its ridiculously low resolution, what should be clear from the image (again, slightly Gimp-enhanced) is that the Voynich letters at the end (“oteeeol aim”, as per The Curse of the Voynich pp.24-25, 30) are an integral part of the writing, just as I claimed when I first saw them in 2006. The point being that if you accept that, then it becomes very likely that this and (by implication) the “michiton” marginalia on the end page were added not by a later owner, but by the encipherer of the VMs himself/herself. All fascinating stuff that, in my opinion, cuts deep to the heart of the VMs’ historical nature, but I’d be a little surprised if the documentary has been edited to cover it.

Voynich Manuscript, f17r marginalia, uv, enhanced

The "meilhor aller" marginalia from f17r of the Voynich Manuscript

Finally, the last photo of immediate interest to Voynich researchers is slide #13, which shows a close-up of the exposed quire bindings (i.e. with the manuscript’s cover partially removed). This kind of view offers a lot of information that you can’t normally see, because the bifolios are so firmly bound together that you can’t get at all close to the sewing holes in the spine of each quire – which is good for conservation, but bad for codicology.

Voynich Manuscript binding, close-up

View of the Voynich Manuscript's binding

Here, the features that particularly intrigue me are the faint writing on the inside cover (bottom left arrow); the non-continuous line of marks across the quire spines (mid-right arrow); and the many redundant sewing stations (needle holes from earlier bindings, indicated by short red underlines). These inexorably point to the manuscript’s complex reordering and rebinding history, i.e. where its quires and bifolios have danced a complicated quadrille over time to end up in their final order. What I don’t really understand is why codicologists don’t have entire conferences devoted to the Voynich Manuscript, because to my eyes it is surely the Everest of codicology – a complex, multi-layered artefact whose secret inner history can only practically be revealed through prolonged, collaborative, non-textual forensic analysis. And yet it’s only me who seems to have published anything substantial on it!

Anyway, set your PVRs to stun record and let me know what you think of the Naked Science documentary. Hopefully the documentary makers will now celebrate the occasion by releasing more information,data and photos on the Voynich Manuscript that they took during their research (hint: high quality versions of the above three images would be a very good start)!

The recent Austrian Voynich documentary gave a nice clear radiocarbon dating (1404-1438 at 95% confidence) for the vellum, and finished by suggesting (based on the swallow-tail merlons on the nine-rosette castle) a Northern Italian origin for the manuscript. But I have to say that as art history proofs go, that last bit is a little bit, ummm, lame: it’s a single detail on a single page, that might just as well be a copy of a previous drawing (or a drawing of a description, or an imaginary castle) as a real castle.

Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of sensible art history reasons to suspect Northern Italy 1450-1470, for example:-

  1. Swallow-tail merlons on the nine-rosette castle are reminiscent of those on many Northern Italian (and Southern Italian, too) castles of the 14th and 15th centuries
  2. The rendering of the sun faces on f67v1 and f68v1 are reminiscent of the Visconti sun raza, most notably as per  in the Milan Duomo’s “Apocalypse” apse window (1420), so arguably point to a post-1420 dating
  3. Voynichese seems to be a more advanced version of those ciphers in Sforza / Urbino cipher ledgers that have the same verbose ‘4o’ character pair
  4. Handwriting is strongly reminiscent of Milanese “humanist” hands circa 1460-1470
  5. Dots on ‘pharma’ glassware (f89r1 and f89r2) are strongly reminiscent of post-1450 Murano glass decoration
  6. Decoration on barrels / albarelli is most reminiscent of 1450-1475 Islamic-influence maiolica
  7. The kind of baths apparently depicted in the balneo quire became most fashionable in Italy between 1450 and 1490
  8. The costumes and hair styles of the many Voynich ‘nymphs’ have been dated as belonging to the second half of the 15th century (and typically dated later rather than earlier)
  9. Parallel hatching only appeared in Florence in 1440, and in Venice (and elsewhere in Italy) from about 1450 onwards, before giving way to cross-hatching from about 1480 onwards.
  10. (etc)

But Northern Italy 1404-1438? Actually, apart from the first two above (which I have to say are probably the least persuasive of all), the evidence falls away to almost nothing, rather like an oddly disturbing dream fading away as you wake up in the morning.

But what about Germany circa 1404-1438? After all, Erwin Panofsky thought a German origin most likely (though perhaps he took a little bit too much notice of Richard Salomon’s readings of the marginalia), and there’s a touch of Germanic influence in the “augst” marginalia month name for the Leo zodiac page. Others have suggested Germany over the years, most recently Volkhard Huth (though I somehow doubt it’s Jim Child’s pronounceable early German, or Beatrice Gwynn’s left-right-mirrored Middle High German, while Huth’s 1480-1500 dating now seems a little adrift as well).

Art history links with Germany are thin on the ground in the Voynich Manuscript: it’s a (very) short list, comprising the general stylistic similarity between the VMs zodiac’s central rosettes and early German woodblock calendars, and the recent (but very tenuous) cisioianus comparison with f67r2: Panofsky also pointed to Richard Salomon’s reading of some clumps of marginalia as German, and to the fact the VMs eventually surfaced in Prague… but this is all pretty optimistic (if not actually hallucinatory) stuff. Basically, you’d need to do a lot better than that to build up any kind of plausible case. (Though I don’t know if Volkhard Huth added any new observations to this list).

But one thing that emerged since I wrote my parallel hatching history page is that the technique actually seems to have emerged in Germany before it appeared in Florence. I mentioned that there was a German master engraver known as “Master E.S.” (also known as the “Master of 1466”), who produced a number of hatched and cross-hatched pieces in the period 1450-1467: and I was content with the generally accepted art history notion that the technique probably spread northwards from Florence to Venice and Germany at roughly the same time (i.e. 1450).

However, the problem with this presumed ‘Italy → Germany’ model is that there was another German engraver (“Meister der Spielkarten”, “The Master of the Cards“) who was active (1425-1450) a generation or so before Master E.S., and who includes fine parallel lines in his work, most notably in the oldest known set of copperplate playing cards (1440). Anyone who wants to read up on this should probably rush to get themselves a copy of Martha Anne Wood Wolff’s 1979 Yale PhD thesis “The Master of the playing cards: an early engraver and his relationship to traditional media”. (Please let me know if you do!) Alternatively, you might well find things of interest in Martha Wolff’s paper “Some Manuscript Sources for the Playing Card Master’s Number Cards” , The Art Bulletin 64, Dec. 1982, p.587-600.

Of course, I don’t think for a moment that The Master of the Cards’ clear line and nuanced material rendering has anything directly to do with what we see in the VMs. Rather, it just seems worth noting that the existence of parallel hatching in the VMs is consistent with a post-1420 origin if German, with a post-1440 origin if from Florence , or a post-1450 origin if from elsewhere.

Further to the recent (and much-commented-upon) post on Godefridus Aloysius Kinner’s correspondence, I had a snoop around to see what other early modern correspondence roadkill I could scrape off the infobahn’s oh-so-narrow historical lane. The most useful page I found was from the Warburg’s Scaliger Research Project (kindly established by Professor Anthony Grafton): this contained a long-ish list of (mainly printed) correspondence collections (and the like).

Might one of these contain a mention (however fleeting or marginal) of the VMs as it (appears to have) trolled around Europe in the 16th Century, travelling to Prague via south-east France? Even though we can probably eliminate most of them (unfortunately), a couple do stand out as, ummm, “vague maybes”:

ARLIER: J. N. Pendergrass (ed.), Correspondance d’Antoine Arlier, humaniste Languedocien 1527-1545, Genève 1990.

LIPSIUS: Aloïs Gerlo and Hendrik D.L. Vervliet, Inventaire de la correspondance de Juste Lipse 1564-1606, Anvers 1968.

Might Antoine Arlier or Lipsius have noted the VMs as something of contemporary interest? It’s possible… but the odds are against it. Still, mustn’t grumble: one slim research lead (never mind two!) is always better than none at all.

Another nice thing from the Warburg page was a link to the CAMENA / CERA letter digitization project:-

CERA contains 90 printed collections (55,000 pages) of letters written from ca. 1520 through 1770 in Germany and neighbouring countries.

Make of that what you will (I didn’t get very far, perhaps you’ll do better than me).

There are some other leads listed there… so… if you are a history-mad masochist with an interest in the VMs who just happens to find themselves with a day to spare at the Universitätsbibliothek at Erlangen, at the Rare Books & Manuscripts Department (Dousa) at Leiden, or with access to a copy of Krüger’s printed catalogue of Hamburg’s Uffenbach-Wolfsche Briefsammlung, then I guess you’ll know what to do. Good luck! 🙂

Though the Dean at All Saints in the Citadel of Prague was one of the earliest people to mention the Voynich Manuscript (in two letters to his old friend Athanasius Kircher), poor old Godefridus (Gottfried) Aloysius Kinner of Löwenthurn hasn’t really featured much in the discussion so far.

In Kinner’s letter dated 4th January 1666, he mentions to Kircher that their mutual friend Johannes Marcus Marci asked after “that arcane book which he gave up to you“, which itself seems to mark Marci’s (rather more famous) letter to Kircher as genuine. Kinner also expresses cynicism about alchemy, judging it to be as “worthless” as judicial astrology has proved to be.

Kinner’s letter dated 5 January 1667 from the following New Year finds him still battling with asthma and a cough, and notes that even though Marci “has lost his memory of nearly everything“, he still “wishes to know through me whether you have yet proved an Oedipus in solving that book which he sent via the Father Provincial last year and what mysteries you think it may contain“. He also laments the recent death of Gasparus Schott.

Up until now, most Voynich-related archival search has been carried out by relentlessly trawling through Kircher’s obsessively overflowing (and increasingly well-documented and accessible) inbox. However, for all its interest, this is rather like hearing only one side of a phone conversation – there’s only so much you can reliably infer. I wondered: might there be other letters from/to Kinner out there, or perhaps even books (as these often contained copies of letters)?

A quick online trawl turned up some Kinner letters from 1664-1665 with Christiaan Huygens, reproduced in book V of his “Œuvres complètes”. Curiously, Huygens’ correspondence was published in 22 volumes (from 1888-1950!) yet doesn’t seem to get mentioned much (I ought to add it to my list of correspondence projects): presumably we’d be most interested in looking at “Tome Sixieme: Correspondance 1666-1669” (which I don’t think is online)…

The mention of the Jesuit Gaspar Schott in Kinner’s 1667 letter is also interesting: not only did Schott study under Kircher, he also (while a Professor at Palermo) corresponded with Guericke, Huygens and Boyle, compiling it all into the “Organum mathematicum“, a massive collection of novelties and things of contemporary interest… which Kinner helped edit. Such are the bonds which tie a community together.

Incidentally, the nine volumes of the Organum are: (1) Arithmeticus, (2) Geometricus, (3) Fortificatorius, (4) Chronologicus, (5) Horographicus, (6) Astronomicus, (7) Astrologicus, (8) Steganographicus, (9) Musicus. Of course, book eight might be the most interesting for Voynich researchers. 🙂

WorldCat lists other books by Kinner, such as his (1653) “Elucidatio geometrica problematis austriaci sive quadraturæ circuli“, and his (1664) “Stella Matutina In Medio Nebulae, Sive Laudatio Funebris“, but I somehow doubt that these will produce anything useful.

From all the above, it should be clear here that we are talking about an active community of people continually corresponding across Europe: and indeed, over recent decades letters have become perhaps the most fashionable form of historical documentation amongst early modern / Renaissance historians.

So, you would have thought it would be useful to find out if there is an archive somewhere that just happens to have more correspondence from Kinner, right?

However sensible an idea, this immediately runs into a brick wall: the lack of any kind of cross-collection finding aid for early modern historical correspondence. In fact, libraries’ and private collections’ programmes for scanning and indexing letters are decades behind the many (far more high-visibility) book-scanning programmes. Funding-wise, it seems that books are “sexy”, while letters are “unsexy”: but actually, ask working historians and you’ll find that this is just wrong.

My guess is that the right place to start such a quest would be Book VI of Huygens’ Oeuvres Complètes, to see if it says where Huygens’ correspondence to/from Kinner is held. It may well be that this points the way to more of the same, who knows?

UPDATE: thanks to Christopher Hagedorn’s exemplary persistence in the face of the BnF’s flaky servers, we now have a direct link to Book VI of Huygens’ Oeuvres Complètes. From this we can tell that Kinner’s correspondence seems to stop dead in 1667, the same year that Marci died. My guess is that perhaps this too marked the end of Kinner’s life (and the likely end of this avenue). Ah well. 🙁

A blog post dated yesterday (26th September 2009) contains a discussion with German fantasy author Susanne Gerdom. Curiously, she says:

Die “Voynich-Verschwörung” spielt nun leider in Prag, und das ist inzwischen bei Fantasyautoren beinahe so en vogue wie Vampire und Elben.

I was so surprised at what the first half appeared to be saying that I asked Philip Neal: very kindly (and quickly), he pinged back his translation:-

The “Voynich Conspiracy” is now on show in Prague – unfortunately – and in the mean time it is nearly as modish with fantasy authors as vampires and elves.

So… it would seem that “Voynich-Verschwörung” is a reference to some kind of play / show / exhibition running in Prague. But if so, I’ve never heard of it; and (as you’ve probably worked out by now) I’m perpetually listening out for anything like that. Has anybody any idea what this is referring to? Please leave a comment if you happen to find out!

Jan Hurych has very kindly emailed in a translation of the short piece of text I uncovered relating to the 14th century Prague apothecary Antonio of Florence. With a few minor style tweaks, here it is:-

The restoration of gothic painting in the house U Lilie [“By Lilly”] no. 459/1, Malé náměstí [“The Little Square”] 11.

During the 14th century, this house played host to a number of Italian apothecaries, such as Angelus of Florence who arrived in Prague in 1346. It was he who founded – at Emperor Charles IV’s suggestion – the botanical garden in Jindřišské ulici [“Jindrisska street”] in Prague’s Novém Městě [“New Town”] district, where the main Post Office is located today. In 1353, Angelus (who would later own the neighbouring house) lived at no. 459/1a, today called “Rychtrův dům” [Rychter’s house]. The business was continued by his maternal cousin Matthew of Florence. The first record referring to the house ‘U Lilie’ is from 1402 when it was already called that way and housed Rudolph’s pharmacy [no connection to the Emperor! j.h.] In 14th century the pharmacy was owned by Onofrio of Florence who sold the vineyard “Na Slupi” [“at the pillars”] to the apothecary Antonius of Florence, the owner of the neighbouring house no. 459/I, now part of Rychter’s house – apparently at that time these two houses were connected together.

Because I can tell that you’re simply desperate to see what this looks like from space, here’s a Google Maps link. Isn’t it amazing that we can put such a high-powered geographic database to such trivial uses? And as far as “Na Slupi” goes, Wikipedia’s page on Prague’s New Town says that “The slopes and plateaux east of Na Slupi street and south of the Augustinian convent were merely vineyards and extended green spaces.

Jan is convinced that this is indeed probably the specific alchemical Antonio de Florence we were looking for. He also notes:

In the 14th century, Emperor Charles IV brought many Italians in Bohemia – he knew Italy well, he was fighting there with his father John de Luxemburg, the one who fought Edward at Crecy and died there ( the Black Prince was said to take his coat of arms in his honor as his emblem).

Incidentally, while reading up on 13th and 14th century Bohemia, I stumbled across Wikipedia’s page on King Ottokar II of Bohemia, son of (the arguably more famous) King Wenceslaus. Ottokar II’s bitter (but ultimately successful) rival for the Imperial throne was Rudolph of Habsburg. The two were later commemorated by Dante as being locked in amiable discussion beside the gates to Purgatory. What I found fascinating was that this is presumably also why Rudolph II named his pet lion “Ottakar” – to commemorate the political jousting between (the victorious) Emperor Rudolph I and (the subdued) Bohemian king Ottokar II. Of course, I could be wrong but… this does have a certain ring of truth to it, wouldn’t you say?

I’ve just received (directly from the author, thanks!) a copy of Vladimír Karpenko’s admirably thorough 1990 AMBIX paper on the “cesta spravedlivá” pair of manuscripts. From his analysis, it seems very much as though these are both genuinely 15th century and (just as Rafal predicted) entirely unconnected with the VMs. Oh well! 🙁

Even so, the secret history of the mysterious “Antonio of Florence” (whose alchemical presence lurks behind this whole constellation of documents) is something which nobody seems to have tried to piece together in any substantive way. Of course, my particular interest in this lies in whether it has anything to do with Antonio Averlino of Florence (1400-ca.1469), whose libro architettonico (1455-1465) demonstrated familiarity both with books of secrets and with alchemical concepts (fol. 102r), and whose life prior to 1433 is largely unknown.

Right now, here is how the evidence sits:-

(1) As far as the alchemical background goes, the first two Latin works of Bohemian alchemy appeared circa 1400, attributed to “Johannes Ticinensis” – “Processus de lapide philosophorum” and “Aenigma de lapide“. Though both are now lost, German translations of them appear in the (1670) “Drei vortreffliche chymische Bücher des Johann Ticinensis, eines böhmischen Priesters, Antonii Abbatia, eines der Kunst erfahrenen Mensch und Eduardi Kelläi, eines weltberühmten Engländers, Tractate“, and in the even less snappily-titled (1691) “Johannis Ticinensis, eines Böhmischen Priesters/ Anthonii de Abbatia, eines in der Kunst erfahrenen Mönchs/ und Edoardi Kellaei eines Welt-berühmten Engländers vortreffliche und ausführliche chymische Bücher; Allen der geheimen und Hohen Kunst-Liebhabern zu Nutz und merklichen Unterricht in Teutscher Sprach übergesetzt/ und herausgegeben durch einen/ der niemahls genug gepriessenen Wissenschaft sonderbaren Befohrderer. Mit einer Warnung-Vorrede wider die Sophisten und Betriger“. (Neither is currently available on the Internet, I believe). This really should be the starting point for any study of Bohemian alchemy.

(2) In the first half of the 15th century, a Bohemian by the name of Jan z Lazu was noted (in several documentary sources) as having been skeptical about alchemy. Bohuslav Balbin (“Balbinus”) mentions two of his lost works: “zlato blato” (“Gold – Mud”?) and “aurum luttini” (I can’t read that final word satisfactorily, so please say if you know what it is supposed to say). Wraný (1902) “Geschichte der Chemie und der auf chemischer Grundlage beruhenden Betriebe in Böhmen bis zur Mitte des 19.Jahrhunderts” summarizes what (little) is known about Jan z Lazu. Not consulted (though Rene Zandbergen has apparently seen this).

(3) In medieval Bohemia, Northern Italian ore prospectors (known locally as “Vlach” or “Wallach”)  often kept their secret notes in books known as “Wallenbuch”. According to Wraný (1902), the earliest Wallenbuch dates to 1430 and is attributed to “Antonious von Medici”. Of course, after 1945 Breslau became Wroclaw, which is why I don’t yet know where this intriguing-sounding Wallenbuch is. Not consulted (though the two Wroclaw academic libraries here and here are where I’d start).

(4) In the last few days, Daniele Metili very kindly left a comment here on Cipher Mysteries noting a hitherto unremarked “Anthony of Florence” reference. Noted in Kristeller’s famous “Iter Italicum (Alia Itinera I)”, Olomouc State Archive manuscript #349 (described on pp.133-134 of this scan of J. Bistricky, M. Bohåcek, F. Cåda, “Seznam Rukopisu Metropolitní Kapituly v Olomouci,” in Ståtní Archiv v Opave, Pruvodce po archivních fondech III [Pruvodce po statních archivech XIV; Prague, 1961]) is a collection of late 15th century alchemical works (“Varia praecepta alchimistica in latina et germanica lingua”), one of which is entitled “Fixatio argenti magistri Antonii de Florencia probata per Johannem de Olomucz discipulum eius“. Not consulted (but very intriguing, nonetheless). Who was this Johannes of Olomouc? Though the generally-best-known “John of Olomouc” from the 1400s was a Hussite burned alive in 1415, this seems unlikely to be connected at all. Might this person (as Rafal Prinke suggested) have instead been Jan z Lazu?

(5) 1457 “cesta spravedlivá” manuscript (supposedly by Antonio of Florence’s Czech servant) was composed.

(6) After 1606 (and probably before 1610, I’d guess), a document commenting on the “cesta spravedlivá” was written, presumably in Prague and close to the Rudolfine Imperial Court.

(7) According to Zibrt (thanks Rafal!), in 1611, two versions of the “Tractatus I. de secretissimo philosophorum arcano, II. de lapide philosophico” were printed in Prague. These were attributed to Jan z Lazu, who claimed (in one of the versions) to have been a follower of Antonio of Florence. This same printed edition was later noted by Bohuslav Balbin (“Balbinus”). Jan Hurych believes that this was (or was derived from) an original 15th century work, which is certainly possible.

(8) In 1613,  the same small book was reproduced in “Theatrum Chemicum” volume IV.

(9) Around 1704, what I call “the Leopold copy” was executed: this included copies of the “cesta spravedlivá” manuscript, and an “observationes quaedam…” text (which seems to have been based on an earlier document (marked (6) above).

What is going on here? I think it is important to note that nowhere in the cesta spravedlivá is any explicit connection made with Jan z Lazu – the connection with him only seems to have been made after 1600 or so. This, however, would depend on whether the alchemical manuscript upon which the 1611 books were based was genuine or fake – I’m not sure if this question has been asked. Could it be that the two people genuinely linked here were actually “Antonio of Florence” and “John of Olomouc” (as per the Olomouc manuscript), but that circa 1610 somebody guessed (wrongly?) that John of Olomouc and Jan z Lazu were the same person, and so felt the need to construct a secondary, nationalistic alchemical work to fill in the large gap between the two?

There’s a really great paper waiting to be written here (though probably not really enough for a dissertation), trying to answer one question: how do all these fragments relate to one another?

But there may yet be an even simpler answer: here’s a reference [pp.71-72] to a Prague apothecary from circa 1400-1420 called “Antonius de Florencia” that I dug up. Someone with better access to the archival sources should be able to work out precise dates for this person, as he would seem to be a far more local (and likely) candidate for the mysterious alchemist at the heart of this story:-

Restaurování gotické malby v domě U Lilie čp. 459/I, Malé náměstí 11 Ve 14. století si bydlení Na Malém náměstí oblíbili lékárníci, zejména italští. Roku 1346 přišel do Prahy Angelus de Florencie, který založil na pokyn Karla IV. bota- nickou zahradu v Jindřišské ulici na Novém Městě pražském, v místě dnešní hlavní pošty. V roce 1353 pobýval v Praze Augustinus de Florencie, lékárník a budoucí vlastník vedlejšího domu čp. 459/Ia, nyní zvaného Rychtrův dům, v jeho živnosti po-

kračoval sestřenec (bratranec z matčiny strany) Matěj z Florencie. První zmínka o domu U Lilie pochází z r. 1402, kdy již nesl dnešní pojmenování a byla zde Rudol- fova lékárna. Ve 14. století vlastnil lékárnu lékárník z Florencie Onoforio, od kterého zakoupil vinici na Slupi lékarník Antonius de Florencia, který byl majitelem vedlej- šího domu čp. 459/I, dnes součást Rychterova domu; oba objekty byly patrně v té do- bě spojeny.

Incidentally, looking at a modern map, I’d guess (so please correct me if I’m wrong!) that “Laz” is actually the town of Łazy in Upper Silesia (southern Poland), a good way away from Olomouc. Hmmm… could it be that the town of “Łazy” was some kind of verbal inspiration for the Icelandic children’s TV show Lazytown? Of course, that’s a thoroughly stupid (if not “rotten”) question – but I thought it would be fun to be the first one to ask it. 🙂