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! 🙂

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 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! 🙂

For decades, Voynich Manuscript research has languished in an all-too-familiar ocean of maybes, all of them swelling and fading with the tides of fashion. But now, thanks to the cooperation between the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the documentary makers at Austrian pro omnia films gmbh, we have for the very first time a basic forensic framework for what the Voynich Manuscript actually is, vis-à-vis:-

  • The four pieces of vellum they had tested (at the University of Arizona / Tucson) all dated to 1420-1, or (to be precise) 1404-1438 with 95% confidence (“two sigma”).
  • The ink samples that were tested (by McCrone Associates, Inc.) were consistent with having been written onto fresh vellum (rather than being later additions), with the exception of the “cipher key” attempt on f1r which (consistent with its 16th century palaeography) came out as a 16th-17th century addition.
  • It seems highly likely, therefore, that the Voynich Manuscript is a genuine object (as opposed to some unspecified kind of hoax, fake or sham on old vellum).

The f1r cipher “key” now proven to have been added in the 16th/17th century 

The programme-makers conclude (from the ‘Ghibelline’ swallow-tail merlons on the nine-rosette page’s “castle”, which you can see clearly in the green Cipher Mysteries banner above!) that the VMs probably came from Northern Italy… but as you know, it’s art history proofs’ pliability that makes Voynich Theories so deliciously gelatinous, let’s say.

Anyway… with all this in mind, what is the real state of play for Voynich research as of now?

Firstly, striking through most of the list of Voynich theories, it seems that we can bid a fond farewell to:

  • Dee & Kelley as hoaxers (yes, Dee might have owned it… but he didn’t make it)
  • Both Roger Bacon (far too early) and Francis Bacon (far too late)
  • Knights Templars (far too early) and Rosicrucians (far too late)
  • Post-Columbus dating, such as Leonell Strong’s Anthony Askham theory (sorry, GC)

It also seems that my own favoured candidate Antonio Averlino (“Filarete”) is out of the running (at least, in his misadventures in Sforza Milan 1450-1465), though admittedly by only a whisker (radiocarbon-wise, that is).

In the short term, the interesting part will be examining how this dating stacks up with other classes of evidence, such as palaeography, codicology, art history, and cryptography:-

  • My identification of the nine-rosette castle as the Castello Sforzesco is now a bit suspect, because prior to 1451 it didn’t have swallowtail merlons (though it should be said that it’s not yet known whether the nine-rosette page itself was dated).
  • The geometric patterns on the VMs’ zodiac “barrels” seem consistent with early Islamic-inspired maiolica – but are there any known examples from before 1450?
  • The “feet” on some of the pharmacological “jars” seem more likely to be from the end of the 15th century than from its start – so what is going on there?
  • The dot pattern on the (apparent) glassware in the pharma section seems to be a post-1450 Murano design motif – so what is going on there?
  • The shared “4o” token that also appears in the Urbino and Sforza Milan cipher ledgers – might Voynichese have somehow been (closer to) the source for these, rather than a development out of them?
  • When did the “humanist hand” first appear, and what is the relationship between that and the VMs’ script?
  • Why have all the “nymph” clothing & hairstyle comparisons pointed to the end of the fifteenth century rather than to the beginning?

Longer-term, I have every confidence that the majority of long-standing Voynich researchers will treat this as a statistical glitch against their own pet theory, i.e. yet another non-fitting piece of evidence to explain away – for example, it’s true that dating is never 100% certain. But if so, more fool them: hopefully, this will instead give properly open-minded researchers the opportunity to enter the field and write some crackingly good papers. There is still much to be learnt about the VMs, I’m sure.

As for me, I’m going to be carefully revisiting the art history evidence that gave me such confidence in a 1450-1470 dating, to try to understand why it is that the art history and the radiocarbon dating disagree. History is a strange thing: even though thirty years isn’t much in the big scheme of things, fashions and ideas change with each year, which is what gives both art history and intellectual history their traction on time. So why didn’t that work here?

Anyway, my heartiest congratulations go out to Andreas Sulzer and his team for taking the time and effort to get the science and history right for their “DAS VOYNICH-RÄTSEL” documentary, which I very much look forward to seeing on the Austrian channel ORF2 on Monday 10th December 2009!

UPDATE: see the follow-up post “Was Vellum Stored Flat, Folded, or Cut?” for more discussion on what the dating means for Voynich research going forward…

A Voynich Manuscript-themed episode of Franco-Belgian comic book The Adventures Of Jhen has just (September 2009) come out. Entitled “La Sêrênissime“, this takes the eponymic late-medieval hero Jhen from Milan in 1432 on to Venice: unsurprisingly, he is “en quête d’un certaine livre“, as it says here.


The comic has a nice ligne claire style, and evokes both Venice from the air and St Mark’s Basilica, which (considering that’s what I think is at the centre of the nine-rosette page) is either great research or a splendid coincidence. I’ve only seen a few sample pages from Jean Pleyers’ website (click on the [Actualities] button on the left of his screen to get to the samples) so far, but it does look like quite a nice thing to buy if you’re looking to expand your collection of Voynichiana. I’m sure Dennis will be pleased! 🙂

Just to let you know that a Voynich Manuscript radio interview I gave a few days ago (either download it, or click on the Flash Player play button [half a screen down on the right] to hear it) has just gone live on the Red Ice Creations website. They wanted me to chat about all things Voynich… and an hour later I eventually ran out of steam. 🙂

Pretty much all the fashionable VMs research topics you’d expect to me to crank out – Wilfrid Voynich, John Dee, Rudolf II, Rene Zandbergen, Sinapius, Newbold, dating, TV documentaries, the nine-rosette page, page references, the evolution of Voynichese, cipher history, Trithemius, Leon Battista Alberti, unbreakable ciphers, intellectual history, books of secrets, Brunelleschi’s hoist, enciphered machines, Voynich Bullshit Index, Quattrocento intellectual paranoia, patents, even quantum computing! – get covered, so there should be something there for nearly everyone. 🙂

And if that’s not enough for you, Red Ice Radio has a 45-minute follow-on interview with me in their member-only area: this covers cryptology, intractability, alchemy, Adam Maclean, hoax theories, Gordon Rugg, Cardan grilles, postmodernism, astronomy, astrology (lunar and solar), calendars, Antonio Averlino / Filarete, canals, water-powered machines, (not) the head of John the Baptist, Alan Turing, Enigma, Pascal, the Antikythera Mechanism, Fourier analysis, Ptolemaic epicycles, Copernicus, Kepler, Kryptos sculpture, Tamam Shud, Adrenalini Brothers, steganography, copy vs original, wax tablets, even al-Qaeda!

OK, I’m not a professional broadcaster, and it’s all impromptu (so there are a handful of pauses), but it does bring plenty of Voynich-related stuff that’s appeared here over the last 18 months together into a single place. Enjoy!

Following six years of arduous research, an unnamed 44-year-old German industrial technician has been trying (unsuccessfully) since 2005 to get his/her Voynich theory “De Aqua” published, either as a book or as an article. Frustrated by the lack of progress, last month he/she placed thirty-three sizeable chunks of it onto YouTube.

Of course, I fully understand that a busy person like you can’t really spare the time to trawl through several hours of German-text video presentation. So, to save you the bother, I’ve compiled a great big list of all highlights as seen from my chair [though here’s the final part (#33), which is a visual montage of all the interesting claims from the first 32 parts].

(1) Part #1 sets off with the basic format we’ll see throughout – endless pages of (almost entirely) German text fading in and out on a coloured background. Firstly, the top-level description of the theory gets presented: that the Voynich is actually entitled “De Aqua” (i.e. “concerning water“) and that the EVA transcription “otork” somehow translates as “aqua”. It then lists page after page of late-medieval things related to water. Part #2 asserts the author’s historical conclusions – that the VMs was written between 1525 and 1608 by four authors (in four writing systems), and that the underlying plaintext is German & Italian – before outlining the VMs’ known provenance since then.

(2) Part #3 is a bit of a scattergun attack on the 16th and early 17th centuries, with Kepler, Dee, Kelly, Paracelsus, Sir Francis Drake, Nostradamus, Isabella Cortese (who probably didn’t exist, incidentally), German mathematician Adam Ries, the Church’s Index of Forbidden Books, etc etc all name-dropped in quick succession. Part #4 (only three minutes long, most of the others are closer to ten minutes each) links the three red shapes on f1r to (a) “Astrologie / Astronomie“, (b) “Fauna / Flora“, and (c) “Medizin“. No proof, no evidence, just presented as fact.

(3) Part #5 begins a lengthy discussion of medieval herbals, concluding that f2r depicts Lactuca virosa, f3r depicts a Spanish pepper, that f4v depicts an aubergine (i.e. that the VMs must post-date 1500). Part #6 continues in the same vein, while Part #7 argues that f33v depicts maize (which is where the claimed earliest date of 1525 comes in). Part #8 is broadly similar, lots more of the same.

(4) Part #9 has some nice pictures of things resembling the jars in the pharmacological section (though I couldn’t see references or dates for these?), as well as lots of parallels for details, including a nice little dragon (was this from the same Paris manuscript Sergio Toresella once mentioned?). Part #10 has many more parallels (including the famous “armadillo” [hah!] and the Novara coat of arms, etc), as does Part #11 which again returns to the VMs’ f25v dragon.

(5) Part #12 goes off the rails a bit, with claimed resemblances to body parts; Part #13 covers menstruation and the spongum somniferum (for which Caterina Sforza included a recipe, as I recall), though I can’t make out the yellow annotations to the marginalia on f66r (2:41 into the video); while Part #14 reads f77r as depicting the four elements.

(6) Part #15 gets back on track with astronomical parallels; Part #16 looks closely at the rather strange page f67v2 and proposes that the corner shapes are actually constellations (such as Pegasus); Part #17 goes off on a fairly pointless Giordano Bruno tangent; Part #18 looks at the zodiac pages (including a little discussion on the month names); Part #19 focuses mainly on the month names such as the Leo page (because of its Germanic-looking “augst” month name), though it beats me what Al Pacino is doing in there (4:02). 😮

(7) Part #20 looks at crowns and golden fleeces; Part #21 goes back to the zodiac nymphs, looking more at the structure of the pages, before moving on to discuss the 15th century “De Sphaera” by the deaf Milanese illustrator Cristoforo de Predis, who worked for the Sforza family (ah, them again).

(8) Part #22 (are you still reading this? Just checking!) compares the drawings in Quire 13 with Roman aqueducts and similar water structures; while Part #23 looks at Leonardo da Vinci’s take on water, compares (at 1:21) a detail on f79r with a sextant (Rich SantaColoma recently blogged that the same detail reminded him of early “swimming girdles”, though I suspect neither have it right), and discusses rainbows too. Part #24 discusses water nymph details (poses, rings, cross, horseshoe, spinning top, nail, etc).

(9) Part #25 focuses (rather unsatisfactorily, it has to be said) on various tenuous links with alchemy, with the only high point being the comparison between the balneo section’s “giant grapes” page (f83v) and a page in Das Buch der waren Kunst zu distillieren (1512).

(10) Part #26 is pretty thin apart from a fascinating parallel (0:53) between a detail of f76v and a drawing of Mercurius in Liber II of Giordano Bruno’s (1591) De Imaginum Compositione; Part #27 is even thinner; while Part #28 proposes that the nine-rosette page is a map of Italy with Venice in the middle (yes, I’d say) and Pompeii in the top left (no, as it was only rediscovered in 1748). [I’m not convinced by Valdarno and the Wasserturm, either.]

(11) Part #29 (Perfume and Plague) didn’t really work for me at all; while Part #30 (Hidden Characters in the Manuscript) only briefly gets interesting when looking (1:53) at similarities between our beloved MS408 and Medeltidshandskrift 47 (at Lund University in Sweden) – the discussion of the f17r and f116v marginalia seems superficial and unconvincing to me.

(12) Finally, in Part #31, our anonymous author gets to the point of his whole book – that (unless I’ve misunderstood him/her, which is always possible) some clever computer programmer out there should be able to make use of all the clever cribs he/she has amassed as a result of his/her long journey into the heart of the VMs’ pictures. Part #32 has his/her (fairly diffuse, it has to be said) bibliography; and Part #33, as mentioned above, is a sequential montage of all the visual identifications proposed in parts 1 to 32.

Quite why neither of the German Voynich E-bloggers (hi Elmar, hi Elias) has yet blogged about this I don’t know (perhaps they’re on holiday?): but from where I’m sitting in the UK, there’s plenty to say about it.

Firstly, it is pretty clear that the author has for some years sustained an intense (and independent-minded) assault on the VMs’ pictures – yet at the same time he/she seems quite unaware of many long-running problematic debates, such as the whole “heavy painter” issue. Had the plant on f4v not been overpainted blue, would his/her identification with “aubergine” have been so clear-cut?

In addition, while it’s fantastic to see someone wise to hidden details (such as the concealed people in f86v4, even though this is mislabelled as f68v4 in Part#7), overall I just don’t accept the idea that the VMs’ plants can be identified as solidly as he/she thinks – we’ve now had three or four generations of herbal researchers look at it, with each finding it bewildering in a new way. Furthermore, comparing drawings with modern plants (or even with interpretative drawings of modern plants) is of little use, as virtually every plant you can name has been extensively adapted and altered over the centuries by, ummm, cunning breeders.

While I’m sympathetic to the author’s project and research programme (it is, after all, more or less identical in intention to what I was trying to do with my own “The Curse of the Voynich”), where it falls down is in historical methodology: in this instance, you just can’t get the level of proof you would like from visual similarities, however many of them you try to amass. Has our unnamed author provided coherent and powerful evidence supporting the identification of MS408 as “De Aqua“? I don’t really think so – plants aside, the overwhelming bulk of the discussion is fairly lightweight, and does not gain any real traction on the real history of the manuscript despite the sheer mass of intertextual references.

All the same, there’s plenty of food for thought here (though I wish many of the manuscripts where so many of the nice illustrations were taken from had MS and page references to back them up) – but for all “WilfridVoynich“‘s hard work, the end result simply fails to produce the set of cribs he/she was aiming for. Sorry, but it’s not “De Aqua” as claimed (though, to be honest, I would be hugely unsurprised if the vertical column of letters on f76r does indeed somehow encipher “de aqua”).

The end result, though, is plainly a great personal achievement – and I would be delighted if some of the intriguing and bold visual connections he/she has drawn in it ultimately lead onwards to genuinely productive and useful future research within the overall VMs community. For all its faults and limitations, this is definitely the (virtual) Voynich book of the year for 2009! 😉