I’ve just got home from a short trip to Barcelona (where I gave a talk on gamification at the very enjoyable Gamification World Congress 2014), but which – you guessed it – also involved my diving head-first into the city’s notarial archives.

Long-standing (or do I mean “long-suffering”?) Cipher Mysteries readers may recall that I took the opportunity a few years back to visit the AHPB (Arxiu Històric de Protocols de Barcelona) to hunt for notarial documents cited 50+ years ago by optometrist and local amateur historian José Maria Simón de Guilleuma. He claimed that these showed the presence of telescopes in various inventories and auctions predating the 1609 Dutch invention of the telescope (which would be consistent with Sirtori’s claim that Barcelonan glasses-maker Juan Roget was the real inventor of the telescope), and even gave the subject, the notary and the date for each one. So it should surely be a simple matter to retrieve them and have a look for myself, right?

Well… as Sergio Toresella is fond of saying about archives, “I’ve been in a hole many times, but I’ve never caught a spider”. That is, it’s normally better to go there with an open mind (and be pleased with what you do find) than with a short list (and be disappointed). Unfortunately, there were only four things on my list:-

  1. Notary: Francisco de Pedralbes. Pedro de Cardona, 10 April 1593.
  2. Notary: Francisco de Pedralbes. Maria de Cardona y de Eril, 13 December 1596.
  3. Notary: Geronimo Gali. Jaime Galvany, auction held on 5 September 1608.
  4. Notary: Miguel Axada. Honorato Graner, 6th August 1613

All too short a list. 🙁

Anyway, to help researchers find things in Barcelona’s notarial archives, there are two printed catalogs, both by Lluïsa Cases i Loscos: (1) “Inventarii de l’AHPB” (in several volumes, covering all the AHPB’s holdings), and (2) “Catàleg dels protocols notarials de Barcelona” (covering notarial archives elsewhere in Barcelona).

Because I had already gone to the AHPB (with no success), this time I tackled the other archives. From online searches, I knew that there were at least some notarial documents by Miquel Axada in the Arxiu Històric de la Ciutat de Barcelona (AHCB), so that was my first stop. (But remember to take your passport to sign in with the security guard on the ground floor).

Once on the AHCB’s third floor, I quickly went through their copy of the “Catàleg dels protocols notarials de Barcelona” to find out where I should be looking (note that the most useful bit of the book is the index on the inside back cover, because that tells you where each individual archive’s listing begins inside the book). This directed me to:-

  • PEDRALBES, FRANCESC: AHCB, Arxiu Notarial, XII.3 and XII.19
  • GALI, JERONI: AHCB, Arxiu Notarial, XIII.9
  • AXADA, MIQUEL: AHCB, Arxiu Notarial, XIII.9; and AHBC, Manuals Notarial, 116-8°

It’s a little confusing, but “AHCB” is short for the Arxiu Històric de la Ciutat de Barcelona (not far from Le Boqueria on Las Ramblas), while “AHBC” is short for the Arxiu Històric de la Biblioteca de Catalunya (close to the Gothic cathedral at the top of town). Regardless, I was already at the AHCB, so ordered up XII.3, XII.19, and XIII.9 straight away: and because the AHCB’s archives are so much smaller than the AHPB’s, these arrived in (a very creditable) ten minutes.

What landed in front of me were six-inch or even eight-inch-thick wodges of papers: even though some small sections had their original bindings, and other small subsections had had numbers added to them, there was very little obvious order to them, with notarial material from multiple centuries jumbled together. Moreover, quite a few sections had damage to the top of the pages (frustrating, because that is where the date is very often written) or general fading / water damage to the entire page.

Not a very promising start, it has to be said. 🙁

Anyway, after about an hour of wading through these, I was able to make sense of the structure of the documents: the various date styles, the various embellished notary signatures, the stock phrases, the common abbreviations, etc. And after a couple of hours, I began to read the handwriting a bit faster, and I even found myself able to guess dates based solely on handwriting style. (In fact, there was one document in Notarial XII.3 [I think] that had truly extraordinary handwriting, an intensely modern-looking humanist-Arabic hybrid – in retrospect, I wish I’d asked for a copy of that. Something for next time!)

Alas: Notarial XII.3 had only a single sheet by Francesco Pedralbes (from 1598, and entirely unconnected with Pedro or Maria de Cardona), while Notarial XII.19 also had a single entry “Ego Anthonius Navarro agricola sabitator” and a splendid ornate signum design for Francesco Pedralbes.

Notarial XIII.9 did have a sequential group of papers all signed by Hieronymi Gali, including one that – unusually for these particular archives – was apparently of an auction, with various prices written in. For the sake of completeness, I’ve asked for a copy to be scanned (I should receive it later this week), but unfortunately for my search (a) the date was wrong, (b) the subjects were wrong, and (c) the key telescope-related phrase was absent. The few papers by Miquel Axada in Notarial XIII.9 were similarly not the ones I was looking for.

So, the AHCB was basically a bust for anyone trying to test Simón de Guilleuma’s claims. Undaunted, I continued to the AHBC (for which I had already got a library card on my first trip to Barcelona). With the very kind help of a librarian, I ordered Manuals Notarial, 116-8°, went and sat in the Reserved Document side-room (it’s on your left as you enter the main door into the library)… and waited for what, after the AHBC’s swift response, seemed like a small eternity.

So I wandered around the room, looking at the silent piano (so that musicologists could play through the musical scores in the archives); the listings of library holdings in various countries; a book listing anonymous or pseudonymous books in British libraries; Dorothea Waley Singer‘s books listing alchemical books in UK libraries; and so forth. In other words, all the usual suspects.

And then Manuals Notarial 116 arrived: unlike the previous unstructured gloop of papers I had been dealing with, this was a structured, sequential log of papers, written and bound in their proper order, and covering June to December 1613. So I turned to the date I was looking for and found… nothing. Zilch.

To be precise, the papers from nearby dates were all signed by Anthonius Axada (not Miquel Axada): the nearest to the date began “Ego Bertrandus Desualls cuius bad(?) honoratus gratis…” I’m pretty sure that here (as elsewhere), “honoratus” meant “honourable / well-respected / top-tier” while “gratis” meant “free man of the city”: this makes me wonder whether “Honorato Graner” as noted by Simón de Guilleuma could well have been a misreading of a common phrase. So there was nothing here either. It was a bit odd that there was apparently nothing notarized by Miquel Axada here, but perhaps the references to Anthonius Axada had been cross-referenced to the wrong Axada notary?

Anyway, I was just about to give up when I noticed that there was a small wodge of papers folded into the back cover. I gingerly took them out and examined them: they were all signed by Miquel Axada! I patiently went through these one by one and at last found… nothing at all either.

So, just as Sergio Toresella had warned, there was not a spider to be found in either of those two archival holes: which is annoying and suspicious in equal measures. On the plus side, all three notaries were active at (or extremely close to) the dates Simón de Guilleuma gave, and Jeroni Gali did (unusually) handle auctions. On the negative side, though, absence of evidence in three separate archives that was allegedly not absent would seem to be a bit of a hard thing to explain away comfortably.

Did Simón de Guilleuma genuinely find these documents (and perhaps have them moved together somewhere else)? Or were they never there at all? Right now, I don’t know: all I can say is that I came, I searched, but found no spiders. Oh well!

For a decade, I’ve wondered whether any of the Voynich Manuscript’s circular drawings depict astronomical instruments – for before satnav there was celnav (“celestial navigation”). Here’s a brief guide to three key instrument types from the VMs’ timeframe, and my current thoughts on the enigmatic circular diagram on f57v…

* * * * * * *

A key navigational problem of the 15th century was determining your latitude. Though many different instruments (such as the quadrant, the cross staff, and the back staff) came to be used to do this around this time, I’m restricting my observations here to the three purely circular ones – the astrolabe, the mariner’s astrolabe, and the nocturnal.

(1) Though astrolabes were originally used for determining the positions of planets and stars, people realised that they could also be used for telling the time (if you knew your latitude), or for working out your latitude (if you knew what time of day it was). Astrolabes were constructed from a complex (but well-known and well-documented) set of multilayered rotating components:-

  • A backplate (the mater) whose edge (the limb) is marked round with 24 hours or 360 degrees
  • A large circular central recess (the matrix, or womb) in the mater, into which you insert…
  • A disk (the tympan) containing a stereographically projected map of the sky for a particular latitude
  • On top of the tympan goes a rotating spidery net-like thing (the rete) containing easily recognizable stars;
  • On top of the rete goes a long rotating rule (the rule)
  • On the back goes a second rotating rule-like thing with two sighting holes / marks (the alidade)

If you haven’t seen an astrolabe dissected, there’s a nice annotated diagram on the Whipple Museum website.

My understanding is that most medieval European astrolabes were inaccurate because they were made of wood, though this improved when they started to be made of metal (an innovation which I understand mainly began in the 15th century). Yet even with well made astrolabes to hand, using them can be a bit tricky, particularly when you are at sea: and they’re not very convenient to use at night either.

(2) So, step forward the mariner’s astrolabe (or sea astrolabe or ring). Though this was little more than a cut-down version of the astrolabe, its key design feature was that it was built to be particularly heavy (and so was much more stable at sea). In contrast to the thousands of astrolabes out there, only 21 mariner’s astrolabes are known: the earliest description of one is from 1551, while historians suspect they came into use in the late 15th century.

Really, this was little more than a superheavy astrolabe limb hanging from a ring and with an alidade on the front: but it did the job, so all credit to its inventor… whoever that may be. The Wikipedia mariner’s astrolabe page notes that it might possibly have been Martin Behaim (1459-1507), but because it seems he was adept at relabeling other people’s discoveries and inventions as his own, probably the most we can pragmatically say is that the idea for the mariner’s astrolabe was ‘in the air’ in the mid-to-late 15th century.

(3) Solving the astrolabe’s other major shortcoming, the nocturnal (or nocturlabe, nocturlabium, or horologium noctis) was specifically designed to be used at night. A 2003 paper notes that the first evidence of nocturlabes was not a textual mention in 1524 (as was long thought), but rather a series of actual devices made by Falcono of Bergamo and dating from 1504 to 1507 (who also made astrolabes, such as this one from the British Museum). For a nice picture, the National Maritime Museum has a 17th century nocturnal here (D9091).

As far as construction goes, a nocturnal consisted of: a rotating outer ring marked both with the months of the year and with the 24-hour time; a hole in the middle of the central pivot that you could see through; and a second rotating ring with one, two, or three pointers. Once you had rotated the outer ring to closely match that day’s date, you would hold your nocturnal at arm’s length, line Polaris up through the central hole, and then align the second rotating ring so that its pointers pointed at some well-known stars (normally Shedar [α Cassiopeia], Dubhe [α Ursa Major], and Kochab [ß Ursa Minor]): there’s some nice discussion here on why these were chosen.) Once you had done all that, you would find (as if by high-tech magic) that the major pointer on the second ring would be pointing to the current time of day marked on the first ring. (Well… pretty much, anyway.)

Here’s a simplified look at the night sky, highlighting the four key stars referred to on a typical nocturnal:-

Incidentally, an open history of science question is whether Columbus had a nocturnal on his well-equipped voyages of discovery. This well-informed page seems to imply that he did, and that it was used to determine midnight – the ship’s boy would then turn over an “ampoleta” (a little sand-glass that would take half-an-hour to empty) to start counting out the daily cycle of shifts. Unfortunately, it turns out that Columbus didn’t properly understand how to use his various astronomical instruments, and that he faked a number of his latitude records. Oh well!

To summarize: though the astrolabe had been used and developed since antiquity, there was little about it that was secret circa 1450. However, this was the moment in history when people were starting to apply their formidably Burckhardtian Renaissance ingenuity to get around the limitations of the traditional astrolabe, by adapting the basic design for use at sea and at night. Yet for both the mariner’s astrolabe and the nocturnal, the documentary evidence is silent on who made them first.

* * * * * * *

What, then, of the Voynich Manuscript?

I have been trying to get under the skin of the ringed diagram on f57v for many years: even by the VMs’ consistently high level of (well) anomalousness, this page has numerous anomalies on display that seem to promise a way in for the determined Voynich researcher:-

  • Its drawings most closely matches the circular astronomical drawings in Q9 (‘Quire #9‘), yet its bifolio is bound in the middle of the herbal Q8
  • It has a curious piece of marginalia at the bottom right
  • There’s a spare ‘overflow’ word at the top left [marked green below]
  • The second ring comprises essentially the same 17-character sequence repeated four times
  • Each 17-character sequence contains an over-ornate anomalous “gallows” character [marked red below]
  • The 17-character sequence contains a number of low-instance-count letter-shapes
  • The fourth ring contains another long sequence of single characters [marked blue below]
  • It has four strange ‘personifications’ drawn around its centre (seasons? winds? directional spirits?)
  • It is far from clear what the four personifications are depicting, let alone representing
  • Finally, it has a ‘sol’-like dotted sun at the centre

I therefore think that any proper account of f57v should therefore not only offer a high-level explanation of its intent and content, but also a low-level explanation of these anomalous features. The problem is that any reasoning chain to cover this much ground will almost inevitably require a mix of codicology, palaeography, history, astronomy, and historical cryptography… so bear with me while I build this up one step at a time.

First up is codicology: Glen Claston and I agree that f57v was probably the very first page of the astronomical section Q9 – by this, we mean that the two bifolios currently forming Q8 have ended up bound upside-down. So, even though the current folio order is f57-f58-(missing pages)-f65-f66, the original folio order ran f65-f66-(missing)-f57-f58. The page immediately preceding f57v (i.e. f57r) has a herbal picture on it, which is why Glen and I are pretty sure that f57v formed the first page of the astronomical section: while both sides of f58 have starred paragraphs (and no herbal drawings), which also makes it seem misplaced in the herbal section.

A second clue that this is the case is the marginalia mark at the bottom: I think this is a scrawly “ij” with a bar above it (i.e. secundum), indicating the start of Book II (i.e. where Book I would have been the herbal) – this probably isn’t a quire mark because it doesn’t appear on the end folio of a quire. And a third clue is that the page we believe originally facing f57v (i.e. f58r) has an inserted blank block at the start of the first paragraph, which I suspect is a lacuna [highlighted blue below] deliberately left empty to remind the encipherer that the unenciphered version of this page began with an ornamented capital.

As for the odd word at the top left, the odds are that this is no more than an overflow from the outermost text ring: a similar overflow word appears in one of the necromantic magic circles famously described by Richard Kieckhefer as I described in “The Curse” (though of course this doesn’t prove that this page depicts a magic circle).

I think codicology can also help us to understand the mysterious 17-glyph repeating sequence, a pattern that has inspired many a high-concept numerological riff over the years: for if you look carefully at the four over-ornate gallows, you might notice something a bit unexpected…

Even though I’d prefer to be making this judgment on the basis of better scans (which seem unlikely to be arriving any time soon, unfortunately), I’m pretty sure that what we’re seeing here is a pair of characters which have been joined together to resemble a non-existent gallows. I’d even go so far as to say that I think that the decision to make this change was probably made while the author was still writing the page: from which I infer that 18 x 4 would have been too obvious, but 17 x 4 was obscure.

If you accept that this is right, then this changes the number patterns completely, because whereas 4 x 17 = 68 doesn’t really have much numerical (as opposed to numerological) significance, 4 x 18 = 72 does – for you see, 72 x 5° = 360°. And if we are looking at some kind of 360° division of the circle, then all of a sudden this page becomes a strong candidate for being some kind of enciphered or steganographically concealed astronomical instrument, because division into 360° has been a conceptual cornerstone of Western astronomical computing for millennia.

For several years, I therefore wondered if f57v might be depicting an astrolabe: but I have to say that the comparison never really gained any traction, however hard I tried. However… the question now comes round as to whether f57v’s circular drawing might instead depict a mariner’s astrolabe or a nocturnal.

That this might be a mariner’s astrolabe is perfectly plausible. The ‘overflow word’ might denote a ring, the second 360° ring could be the scale round the edge, and the four people in the middle could simply be decorative “fillers” for the four holes normally placed in the middle.

Comparing f57v with a nocturnal, however, is particularly interesting. The obvious thing to hide in the central design would be depictions or denotations of the constellations and the sighting stars so crucial to the operations. Given that there are plenty of different strength lines and curious shapes in the four characters to be found there, let’s take a closer look…

Now, the four elements we’d expect to see in a description of a nocturnal are Cassiopeia, Ursa Major, Ursa, Minor and Polaris: and I suspect that this is what we have here. Look again at the woman’s face on the left, and I wonder whether her name has been quite literally written across her face:-

As for the top and bottom characters here on this page, they have long puzzled Voynich researchers – why are they so wildly hairy and apparently facing away? What kind of a person is being shown here? Perhaps the answer is simply that these represent not people but bears, specifically the Great Bear (Ursa Major) at the top and the Smaller Bear (Ursa Minor) at the bottom.

The final character of the four would represent Polaris (short for stella polaris), which in the 16th Century (?) came to be called ‘Cynosura’ (the Greek mountain nymph who nursed Zeus in Crete). I have to say that I don’t really know what is going on here – perhaps other people better versed in astronomical history or mythology might be able to tell me why this person should be carrying a ring or an egg (?), and what the character’s curious strong lines (nose and top of upper arm) might be denoting.

Yet perhaps the biggest clincher of all, though, is the ‘sol’-like shape right at the centre of f57v. We might be able to discount the possibility that this represents the astrologers’ glyph for the sun, because this only came into use around 1480 (as I recall). For in the context of a drawing of a circular astronomical instrument, is this not – almost unmistakeably – a depiction of Polaris (the dot) as viewed through a hole in the pivot (the circle)?

As always, the evidence is far from complete so you’ll have to make up your own mind on this. But it’s an interesting chain of reasoning, hmmm?

Spookily, the kind of analogue computing embedded in nocturnals has a thoroughly modern equivalent. Polaris does not sit precisely on the Earth’s pole but rather rotates around it very slightly, and so requires a correction in order to be used as a reference for true North (on a ship, say). Hence a spreadsheet can be constructed to make this fine adjustment – essentially, this is a nocturnal simplified and adapted to yield the north correction required. Some good ideas can remain useful for hundreds of years!

Giancarlo Truffa recently posted a link to the HASTRO-L mailing list that contains a mention of a surprising claim that Leonardo da Vinci apparently designed a telescope:-

On page 59(b) of Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus appears this drawing. Bülent Atalay proposed in 2005 that it is Leonardo’s “telescope”. The page also contains a “study of light reflection of a concave mirror”.

And here’s the drawing itself:-


Though (perhaps understandably) skeptical of the basic proposition, Giancarlo kindly listed the literature:

  • B. Atalay and K. Wamsley “Leonardo’s Universe: The Renaissance World of Leonardo da Vinci” (National Geographic Books, 2009)
  • B. Atalay “Math and the Mona Lisa: the Art and Science of Leonardo da Vinci” (Smithsonian Books, 2004)

Bülent Atalay was convinced enough by his own arguments to get a modern reproduction built, so maybe this is a proto-telescope… though the odds would seem to be against it. Add it to the (long) list of things that Leonardo may have invented (but probably didn’t)…

We just had a very enjoyable family day out strolling through the Mayor of London’s Thames Festival 2009: having started with some paella and a set from the remarkably good Petebox near the London Eye, we spent the whole afternoon mooching past countless stalls and live displays along the river towards Tower Bridge.

So far, so not very Cipher Mysteries-esque: but then we ran into Willett & Patteson’s Amazing Portable Camera Obscura. The phrase “Camera Obscura” (literally “darkened room”) was coined by Johannes Kepler to describe rooms using a lens to enhance pinhole projection, yet the concept also forms the backbone of the whole (allegedly much earlier) Hockney-Falco historical thesis. Willett & Patteson’s rotating camera obscura follows a Victorian model dating to around 1850 or so: this allows people inside a tent to pan and tilt a mirror around to project an image of what is happening outside the tent onto a horizontal surface…

Yes, their amazing rotating camera obscura was indeed the very first pan/tilt security camera. (You may not know that my day job is designing and manufacturing PTZ security cameras). Just to show that the best ideas can have a second lease of life 150 years on, here’s European patent EP1166178 (particularly Fig. 3) which is basically an identical optical arrangement for digital PTZ cameras.

However, for me the most stunning historical moment of the day came in Potters Field Park, an open green space directly opposite the Tower of London. OK, to my eyes Tower Bridge  is a Victorian monstrosity, with all the finesse of a ten-tier chav wedding cake made of iron. But all the same, sitting in a deckchair in Potters Field Park looking across the Thames to the Tower, I felt all gooey and medieval, as though time itself was pliable. Perhaps that’s the point of appreciating history? Though I loved the festival, it really shouldn’t take a thousand stalls to demonstrate that London really has something for everyone’s taste.

In early 2008, I became interested in the mystery surrounding the first invention of the telescope. The year was the 400th anniversary of the first Dutch telescope patent application – yet the more accounts and explanations I read (even the very best ones, such as Albert van Helden’s exemplary “The Invention of the Telescope”), the less I believed any of them. For the greatest part, probably the most appropriate take on the evidence as it stands is simply this: a cultured state of tolerant disbelief.

But all that seemed to change when I stumbled upon a reference to some little-known research by José Maria Simón de Guilleuma, a Spanish historian from fifty years ago. A Barcelonan optometrist by trade, he had long been intrigued by Juan Roget, a Catalonian spectacle-maker from the same town who the Milanese courtier Girolamo Sirtori claimed was the real first inventor of the telescope. Fascinatingly, when I combined Simón de Guilleuma’s (apparently archivally precise) references with the telescope history research from the decades following his death, what emerged was far from the generally accepted historical account – taken as a whole, it suggested a radically different historical narrative involving a mad dash across Europe to the Frankfurt Fair in September 1608.

And so I wrote an article that brought all these pieces together, and (as an intellectual historian) presented the detailed secondary evidence as best I could, together with a suggested reconstruction which attempted to reconcile all the differing accounts into a satisfactory monoptic timeline: this first appeared in History Today’s September 2008 edition, with a translation by Enrique Joven following on in the Spanish telescope magazine Astronomia in October 2008.

(Here’s a link to my current set of bibliographic references on Juan Roget: this should be a useful starting point for anyone wanting to read more about this subject.)

However, the nagging question remained of whether my whole story was properly supported by the primary evidence. And so a few days ago, I went for a (carefully chosen) short family holiday to Barcelona: while my wife and son explored the foody wonders of the Boqueria, I instead headed off to the Arxiu Històric de Protocols de Barcelona (the “AHPB”) not far away, where the most relevant primary notarial documents in this story were to be found. What would I find?

The AHPB is part of the Col-legi Notaris de Catalunya: you buzz at a large (but fairly nondescript) door at #4 Calle de Notariat (ignore the sign that tells you to ask at #2, you’ll only get sent back to #4) – it’s the one with a surprisingly fancy “pan/tilt” hi-res entry camera. Go in and ask the guard at reception that you’re there to consult the AHPB, and he’ll direct you to the lift to go up to the second floor. Oh, yes, how could I forget the AHPB’s unnervingly James Bond-style lift, with four underground floors (-1 to -4), holding the 12,000 linear metres of storage.

Once you’re out of the lift, you find yourself in what feels like an embassy’s nondescript internal corridor, with only the giant circular “BIBLIOTECA” embossed in the floor (a bit like a film prop, it has to be said) to persuade you otherwise. Follow the corridor to the right, and you find yourself in a fairly bijou library area, with only a handful of tables for researchers to work on. Perhaps because of the short opening hours (10am to 1pm Monday to Friday, plus 4pm to pm on Wednesday), there’s a palpable feeling of urgency to the place, quite unlike most other research libraries I have been to.

To call up AHPB notarial documents, you:

  • Find the appropriate section of the multi-volume printed inventory (arranged chronologically, broadly by century)
  • Look up the particular notary’s name in the alphabetic index near the back to find the starting page number
  • Turn to that page
  • Scan forwards until you find whichever bound set of documents matches the date you are interested in
  • Copy the call number(s) onto a request slip, together with the name of the notary
  • Hand the request slip to the person on the small table on the right

…and your documents appear on your desk surprisingly quickly. Very quick, efficient, & straightforward.

The brick wall I immediately ran into was that even doing this cast significant doubt on the archival precision of that part of Simón de Guilleuma’s work relating to early mentions of telescopes by notaries. You see, he had referred to the four main documents I was hoping to see as:-

  1. Notary: Francisco de Pedralbes. Pedro de Cardona, 10 April 1593.
  2. Notary: Francisco de Pedralbes. Maria de Cardona y de Eril, 13 December 1596.
  3. Notary: Geronimo Gali. Jaime Galvany, auction held on 5 September 1608.
  4. Notary: Miguel Axada. Honorato Graner, 6th August 1613 (though this could well be in the Biblioteca de Catalunya instead).

The problem here is that according to the LL. Cases’ “Inventarii de l’AHPB” vols S.XVI and S.XVII/1, Jeroni Galí (call numbers 699/1 and 699/2) acted as a notary from 1635 onwards, while Miquel Aixada (call number 643/1) was a notary between 1622 and 1623. And so if Simón de Guilleuma got the notaries’ names right, it would appear that he got the dates significantly wrong… by 25+ years and 10+ years, respectively.

Now, it has to be said that it takes a while to get the hang of any historical handwriting, and I was extremely short of time: so I can’t claim to have read every word of every page in the documents I called up. But I can say that I didn’t manage to find any of the references I was looking for.

The most frustrating AHPB documents of all were those of Francesc Pedralbes, a notary from 1562-1599. For the two dates given (call numbers 426/106 and 426/116), the notary’s ink has soaked its way right through the paper, leaving each folio’s two sides of text awkwardly merged together – extremely difficult to read slowly, let alone fast. And so it might well be that I was indeed squinting hard at the two Pedralbes documents Simón de Guilleuma described, but unable to make them out at all.

[The irritating thing is that I didn’t know that the AHPB allows researchers to take cameras (I’d guess with the flash turned off?) in with them: so I could easily have taken photos of all the likeliest candidates to pore over at my leisure – but there was simply not enough time on that Friday morning before the AHPB closed to find my wife and borrow her camera.]

The problem, of course, is that the my article’s whole narrative (as far as 1608 goes) hinged on the timing. If a telescope was sold at a Barcelonan auction on 5th September 1608, then that is big news – but if that auction was actually held three decades later, it’s no news at all (which is, of course, why I went looking for this particular document). From what I’ve seen, I’d say that the odds are high that this did not happen in 1608 – hence the latter category beckons (unfortunately).

Right now, I have to say that this side of the research into the Spanish telescope appears stalled: not only do I not know why Simón de Guilleuma apparently got these dates so very wrong, I don’t know why Spanish historians haven’t checked this in fifty years.

Another thing I don’t currently understand is that when I asked the Biblioteca de Catalunya about these documents, they said that they were in the Arxiu Històric de la Ciutat de Barcelona (AHCB), and that:-

The sections of Francisco Pedralbes have the following topographical data: XII.3 and XII.9 of the Protocols notarials collection. The topographical data for Gali’s protocol is XIII.8 of the same collection 

However, when I emailed the AHCB, they seemed to think that these would instead be in the AHPB. Given that there’s an air of uncertainty over all of this that I don’t claim to understand, I thought I ought to flag every detail: someone with more experience of the ‘system’ might very well be able to make more sense of it all than me.

All in all, I do think that this is something which a local history graduate student could probably get an interesting paper out of: for if Simón de Guilleuma didn’t simply make this all up, what was he looking at?

* * * * * *

Of course, you might simply think that all the above casts doubt on Simón de Guilleuma’s reputation as an historian. Yet an entirely parallel lead popped up since my September 2008 History Today article, which appears to vindicate the other half of his research (into the life of Juan Roget and his nephews).

After my History Today article came out, University of Madrid urban historian Jim Amelang – whose name tourists may possibly recognize as a co-author of the book “Twelve Walks Through Barcelona’s History”, as mentioned in the Time Out guide to Barcelona – contacted me to say that he had found an interesting research lead on the Roget family in the AHPB.

He documented it on pp. 383-4n of his 1998 book “The Flight of Icarus: Artisan Autobiography in Early Modern Europe”, Stanford: Stanford University Press (I ordered a copy last year, but it got cancelled by the bookseller after six months, *sigh*).

I can do no better than to quote in full Jim Amelang’s emailed summary of what he found:

It is the 10 Dec. 1617 testament of one Hierónima Verges, wife of Andreu Verges, a tanner of Barcelona, and daughter of Joan Roget, “ullarer” (eyeglass maker) and his wife Hierónima, both deceased. I fear that this document says nothing about astronomy or telescopes. However, it does mention several family members, especially a brother named Joan Roget, who lived in Barcelona on the Plaça del Blat, and to whom she left 5L for mourning clothes, and her uncle Magi Roget, who was like her father identified as an ullarer. Apparently she died on 19 December. It’s not much to go on, but it does give us a bit more information about the family, including the fact that the elder Joan passed the trade on to other members of his tribe. Also, the elder Joan was referred to as a “citizen of Barcelona“, which meant that he had been residing some time in the city before his death (which did not necessarily take place there). The precise reference, in case you are interested, is Arxiu Històric de Protocols de Barcelona/Antoni Masclans, Manual de Testaments, 1610-1630, s.n.

So, we are left with an apparently contradictory situation in which the half of Simón de Guilleuma’s research into Juan Roget seems confirmed as accurate, while the other half looking for mentions of early telescopes in Barcelonan wills, auctions and inventories seems possibly inaccurate.

I honestly don’t know what to make of all this – am I perhaps missing something really big (such as the existence of two separate Barcelonan notaries both called “Jeroni Gali”, with parallel documents in two different archives?), or did Simón de Guilleuma ‘tweak’ the 1608 and 1613 dates to make Sirtori’s claim of a pre-September 1608 Spanish telescope seem more convincing? According to his family, he simply wasn’t that kind of a person: but what, then, would explain it all?

The only solid thing I can say is that my inexperience with (and lack of time and camera in) the Barcelonan archives was a hindrance: and that, realistically, I think it would take at least a week to properly chart out what documents are (and are not) in what archive. Why is nobody in Spain looking at this? To me, that’s the biggest mystery of all.

Twice a year, the Leiden antiquarian bookseller Burgersdijk and Niermans hold a book auction – the one coming up shortly is on 19th-20th May 2009.

Flicking idly through the listings, I noticed that going for (what seems to me a very reasonable) 300-ish euros is a 1608 printed edition of the 365 letters of the philosopher / astronomer Celio Calcagnini of Ferrara (1479-1541) – his Epistolarum criticarum & familiar. There’s more on Calcagnini here and his claim to have preempted Copernicus (Thorndike even discusses him [Vol V], so he can’t be all bad). He gets a brief Wikipedia mention, and was a major influence on Rabelais (of all people). Hmmm… if I was filthy rich, this book is exactly the kind of historical frippery I’d fritter away my hard-earned money on. I might even go up to 310 euros, you never know. 🙂

(Note that a copy of the Basel 1544 edition of his letters (Opera Aliquot) is also on sale on the Internet, though 12,500USD isn’t quite such a bargain. Conrad Gessner once had a copy of it, too.)

Calcagnini wrote on many subjects: on the significantly cheaper end of the scale (i.e. free), there’s an online scan of his 1534 book “De imitatione eruditorum quorundam libelli quam eruditissimi puta” here and another of his books here, both courtesy of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. There’s a 2006 paper on Calcagnini by Jan Papy: and he merits a good page-and-a-half in the 2003 book Contemporaries of Erasmus (yes, he knew and corresponded with Erasmus too), which you can see on Google Books.

Alternatively, if you haven’t yet been inspired to make a mad impr0mptu telephone bid, you might possibly be more tempted to splurge an an early printed set of Libavius’ works (including Paracelsian and Rosicrucian controversies in the appendix), a B&N snip at an estimated 3800 euros! As always, your choice…

Following up the recent post here on Tycho Brahe’s moustache, Jan Hurych emails in to point out that a team of Czech researchers has also been forensically analyzing Brahe’s handkerchief. Disturbingly, their interim results indicate that he may have been addicted to Brasso.

(OK, OK, so it’s a joke: but as it made me laugh, onto the blog it goes.)

For more on Brahe’s silver/gold (or very probably copper) nose and the adhesive gunk he used to stick it to his duel-scarred face, here are links to a short 2004 article from the Annals of Improbable Research and to an entertaining (though not entirely reliable) 1998 Q&A from the Straight Dope.

(Incidentally, the first handkerchief was used in Europe in 1503, according to this timeline: while Brasso first went on sale in Australia circa 1904. Brand-wise, “Silvo” would have been more accurate, but less funny. Oh, suit yourself.)

Enciphered diaries & a murdered famous astronomer? No, it’s not Enrique Joven’s book out unexpectedly early, but this gem of a story from Der Spiegel: it describes how enciphered / encoded sections of the 400-year-old diary of Tycho’s distant cousin Erik Brahe seem to allude to Brahe’s murder. Brahe’s body is about to be exhumed to find out the truth, though the cyanide (at 100x the toxic level) already found in his moustache seems fairly slamdunk to me.
Details remain fairly sketchy: but of course, I’ll pass on more of the story as it emerges… I can barely wait! 😉

A short note just arrived from Enrique Joven, concerning a recent talk he attended at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) by Dr. Paolo Molaro from the Osservatorio Astronomico di Trieste: “On the invention of the telescope and the paintings of Jan Brueghel

Jan Brueghel depicted telescopes in four paintings spanning the period between 1609 and 1621. We have investigated the nature and the origin of these telescopes. An optical “tube” that appears in the painting dated 1608-1612, and probably reproduced also in a painting of the 1621, represents one the earliest documentation of a Dutch spyglass which could even tentatively attributed to Sacharias Janssen or Lipperhey, thus prior to those made by Galileo. Other two instruments made of several draw-tubes which appear in the two paintings of 1617 and 1618 are quite sophisticated for the period and we argue that may represent early examples of Keplerian telescopes.

Molaro is (of course) referring to Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625): before this, I had only heard of the telescope in the series of paintings Brueghel executed with Rubens (which is now in the Prado), so I look forward to reading more about the other depictions of telescopes, particularly the earliest of the set. Here’s a tiny version of the 1617 painting:-


Just in case you haven’t got a CSI-style ‘infinite enhance‘ button in your web browser 🙂 , here’s a slightly more helpful close-up of the shiny multiple-draw-tube telescope depicted just to the left of the front centre:-


Incidentally, Molaro had done a similar presentation at IAU-UNESCO Symposium 260 in Paris a few days before (“Early telescopes in the paintings of Jan Brueghel”). To my surprise, Enrique mentioned that my Juan Roget theory was mentioned in one of Molaro’s slides: how nice to find out that people are actually listening!

Now that I have read about it, Google tells me about Pierluigi Selvelli’s poster session “On the Telescopes in the Painting of Bruegel ‘The Vision’” at the September 2008 “400 years of Astronomical Telescopes” conference at ESA/ESTEC in Noordwijk. Doubtless this all forms part of the same study, and I can’t wait to find out more…

Many artists of the time were fascinated by the telescope: Google also tells me that influential Rome-based painter Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610) corresponded with Galileo about telescopes through an intermediary.

As an aside, Vincent Ilardi’s “Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes”  mentions four works by Pieter Brueghel the Elder that depict spectacles, all apparently showing the spectacle-wearers in a negative light. Errrm… not a lot of people know that. 🙂

* * * * * *

Article update: following my post, Giancarlo Truffa very kindly emailed the HAstro-L mailing list with the names of all four Brueghel pictures studied by Paolo Molaro, together with links to online versions of them. And here they are…

  1. Archduke Albert observing Mariemont Castle“, 1608-1611, Richmond (VA), Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
  2. The Sense of Sight” (with Peter Paul Rubens), 1617, Madrid, Museo del Prado, 65 x 109 cm
  3. The Sense of Sight and Smell“, c.1620, Madrid, Museo del Prado, 176 x 264 cm
  4. Allegory of Air” (with Peter Paul Rubens), 1621, Paris, Musee du Louvre, 45 x 65 cm

Enjoy! 🙂

Even though people often assert (rather lazily) that the Voynich Manuscript is the only artefact ‘of its kind’, this is false, because there are plenty of similar documents. For the most part, the significant difference is merely one of scale, not of type – for example, the similar enciphered Quattrocento documents that do exist are neither as well-encrypted nor as large as the VMs.

The critical concept here is, of course, similarity: for Art History is a discipline built around discerning similarities between artefacts not just in terms of content [i.e. that-which-is-being-represented], but also in terms of style, gesture, technique, and approach (though, as Charles Hope points out, this falls over when art historians reconstruct an underlying linking mythology that wasn’t originally there). So, putting our art historian hats on, what are the best matches for the Voynich Manuscript?

Of the various Quattrocento enciphered manuscripts, the ones that really leap out are the books of secrets by Giovanni Fontana, for which the best edition by far is Battisti and Battisti’s (1984) “Le Macchine Cifrate di Giovanni Fontana”. This includes Latin decipherments of the passages in (simple monoalphabetic) cipher, together with a parallel translation into precise modern Italian. My Italian comprehension remains only middling, so making a suitably careful reading of this remains more of a long-term project for me than a short-term one.

Fontana’s manuscripts trace a merry criss-cross pattern across the map of my research interests: ciphers, fountains, alchemy, cars, weapons, and even optics. For the last of these, it was interesting to see folio 70r of Fontana’s Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber reproduced by Sven Dupre in a recent paper: the Latin plaintext says “Apparentia nocturna ad terrorem videntium“, while the Latin ciphertext reads “Habes modum cum lanterna quam propriis oculis[ocolis] vidi<i>sti ex mea manu fabricatam et proprio ingenio“.

Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folio 70r
Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folio 70r

Also optically interesting are the mirrors on folio 41v “Speculum ingeniosum et admirabile, cuius una pars super alteram ducitur, et clauditur quando opport<et>. Et ex calibe fit ad formam hanc cum foraminibus incident<i>e radiorum, Ymagines aparent deformes, turtuose, inequales, ambigue. Sed eius compositio hic aliter non describitur, nisi sub brevita<te>, ita ut me intelligas. Pars comcava fit sicud specculum combustivum archimed[ni]dis, convexa vero sicud speculum meum de multiplicate formarum.

Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folios 41v and 42r
Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folios 41v and 42r

But I suspect that it is Voynich researchers who will have most to gain from Battista & Battista’s wide-ranging scholarship. For sheer similarity with the balneological / water section, few would surely disagree with the nymphs bathing in the “Fons Virginum” on folio 43v, with the fountain on folio 31r, and particularly with the “Fons Venetus” (also with a water nymph!) on folios 22v and 23r. [Note to self: remember to get a copy of Frank D. Prager’s “Fontana on Fountains“, Physis XIII, 4, 1971, p.347.]

Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folio 43v
Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folio 43v

Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folio 31r
Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folio 31r

Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folios 22v and 23r
Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folios 22v and 23r

As with the VMs, even though some adjacent folios are definitely in the correct order (such as folios 59v and 60r), I do wonder whether the page order has at least been partially scrambled: to my eyes, the rocket-powered roller-skateboard on folio 16v really ought to sit opposite the rabbit on a rocket-powered roller-skateboard on folio 37r (my favourite Fontana drawing!)

Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folios 59v and 60r
Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folios 59v and 60r

Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folio 16v
Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folio 16v

Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folio 37r
Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folio 37r

In short, there are plenty of similarities between Fontana’s enciphered book of secrets and the Voynich Manuscript: the key difference between the two is simply that heavyweight art historians take the former seriously, but the latter cum grano salis.

What I’m trying to do (in my own slow way) is to construct a proper art historical account of the VMs – a Battista & Battista for the VMs, if you like. However, with only Rene Zandbergen’s site and D’Imperio’s “An Elegant Enigma” to rely upon, this is really quite a daunting challenge, particularly because (as the absence of reaction to my first book would seem to imply) even Voynich researchers appear not to be interested in this kind of research programme. Perhaps because this looks too much like hard work?

I would even go so far as to say that anyone interested in the art history of the VMs should buy a copy of Battista & Battista’s book, simply because of the wealth of notes and thoughts embedded throughout it, nearly all focused on the right kind of areas. There are a few non-stratospherically-priced copies on BookFinder… so what are you waiting for? 🙂