A quick pop-cultural aside: the song “Eternal Flame” was written by hugely successful American songwriter Billy Steinberg with Tom Kelly and Susanna Hoffs (of The Bangles). The inspiration for the song came from an eternal flame seen by Bangles’ bass-player Michael Steele burning at Gracelands in Elvis Presley’s memory, as well as from one at a Palm Springs synagague Steinberg had seen when very young. Though “Eternal Flame” was produced by Simon Cowell, I won’t hold that against it. 🙂

But historically, claims of actual eternal flames go back a very long way: in my book, I mentioned briefly that many in the Renaissance believed a “perpetual light” burned in the Temple of Vesta in Ancient Rome. Leon Battista Alberti’s 1450 book “Momus” mentions (though admittedly in a fictional context) a “perpetual flame, tending itself even though no material is laid under it and no liquid poured over it“, Giovanni Battista Della Porta documented many attempts at reproducing eternal flames in his Natural Magic in XX Books, while in his libro architettonico Antonio Averlino described a continuously-burning candle he saw in Sant Maria in Bagno. Another related story concerns Abbot Trithemius, who allegedly sold two “unquenchable eternall lights” to Emperor Maximilian I for 6000 crowns.

I thought this was one of those things for which there was unlikely to be any significant literature: I’d collected all the pieces together from scattered footnotes. However, recently I was inspired by Archer Quinn’s, ummm, perpetual ranting to properly read through Kevin Kilty’s well-known page on perpetual motion. All good stuff: and he even mentions eternal flames!

Kilty, who seems to have derived his information on this subject from Arthur Ord-Hume’s 1977 book “Perpetual Motion: history of an obsession“, mentions that:-

“Fortunio Liceti (1577-1657) made a lifelong study of these lamps, so many of which were supposedly found in old tombs, vaults and temples. Ord-Hume spends several pages examining ways to explain the observation of perpetual lamps. This is giving too much serious attention to a fantasy. It is likely that no one ever observed any such lamp.”

(Though I should of course point out that Averlino claimed to have observed an eternal flame). Fascinating! I was not aware of Fortunio Liceti‘s connection with eternal flames, and so rushed to buy Ord-Hume’s book as quickly as I could. I shall continue this thread when it arrives…

OK, I’ll admit it: people who talk about the Renaissance as a coherent historical phenomenon get on my nerves. There were numerous strands of thought at the time, all vying for the oxygen of attention, all trying to supplant medieval scholasticism: but arguably the two biggest new kids on the block circa 1400 were Renaissance humanism (think of Petrarch, etc) and Renaissance inventorship (think of Brunelleschi). While the former grew out of philology and a theoretical reverence for Classical texts, the latter emerged from the empirical world of clock-making.

Lynn Thorndike was happy enough (in his “Science & Thought in the XVth Century”) to point out that these two major strands were very often at odds with each other: but it should also be noted that the intersection between the two was far from empty. In fact, you might well look at the architects Leon Battista Alberti and Antonio Averlino – both born near Florence near to 1400 – as examples of “Renaissance Men” in the purest sense, in that they exemplified both strands at the same time.

The mystery of the Italian Renaissance (as described by Burckhardt and the generation of gung-ho pro-humanistic historians that followed him) is this: why did it emerge at such a narrow time (circa 1400) and place (Florence)?

For a long time, the dominant view has basically been that this was a random event, just one of those things that happen from time to time. However, some modern writers have begun to speculate whether a particular freak event or a subtle change in diet or eating habits might perhaps been the real “cause” of the Italian Renaissance.

For me, I would be unsurprised if insomnia turned out to be a key: Alberti writes, in his 1441 “On the Tranquillity of the Soul”, of “the agitation of his soul”at night, and how he can relieve this by trying to devise amazing machines for lifting and carrying weights. I wonder if an entire generation of Florentines suffered from a kind of intellectual insomnia, perhaps as a result of effectively becoming hyperthyroid from ingesting a particularly iodine-rich salt being brought into the city?

Or might the Florentines have simply become addicted to the sugar confections that had not long before suddenly filled the city’s apothecaries and markets? Might the Renaissance have simply been a metabolic balancing act as people tried to compensate for a giant communal sugar rush?

But there’s another possibility. If you were looking for a statistical explanation why a particular population produced more geniuses (while the overall bell-curve distribution probably remained intact), there would be two obvious candidates to consider – either (a) the mean IQ got shifted up (i.e. everyone somehow got smarter) , or (b) the variance increased dramatically (i.e. more extreme cases appeared at both ends of the scale).

This set me wondering: as I understand it, one of the problems often put forward with Darwinian evolution is that the natural rate of mutations is too low to support the amount of random change needed. So could it be that stable contexts inhibit mutations (i.e. encourage low adaptation rates), while troubled contexts somehow encourage mutations (i.e. encourage high adaptation rates)?

Interestingly, one medieval obsession presents itself here: that of whether “monsters” (freaks of nature) were signs (de-monstr-ations) of something greater happening in the world. Perhaps “monsters” in the human population were (and possibly still are?) literally a sign that the variance of the population is high.

Thinking about all this, it suddenly then became clear to me why low sperm counts make evolutionary sense: if a body is in significant physical difficulties, it makes no sense for it to try to reproduce offspring that are the same as it, as they would likely experience the same difficulties in the next generation. Instead, perhaps the body deliberately produces crippled, damaged sperm to try to encourage mutations that might be better adapted to the changing physical context. Otherwise, why would the body ever want to deliberately produce poor sperm or eggs? Perhaps the current medical view of “healthy” sperm is somehow clouded by an anti-mutation bias of some sort.

My prediction here is that that there will turn out to be reproductive mechanisms by which (a) healthy eggs repel damaged sperm and (b) damaged eggs discourage healthy sperm: leaving the two pivotal cases of (healthy eggs + healthy sperm) => low mutation rate (low variance, well-adapted to environment), and (damaged eggs + damaged sperm) => high mutation rate (high variance, poorly-adapted to environment).

But there’s a timing issue. Whereas sperm production is essentially a “just-in-time” process, women’s eggs are produced all in one go, and so form a lagging indicator to environmental adaptation (i.e. egg health in reproduction gives an indication of environmental fit 15-25 years earlier). So, could it be that, when looking for the source of the Renaissance circa 1400, we should instead look for a traumatic event in Florence circa 1380 that significantly affected women’s reproductive health, causing a change in the population’s IQ variance?

I really don’t know (this is a blog, not an article in Nature): but it is tempting to speculate whether it was simply coincidence that the Florentine Renaissance began two generations after the plague had ravaged Florence in 1348 (Boccaccio famously wrote about it). Might children born after the plague have stirred the Florentine gene-pool up in just the right way to set the Renaissance in motion a generation later?

It all started off with a plausibly-phrased story making an incredible claim via a dodgy animated GIF…

A March 2008 article by Ryan Ball in Animation Magazine claimed that the oldest piece of animation had been discovered: a 5,200-year-old rotating bowl from Tehran, a bit like an inside-out zoetrope depicting a jumping goat. When I saw this, I immediately wanted to blog about it: but there was something wrong about the 9-frame animated GIF at the bottom that held me back…

Reading a little more (as you do), I found a 2006 post on Neil Cohn’s Visual Linguist website (apparently the jumping goat bowl had originally been news in 2005) that deconstructed the GIF: the sequence of frames had been doctored to make it look more like an animation (a term Cohn felt wasn’t really justifiable) than it really was, because there were only actually 5 “frames” in the sequence on the bowl.

The last comment on Cohn’s page points to Alexis Chazard’s more appropriate 5-frame animation of the goat, taken directly (as far as was possible) from actual pictures of the bowl. There’s also a nice set of photographs from Iran that put the bowl more into context here.

All in all, I think it’s a huge shame that someone went to the trouble of mocking up a dodgy 9-frame GIF, apparently to try to oversell the animation aspect of the bowl. If that person had simply assembled the 5 frames exactly as they appeared (particularly if they had found specific evidence of an axis of rotation and had specifically taken 5 pictures at 72 degree rotation intervals, la la la), it would have been a perfectly acceptable demonstration. Basically,in a 5000-year-old artefact, nobody’s expecting Shrek to jump out at us, och no, Donkey. 😉

Incidentally, the first documented zoetrope came from the Chinese inventor Ting Huan in about 180AD: not many people know that, unless you’re a bit of a Wikipede (or should I say “Wikipedant“?) (or “Wikipedophile“?)

I know, I did blog about this only three days ago: but science moves ever onwards, OK?

A nice email arrived from Robert Matthews, the author of an excellent page on the d’Agapeyeff Cipher: he mentioned that he had received an email in February 2006 from John Willemse in Holland, who had suggested a novel kind of transposition cipher based around a spiral:-

I’m in no way a cipher expert, but I am a very curious person and I was wondering if the positioning of the 14×14 digram table could have anything to do with a spiral. The reason I suspect this, is that a spiraling positioning of numbers have the property that each upperleft corner of such a spiral (when starting with zero in the center) is a perfect square number. I’ll try to illustrate my point:

16 15 14 13 12
17 .4 .3 .2 11 ..
18 .5 .0 .1 10 ..
19 .6 .7 .8 .9 26
20 21 22 23 24 25

Starting from zero, and counting up, anti-clockwise, you will encounter a perfect square of each even number in the topleft corner. 196 is also such a number.

The ’04’ digram almost in the center could be a break point. If you ‘break’ after the zero and shift the 4 to the right, creating a new set of digrams, you end up with a set of digrams before the zero and a set after the zero. The set after the zero should probably be reversed, either the whole set or the individual digrams, to create a similar set as the first one (the digrams starting with higher digits and ending with lower digits).

You might then be able to construct a spiral like positioning, with the zero in the center or the zero obmitted. The first set might then be ‘twisted’ around it clockwise, and the second set anti-clockwise, possibly interweaving each other.

These are just some wild ideas, and I’m in no way capable of constructing and verifying such a table myself, but maybe it’s something to investigate?

Willemse’s idea is certainly interesting: but let’s look again at the (derived) 14×14 layout. To recap: one of the reasons for suspecting that transposition is involved is that there are two sets of horizontal tripled letters (75 75 75 and 63 63 63), while one of the reasons for suspecting that it’s not a ‘matrix transpose’ diagonal flip is that there are two sets of vertical tripled letters (81 81 81 and 82 82 82). That is, unless the plaintext sadistically contains a phrase like “SEPIA AARDVARK” (a phrase which, I’m delighted to note, Google believes currently appears nowhere else on the Internet).

75 62 82 85 91 62 91 64 81 64 91 74 85 84
64 74 74 82 84 83 81 63 81 81 74 74 82 62
64 75 83 82 84 91 75 74 65 83 75 75 75 93
63 65 65 81 63 81 75 85 75 75 64 62 82 92
85 74 63 82 75 74 83 81 65 81 84 85 64 85
64 85 85 63 82 72 62 83 62 81 81 72 81 64
63 75 82 81 64 83 63 82 85 81 63 63 63 04
74 81 91 91 84 63 85 84 65 64 85 65 62 94
62 62 85 91 85 91 74 91 72 75 64 65 75 71
65 83 62 64 74 81 82 84 62 82 64 91 81 93
65 62 64 84 84 91 83 85 74 91 81 65 72 74
83 83 85 82 83 64 62 72 62 65 62 83 75 92
72 63 82 82 72 72 83 82 85 84 75 82 81 83
72 84 62 82 83 75 81 64 75 74 85 81 62 92

From this, it seems that, yes, you could construct a large number of spiral transpositions without tripled letter sequences. Yet I’m not completely convinced by the idea that the 04 token is a good indicator for the centre of a spiral: from the substitution cipher angle, I’d be quite happy to tag that as a likely ‘X’ or ‘Y’ in the plaintext instead.

However, I would point out that if you examine the various diagonal transpositions of the 14×14 (i.e. reading through the 14×14 one diagonal line at a time), there is (unless I’m somehow mistaken) apparently only a single tripled letter in two of them, and that only over a line-break:-

75 62 82 85 91 62 91 64 81 64 91 74 85 84
64 74 74 82 84 83 81 63 81 81 74 74 82 62
64 75 83 82 84 91 75 74 65 83 75 75 75 93
63 65 65 81 63 81 75 85 75 75 64 62 82 92
85 74 63 82 75 74 83 81 65 81 84 85 64 85
64 85 85 63 82 72 62 83 62 81 81 72 81 64
63 75 82 81 64 83 63 82 85 81 63 63 63 04
74 81 91 91 84 63 85 84 65 64 85 65 62 94
62 62 85 91 85 91 74 91 72 75 64 65 75 71
65 83 62 64 74 81 82 84 62 82 64 91 81 93
65 62 64 84 84 91 83 85 74 91 81 65 72 74
83 83 85 82 83 64 62 72 62 65 62 83 75 92
72 63 82 82 72 72 83 82 85 84 75 82 81 83
72 84 62 82 83 75 81 64 75 74 85 81 62 92

All in all, Willemse’s idea of a spiral transposition does seem intriguing: but perhaps a little more psychologically ornate than d’Agapeyeff would have considered necessary as an exercise for the reader. If I were actively looking for a solution to this cipher (which I’m not), I would instead start with the four basic diagonal transpositions of the 14×14, and see if they led anywhere interesting… you never know! 🙂

While looking at Elonka’s list of unsolved cipher mysteries while composing my post on the d’Agapeyeff cipher, my eye was drawn to the list of solved cipher mysteries she appended to it, and in particular to “The E. A. Poe Cryptographic Challenge“.

Edgar Allan Poe often used codes and ciphers in his stories, most famously in “The Gold-Bug” (which incidentally inspired a very young William Friedman to take up an interest in cryptography). He also asked readers of one popular magazine to send him their ciphers to crack: which he (allegedly) managed to do for the hundred such that arrived.

However, in 1839 Poe published two tricky cryptograms allegedly by “Mr. W. B. Tyler” (probably a Poe pseudonym) which nobody at the time was able to break. These were rediscovered in 1985 by Professor Louis Renza, who then tried to raise their profile: before too long (in 1992), Professor Terence Whalen managed to solve the first one, which turned out to be nothing more complex than a simple monoalphabetic cipher.

The second (still-unbroken) cipher attracted the attention of Professor Shawn Rosenheim, who not only described it in his book The Cryptographic Imagination: Secret Writing from Edgar Poe to the Internet (Johns Hopkins, 1997), but also put up a $2500 prize to attract solvers’ attention, with the help of Jim Moore of bokler.com who built a website to promote it.

And then, after Rosenheim and Moore had fielded hundreds of fruitless emails and responses, a software engineer from Toronto called Gil Broza finally cracked the second cipher in October 2000: his decryption is detailed here.

For followers of the Voynich Manuscript, this makes for fairly depressing reading: neither of the “W. B. Tyler” ciphers were, even by the standard of Milanese ciphers circa 1465, particularly tricky, yet Broza had to work really quite hard to solve the second one. He worked out his own transcription, wrote his own software… and then still basically had to break into it by hand, a process made even more difficult by the presence of errors in the ciphertext (which were probably introduced in the typesetting). And people wonder why modern supercomputers can’t unravel the secrets of Voynichese – a cipher that is ten times harder than the second Poe Cipher.

The real mystery about Poe is actually the manner of his death: but that’s an intriguing story for another day… 🙂

Here’s a little Voynich Manuscript pop-culture link that got excised from Wikipedia last September. Poor thing: I thought I’d give it a second home here.

In the Esperanto-language comic strip “La Veksilologisto” (The Vexillologist), “Dr. Voynich” is the hero’s arch-enemy. Gifted by aliens with the “Orb of Esperanto” which allows universal translation, Voynich discovers this to be intolerable (animals speak, humans tell the truth), and sets out in search of the “Orb of Babel” which has the opposite effect.

I dug up a second reference to this comic strip here (also in Esperanto), which I tried to translate back into English courtesy of Traduku (an online Esperanto <–> English translator)… which had problems with cookies both in IE and Firefox (*sigh*). But (guessing at the Esperanto, which usually works), it seems as though it is a comic strip drawn by someone called David Bell, and published in the Esperanto magazine “Formoza Folio”.

And then, via this bibliographic page, I found a dead link to a missing file called “ff2.pdf” which (supposedly) contains a copy of the strip (apparently it was published in Taiwan in 2006): but the Wayback Machine didn’t have a copy of it. Oh well: I guess I’ll just have to carry on living without the joy of reading an Esperanto comic strip. But if anyone does manage to find a copy, please let me know! 🙂

Back in 1939, Alexander d’Agapeyeff wrote a tidy little book called “Codes and Ciphers” on cryptography history: though you can now buy it print-on-demand, cheap copies of the original book often come up on the various second-hand book aggregators (such as bookfinder.com), which is where I got my copy of the “Revised and reset” 1949 edition.

What is now generally understood is that d’Agapeyeff wasn’t really a cryptographer per se: he had previously written a similar book on cartography for the same publisher, and so thought to tackle cryptography.

On the very last page of the text (p.144), d’Agapeyeff dropped in a little cipher challenge, saying “Here is a cryptogram upon which the reader is invited to test his skill.

75628 28591 62916 48164 91748 58464 74748 28483 81638 18174
74826 26475 83828 49175 74658 37575 75936 36565 81638 17585
75756 46282 92857 46382 75748 38165 81848 56485 64858 56382
72628 36281 81728 16463 75828 16483 63828 58163 63630 47481
91918 46385 84656 48565 62946 26285 91859 17491 72756 46575
71658 36264 74818 28462 82649 18193 65626 48484 91838 57491
81657 27483 83858 28364 62726 26562 83759 27263 82827 27283
82858 47582 81837 28462 82837 58164 75748 58162 92000

This modest little cryptogram, now known as “the d’Agapeyeff Cipher“, has somehow remained unbroken for 70 years, and is often to be found alongside the Voynich Manuscript on lists of cipher enigmas.

The first thing to note is that adjacent columns are formed alternately from 67890 and 12345 characters respectively: which is a huge hint that what we are looking at is (in part, at least) a grid cipher, where each pair of numbers gives a position in a grid. If so, then we can throw away the “patristrocat” spaces between the blocks of numbers and rearrange them as pairs.

75 62 82 85 91 62 91 64 81 64 91 74 85 84 64 74 74 82 84 83 81 63 81 81 74
74 82 62 64 75 83 82 84 91 75 74 65 83 75 75 75 93 63 65 65 81 63 81 75 85
75 75 64 62 82 92 85 74 63 82 75 74 83 81 65 81 84 85 64 85 64 85 85 63 82
72 62 83 62 81 81 72 81 64 63 75 82 81 64 83 63 82 85 81 63 63 63 04 74 81
91 91 84 63 85 84 65 64 85 65 62 94 62 62 85 91 85 91 74 91 72 75 64 65 75
71 65 83 62 64 74 81 82 84 62 82 64 91 81 93 65 62 64 84 84 91 83 85 74 91
81 65 72 74 83 83 85 82 83 64 62 72 62 65 62 83 75 92 72 63 82 82 72 72 83
82 85 84 75 82 81 83 72 84 62 82 83 75 81 64 75 74 85 81 62 92 00 0[0]

The first hint that the order of these might have been scrambled (‘transposed’) comes from the two sets of tripled letters: 75 75 75 and 63 63 63. Five centuries ago, even Cicco Simonetta and his Milanese cipher clerks knew that tripled letters are very rare (the only one in Latin is “uvula“, ‘little egg’). The second hint that this is a transposition cipher is the total number of characters (apart from the “00” filler at the end): 14×14. If we discard the filler & rearrange the grid we get:-

75 62 82 85 91 62 91 64 81 64 91 74 85 84
64 74 74 82 84 83 81 63 81 81 74 74 82 62
64 75 83 82 84 91 75 74 65 83 75 75 75 93
63 65 65 81 63 81 75 85 75 75 64 62 82 92
85 74 63 82 75 74 83 81 65 81 84 85 64 85
64 85 85 63 82 72 62 83 62 81 81 72 81 64
63 75 82 81 64 83 63 82 85 81 63 63 63 04
74 81 91 91 84 63 85 84 65 64 85 65 62 94
62 62 85 91 85 91 74 91 72 75 64 65 75 71
65 83 62 64 74 81 82 84 62 82 64 91 81 93
65 62 64 84 84 91 83 85 74 91 81 65 72 74
83 83 85 82 83 64 62 72 62 65 62 83 75 92
72 63 82 82 72 72 83 82 85 84 75 82 81 83
72 84 62 82 83 75 81 64 75 74 85 81 62 92

This is very probably the starting point for the real cryptography (though the presence of tripled characters in the columns implies that it probably isn’t a simple “matrix-like” diagonal transposition. Essentially, it seems that we now have to solve a 14×14 transposition cipher and a 5×5 substitution cipher simultaneously, over a relatively small cryptogram – an immense number of combinations to explore.

However, we know that d’Agapeyeff wasn’t a full-on cryptographer, so we should really explore the psychological angle before going crazy with an 800-year-long brute-force search. For a start, if you lay out the frequencies for the 5×5 letter grid (with 12345 on top, 67890 on the left), a pattern immediately appears:-

** .1 .2 .3 .4 .5
6. _0 17 12 16 11
7. _1 _9 _0 14 17
8. 20 17 15 11 17
9. 12 _3 _2 _1 _0
0. _0 _0 _0 _1 _0

Here, the 61 (top-left) frequency is 0, the 73 frequency is 0, and the final nine frequencies are 3, 2, 1, 0; 0, 0, 0, 1, 0. I think this points to a 5×5 mapping generated by a keyphrase, such as “Alexander d’Agapeyeff is cool” (for example). To make a keyphrase into a 5×5 alphabet, turn all Js into Is (say), remove all duplicate letters (and so it becomes ALEXNDRGPYFISCO), and then pad to the end with any unused characters in the alphabet in sequence (BHKMQTUVWZ)

* 1 2 3 4 5
6 A L E X N
7 D R G P Y
8 F I S C O
9 B H K M Q
0 T U V W Z

For a long-ish (but language-like) keyphrase, rare characters would tend to get moved to the end of the block: which is what we appear to see in the frequency counts above, suggesting that the final few letters are (for example) W X Y Z or W X Z.

Yet 61 and 73 have frequency counts of zero, which points to their being really rare letters (like Q or Z). However, if you read the frequency counts as strings, 61 62 63 = 0 17 12, while 73 74 75 = 0 14 17: which perhaps points to the first letter of the keyphrase (i.e. 61) being a rare consonant, and the second pair being Q U followed by a vowel. Might 73 74 75 76 77 be QUIET or QUITE?

I don’t (of course) know: but I do strongly suspect that it might be possible for a cunning cryptographer to crack d’Agapeyeff’s keyphrase quite independently of his transposition cipher. It can’t be that hard, can it? ;-p

Update: a follow-up post is here

A couple of emails just in from Voynich novelists: it’s so much nicer to hear about stuff before it happens, rather than haphazardly 6+ months later (sadly the de facto standard for the Internet).

Firstly, Richard Douglas Weber writes to tell me that his Voynich novel is now very well advanced, and that (though I’m exaggerating a tad) it has a VMs-related plot device that will hopefully jolt me out of my novel-reading seat. I’m really looking forward to this!

(As an aside, the last thing that nearly made me choke on my own intestines with surprise was the “canape” sequence in the “Ali G Indahouse” movie. But perhaps I should say no more about that, aiii…)

Richard came to the Voynich Manuscipt sideways while researching a Dee/Kelley/Enochian writing project, but which then got stalled. When it later restarted, the Dee/Kelley angle got dropped while the VMs took centre stage. Unlike many “Voynichologists” out there (*sigh*), he had taken the time to read Mary D’Imperio’s “Elegant Enigma” (good for him!), though he felt it only really amounted to “a long rehash of everything that was conjectured”… (errrm, it’s not that long, is it?) All of which is fair enough: we’ll all have to wait for his final book to see what angle he takes on the VMs…

I should say that though D’Imperio affects impartiality, if you read “Elegant Enigma” carefully, you can find quite a few places where her actual opinion of the VMs sneaks in. I think it is the structure of Voynichese that particularly fascinated her, the siren singing that pulled her ship toward the manuscript. For example, on p.11 she writes of its “architectonic … quality“, and that “I gain a persistent impression of the presence of rules and relationships, a definite structure with its own “logic”, however erratic and bizarre it might appear when compared to present-day concepts. The intricate compound forms in the script and its matter-of-fact, rather austere style all confirm this impression of craftsmanlike and logical construction in my mind“, before going on to describe the “persistent tectonic element of style in the drawings.” This basic idea recurs on p.16 and elsewhere.

Secondly, Bill Walsh emailed with news of his own Voynich-homage novel with a supernatural twist. It wouldn’t be fair to say more than that at this early stage – even in these electronic times, getting from pitch to draft to agent to publisher to marketing to production to retailer to reader is as slow (and tricky) as it was a century ago. But having now seen some of his writing (which I found sparky and enjoyable), I really wish him the very best luck in taking it further.

Finally, I’ve just picked up a copy of A.W.Hill’s ‘Stephan Raszer’ novel “Enoch’s Portal” (2001), which allegedly has its own supernatural take on the Voynich Manuscript. I’ll post a review here once I’ve imbibed its intriguing mix of “visionary doses of Renaissance magic, Kabbalah and sacramental sex” (according to the back cover, anyway)…

Not long ago, I mentioned here that I had made a fist-punching-in-the-air breakthrough in my research, and promised to describe it more fully at a later date. Well, that later date has (thanks to a torrent of two gently chiding emails chivvying me along) now arrived: here’s what I found.

Regular Voynich News readers will by now be aware that I’ve spent a long time this year slowly trawling through various volumes of Lynn Thorndike’s vast “History of Magic & Experimental Science”. Given that I believe the Voynich Manuscript is an enciphered book of proto-scientific secrets rooted in Italian Quattrocento culture, Thorndike’s general focus on Italian scientific documents of the 14th (Volume III) and 15th (Volume IV) centuries is pretty much spot on. This approach has turned up a whole set of research leads to follow up over the next few weeks and months… so far so good.

But I also (sad completist I sometimes tend to be) picked up a copy of Thorndike’s rather less-well-known “Science & Thought In The Fifteenth Century” (1929, Columbia University Press): in which I found something pleasantly unexpected. But I’ll fill in all the background first…

Once upon a time (oh, in 2006), I wrote & published a book called “The Curse of the Voynich“, which described how I concluded from my meticulous codicological study that Quattrocento Florentine architect Antonio Averlino (better known as “Filarete”) was probably both the author and the encipherer of the Voynich Manuscript. Part of the textual evidence revolved around a set of “small works” to which Averlino alluded in his larger libro architettonico, and which I suspected were at least in part enciphered in the VMs. However, art historians have long disagreed about whether these other works actually existed, or whether they were just added in for spice to amuse Averlino’s (hoped-for) ducal audience: as far as anyone, there has long been no external evidence either way.

But then on p.219 of Thorndike’s “Science & Thought”, in chapter XII which is largely devoted to Giovanni Michele Alberto of Carrara’s “De constitutione mundi“, I found the following:

Antonio Averlino Filarete (1410-1470), who is commonly thought of as an architect and sculptor, is listed by John Michael Albert [i.e. Giovanni Michele Alberto da Carrara] among writers on plants as having treated that subject “elegantly in the vernacular tongue”. [94]

Thorndike’s footnote 94 then says:

Ibid. [MS Ashburnham 198], fol.78r: “Sed et Antonius Averlinus Philaretus lingua vernacula scripsit eleganter.” The work of Filarete on architecture was first printed only in 1890 (W. von Oettingen). In it he alludes to his work on agriculture, which is probably what John Michael Albert has in mind. See M. Lazzaroni and A Munoz, “Filarete, scultore e architetto del sec. XV”, 1908, p.281.

Somehow this whole mention appears to have gone unnoticed by all recent writers on Filarete: yet its existence would seem to strongly tip the balance of probability towards the likelihood that he did actually write his “other little works”. Hence why finding it was so rewarding (for me, at least).

Incidentally, MS Ashburnham 198 (one of the 11,000 manuscripts held by the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence) was dedicated to Boniface, marquis of Montferrat: and so was probably written between 1483 (when Bonifazio Palaeologo became marquis) and 1488 (when Alberto was given the title Count Palatine by Frederick III) or 1490 (when Alberto is thought to have died).

I then wondered where Alberto might have seen Filarete’s herbal manuscript. Alberto was born in Bergamo, trained in Padua, returned to Bergamo, and practised medicine at Rovato, Brescia, Chiari: and for a time was private physician to Roberto di Sanseverino, as well as Prior of the College of Physicians in Bergamo. I’d therefore guess that Alberto probably saw Filarete’s work (and perhaps even had a copy made of it) while in Bergamo, where he spent most of his life, only 50km or so from Milan where Filarete was working: or he may even have met Filarete, who is believed to have designed the plans for Bergamo Cathedral circa 1459, and who doubtless visited Bergamo on several occasions.

It would be amazing if Filarete’s elegant vernacular work on plants (or even just its incipit) could be identified: and so I started, emboldened by the archival research content of Day Three of the Warwick/Warburg Course, to think about where I might search (and for what, and for how long).

Identifying herbals from purely written descriptions is not unprecedented. In Thorndike’s “History of Magic & Experimental Science” Vol.IV (p.599), he describes Pandolphus Collenucius of Pesaro learning about herbs in Venice: “There in the street of the spice-dealers in a shop having as its sign the head of an Ethiopian he had consulted an herbal in which the plants were represented so carefully and artfully that you would have thought they grew on its pages.” In a footnote, Thorndike notes that Valentinelli (1872) “has shown that this was the De Simplicibus of Benedetto Rinio, with pictures of the plants by the Venetian painter, Andrea Amadio. The MS is now S. Marco VI, 59 (Valentinelli, XIII, 10).” All the same, we really don’t yet have enough to work with in the present case.

Where did Alberto’s belongings go after his death? Sergio Toresella tells me that Apostolo Zeno (1668-1750) wrote: “I understand that this Alberti was an humanist that wrote a lot of comedies and poetry but I do not know were his belongings went after his death.” So at least I’m not the first to ask!

But all is not lost: the Biblioteca Angelo Mai in Bergamo has a good collection of his letters and notes, and many manuscripts from his personal library (and so with his initials and coat of arms added to them). The library’s bibliographical description of its various humanistic documents taken from Kristeller’s Iter Italicum and Iter Supplementum is here. But, as Sergio points out, none looks particularly promising, with the possibly exception of MA 184-186 folio 8v “Ex experimentis et secretis magistri Guelmi” (though this too seems fairly unlikely).

There are some books on Alberto’s work. For instance, a 20th century academic called Giovanni Giraldi seems to have spent his life editing and publishing papers on him in obscure journals, many of which are reproduced in his 1967 book “Opera poetica, philosophica, rhetorica, theologica” (Novara: Istituto Geografico de Agostini): although none appears to be for sale online (boo), WorldCat lists 5 or 6 copies, one in the Warburg Institute (hooray!)

For Alberto’s life, there is “Giovanni Michele Alberto Carrara” by Ercole Vittorio Ferrario and Gian Camillo Donadi (1964), for which WorldCat lists just one copy (boo)… in the Wellcome Institute Library in London, just around the corner from the British Library (phew!). I’ve been meaning to go there for a while, partly to take a picture of its necromantic painting depicting John Dee (but that’s another story).

Interestingly, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana makes a log of everyone who examines each of its manuscripts available on its website. Of the ten people listed for MS Ashburnham 198, there is someone from the Warburg Institute (in Hamburg!) in 1930, Patrick McGurk from the Warburg (in London) in 1953, Federici Vescalini Graziella in 1987, John Monfasani in 1995, and Ulrich Pfisterer in 1998, though I don’t yet know if Ulrich (who has written papers on Filarete) was or is aware of the mention on f78r: I’ll ask him, see what he says…

As far as the Voynich Manuscript goes, there’s always the tiny possibility that multispectral imaging of its very first page might just (if Alberto just happened to end up owning it) reveal a faint contact transfer from Alberto’s coat of arms and initials. But I’m more interested in seeing if the incipit is anywhere to be found: that would be far more useful for trying to break its cipher.

All of which may not seem like much to get hugely excited about, but it is a step forward (though admittedly only at the glacial pace normal for Voynich research). *sigh*

Yes, some people are now advertising for Voynich widows: online dating site OKCupid currently has six members (3 m, 1 f, 2 bi) who list the Voynich Manuscript as one of their interests (though how they can find any time for other interests beats me).

Of course, I should point out that to be well-matched as a partner for a Voynichologist, you’d need to be comfortable with long periods of –errrm– “benign neglect” (for example, evenings and weekends), and to understand that the itinerary of shared/family holidays will very often end up being finessed to accommodate historical / cultural sites of Voynichological interest (New Haven (of course), Philadelphia, New York, Rome, Milan, etc), or to drop by academic libraries which just happen to hold the only remaining copy of <insert obscure bookname here>.

Just so you know – forewarned is forearmed! (But eight-armed is octopoidal). 🙂