In four words, the Voynich Manuscript is a puzzling old thing (and really, ain’t that the truth?). Filled with unknown plants, unrecognizable astrology & astronomy, and numerous drawings of small naked women, the fact that we also can’t read a single word of its ‘Voynichese’ text doubles or even triples its already top-end mystery. Basically, the Voynich Manuscript is to normal mysteries as a Scooby sandwich is to an M&S prawn mayonnaise sandwich.

People have their theories about it, of course. The last ripe strawberry of a mainstream Voynich theory came back in 2004 from academic Gordon Rugg, who declared that it was a hoax made using late 16th century cryptographic table-based trickery. Sadly 2009 saw an early 15th century radiocarbon dating of its vellum, which would seem to have made a fool of such fruity ingredients. Or if not a fool, then certainly a bit of a mess.

Despite almost-irreconcilable dating problems, numerous Voynich theories continue to find support from eager evangelists, angrily jabbing their fingers at any epistemological cracks they can see. The most notable get-out clause proposed is that some devious so-and-so could theoretically have used centuries-old vellum for <insert fiendishly clever reason here>, rather than some fresh stuff. This is indeed possible. But also, I think, rather ridiculous.

Why? Because it adds yet another layer of possible unlikeliness (for it is surely extraordinarily unlikely that someone back then would have such a modern sensibility about faking or hoaxing that they would knowingly simulate a century or more of codicological activity), without actually helping us to manage or even reduce any of the existing layers of actual unlikeliness.

Ironically, many such theorists prove anxious to invoke Occam’s Razor even as they propose overcomplex theories that sit at odds with the (admittedly somewhat fragmented) array of evidence we have. Incidentally, my own version is what I call “Occam’s Blunt Razor”: “hypotheses that make things more complicated should be tested last, if ever“.

For more than a decade, I’ve been watching such drearily unimpressive Voynich theories ping (usually only briefly, thank goodness) onto the world’s cultural radar. Most come across as little more than work-in-progress airport novella plots, but without the (apparently obligatory) interestingly-damaged-yet-thrustingly-squat-jawed protagonist to counterbalance the boredom of trawling through what passes for historical mystery research these days (i.e. the first half of Wikipedia entries).

And so I think it was something of a surprise when, back in 2006, I grew convinced that the Voynich Manuscript had been put together by the Italian architect Antonio Averlino (better known as Filarete), and even wrote a book about it (“The Curse of the Voynich”). But by taking that step, wasn’t I doing exactly the same thing as all those other Voynich wannabe theorists? Wasn’t I too putting out an overcomplex theory at odds with the evidence that signally failed to explain anything?

Well… no, not at all, I’d say. Averlino was the cherry on the dating cake I’d patiently built up over the years: the cake led me to the cherry, not the other way around. And that dating framework still stands – all the analysis I’ve carried out in the years since has remained strongly consistent with that framework.

Even so, I’m not wedded to Averlino: my guess is that you could probably construct a list of one or two hundred Quattrocento candidates nearly as good a match as him, and it could very well have been one of those. Yet what I am sure about is that when we ultimately find out the Voynich’s secrets, it will prove to be what I said: a mid-15th century European book of secrets; collected from a variety of sources on herbalism, astronomy, astrology, water and even machines; whose travelling author was linked directly to Milan, Florence, and Venice; and whose cipher was largely composed of 15th century scribal shorthand disguised as medieval scribal shapes (though with an annoying twist).

Averlino aside, please feel free to disagree with any of that… but if you do, be aware that you’ve got some important detail just plain wrong. 🙂

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the Voynich Manuscript is that historians still skirt around it: yet in many ways, it offers the purest of codicological challenges ever devised. For without the contents of the text to help us (and a provenance that starts only in the 17th century, some 150 years or so after it was constructed), all a professional historian can rely on is a whole constellation of secondary clues. Surely this is the best gladiatorial arena ever offered?

I’ll happily help any historian who wants to take the mystery of the Voynich Manuscript on, 21st century style. Yet it would seem that few have the skills (and indeed the research cojones) to do ‘proper’ history any more, having lost them in the dense intertextuality of secondary research. Without close reading to back their judgment up, how many can build a historical case from a single, unreadable primary source?

You know, I still sometimes wonder what might have happened if, in the 1920s, John Matthews Manly and Edith Rickert had chosen not Chaucer as their über-subject matter but the Voynich Manuscript instead. As a team, they surely had more than enough cryptological and historical brains to come devilishly close to the answer. And yet… other times it seems to me that the Voynich offers a brutally nihilistic challenge to any generation of historians: for the techniques you have been taught may well be a hindrance rather than a help.

All in all, perhaps (capital-H) History is a thing you have to unlearn (if only partially) if you want to make sense of the Voynich Manuscript’s deep mystery – and that is a terrifically hazardous starting point for any quest. For that reason, it may well be something that no professional historian could ever afford to take on – for as Locard’s Exchange Principle would have it, every contact between things affects both parties. A historian might change Voynich thinking, but Voynich thinking might change the historian in the process… which might well be a risky exchange. Ho hum… 😐

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…

I don’t quite know how I manage it but I do keep on tripping over odd stuff, not unlike Christine Jins’ sensitively made peppermill, something definitely not to be sneezed at.

So here’s this week’s microdose of historical weirdness for you, the supernatural Victorian fiction of “engaged feminist” lesbian Vernon Lee (the pen-name of Violet Paget), such as “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady“. All of which would be a mere footnote to a footnote, were it not for her curious 1895 book “Renaissance Fancies and Studies“, a collection of oddly imagined essays on Art History.

One of its sections is entitled “A SEEKER OF PAGAN PERFECTION : BEING THE LIFE OF DOMENICO NERONI, PICTOR SACRILEGUS”, and is (to my eyes, at least) a bit like a Forrest Gump take on the Quattrocento (there was never a painter called “Domenico Neroni”). In Paget’s imagination, Neroni is “under the influence of that humanist Filarete“, who has had “long and adventurous journeys […] in India and the East, and in Greece, returning to Italy only when Constantinople fell before the Turks. During these years he had acquired immense learning, considerable wealth, and a vaguely sinister reputation. […] He was busying his last year in a great work of fancy and erudition…

This turns out to be not the real Antonio Averlino “Filarete” (despite all the borrowed similarities), but a “Niccolo Filarete” invented for her task. And his book?

“The book of Filarete, of which the rare copies are among the most precious relics of the Renaissance, was a strange mixture of romance, allegory, and encyclopædic knowledge, such as had been common in the Middle Ages, and was still fashionable during the revival of letters, which merely added the element of classical learning. Like the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili of Francesco Colonna, of which it was doubtless the prototype, the Alcandros of Filarete, though never carried beyond the first volume, is an amazing and wearisome display of the author’s archæological learning. It contains exact descriptions of all the rarities of ancient art, and of things Oriental which he had seen, and pages of transcripts from obscure Latin and Greek authors, descriptive of religious ceremonies; varied with Platonic philosophy, Decameronian obscenities, in laboured pseudo-Florentine style, and Dantesque visions, all held together by the confused narrative of an allegorical journey performed by the author. It is profusely ornamented with woodcuts, representing architectural designs of a fantastic, rather Oriental description, restorations of ancient buildings, reproductions of antique inscriptions and designs, and last, but far from least, a certain number of small compositions, of Mantegnesque quality, but Botticellian charm, showing the various adventures of the hero in terrible woods, delicious gardens, and in the company of nymphs, demigods, and allegorical personages.”

Paget’s pretend Filarete was also busy in Rome, the place where the real Filarete was thrown into jail:-

Strange rumours were current in Rome of unholy festivities in which Filarete and other learned men—some of those whom Paul II. had thrown into prison—had once taken part. They had not merely laid their tables and spread their couches according to descriptions contained in ancient authors; but, crowned with roses, laurel, myrtle, or parsley, had sung hymns to the heathen gods, and, it was whispered, poured out libations and burned incense in their honour.

Paget has her Filarete and Neroni do all manner of unspeakable pagan things before coming to a sticky end in July 1488, allegedly noted in (the real) diary of Stefano Infessura (1435-1500). For a bit of fun, I had a look at Stefano Infessura’s real diary entry for 1488 (p.235 or so, if you’re interested) to see if there was some kind of actual event of the day that Paget had woven into her story… but nothing particularly jumped out at me.

Having myself spent such a long time wondering whether the real Filarete might have assembled a curious book of secrets (enciphered as the Voynich Manuscript), it is decidedly peculiar to read Paget merrily assembling countless historical fragments (such as the Libro Architettonico and the Hypnerotomachia Poliphilii!) into her own faux collage about a similar sounding book. Enough footnotery!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Klaus Schmeh, a German encryption professional who over the last couple of years has become increasingly fascinated by the cipher mystery of the Voynich Manuscript, has just been interviewed by the sparky skeptics at Righteous Indignation for their Episode #76 – Klaus’ VMs section runs from 25:50 to 45:45, and gives a fairly pragmatic introduction to the Voynich Manuscript. This was prompted by his Voynich talk at the 14th European Skeptics Conference in Budapest earlier this year (2010).

In fact, it’s quite revealing to see how far he has come from a 2008 German skeptic conference he also talked at (discussed here) [where he fell in behind the mainstream 16th century hoax position] and a 2008 article he wrote (which I reviewed here): it’s nice to see that he’s moved from seeing pretty much everything Voynichese as a combination of pseudoscience and pseudohistory to a rather more nuanced (and realistic) position.

But all the same, looking forward, to where should Voynich skepticism go from here? From what we now know, I’d say there are no obvious grounds for a hardcore skeptical position any more – the vellum seems genuinely old, with the ink freshly written on it, and the radiocarbon dating broadly meshing with the kind of evidence I’ve been working on for the last 5+ years, vis-à-vis:

  • The ‘4o’ verbose pair’s brief appearance in various Northern Italian cipher keys 1440-1456 (see The Curse Of The Voynich pp.175-179)
  • The parallel hatching which I suspect pretty much forces a post-1440 date if it was made in Italy, or post-1410 if Germany
  • The two 15th century hands in the marginalia which pretty much force a pre-1500 date for the VMs
  • Sergio Toresella’s very specific dating claim, based on his lifetime with herbal manuscripts – that it was made in Northern Italy (probably Milan or the Venice region) around 1460

The swallow-tail merlons on the two castle walls (on the nine-rosette page) that Klaus mentioned in the podcast have actually been debated for at least a decade: although these don’t prove that the Voynich Manuscript was constructed in Northern Italy (where they were an unmissable feature of many castles), they clearly do help to shift the balance of probability that way away from Germany (the #2 candidate region).

And I suppose this is where all this is going: by carefully combining all these pieces together, we can now try to think about the Voynich in terms of probabilities. Even if you discount my Antonio Averlino hypothesis, I don’t honestly mind being what I call “the right kind of wrong” – i.e. looking in the right culture, place, and time, but perhaps finding a false positive to match a very specific forensic profile. Just so you know, I’d currently rate the likelihood of the VMs’s origin’s being Northern Italy at ~80%, Savoy ~10%, Germany ~5%, and anywhere else ~5%.

Hence, if someone were to tell me tomorrow that they’d just uncovered a fifteenth century letter clearly describing the Voynich Manuscript as having been written by Giovanni Fontana, Cicco Simonetta, Brunelleschi, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Leon Battista Alberti, or any one of the hundreds of other desperately clever Northern Italian polymaths who were right there at the birth of the Renaissance, I’d be utterly delighted: for I think that is the cultural milieu linking pretty much all the strands of tangible (as opposed to merely suggestive) evidence to date.

The notions that we know nothing about the VMs and/or that it is somehow destined to be proven a meaningless hoax are not ‘skeptical’ in the true sense of the word: rather, they are postmodernist non-positions, uncritical ‘meh‘s in the face of the interconnected mass of subtle – but nonetheless tangible – historical evidence VMs researchers have carefully accumulated. In the case of the Voynich Manuscript, I think the real “beliefs that are taken for granted by most of the population” at which skeptics should be pointing their weapons of mass deconstruction are not this kind of painstakingly-assembled gear-train, but the widely-disseminated (and utterly fallacious) claim that the VMs is a 16th century hoax for financial gain.

In a way, this would turn Klaus’ own skeptical research chain back on itself – and in so doing would hopefully set him free. “More Schmeh, less meh“, eh? 🙂

The next European Skeptics Conference starts in Budapest in a few days’ time (17th-19th September 2010), and features Klaus Schmeh giving a talk on the Voynich Manuscript.

Though Klaus has invested a lot of effort into building up a hardline skeptical position on VMs theories (basically, that more or less everything written on it is either pseudoscience or pseudohistory), I personally don’t think this is particularly fair. Compared to the frankly fantasmagorical literature on the Phaistos Disk or even the wistfully nationalistic fancies floating around the Rohoncz Codex, I’d actually say that the majority of VMs theories do tend to rest on a far less rumpled bed of historical evidence and tortuous historical reasoning (if you put the alien Nazi Atlantean end-times theories to one side).

Yet it is also true that VMs theories also often share the same historical methodological flaw (some people would call it an “antipattern”). What I call the “Big Man” fallacy is the conviction that the only way of constructing a convincing explanation for the VMs would be to weave it into the narrative of a well-known historical (but occult- or cryptography-tinged) personality. As examples of this, you could quickly point to theories name-checking Roger Bacon, Leonardo da Vinci, Trithemius,  John Dee, Edward Kelley, Francis Bacon and perhaps even (I’ll say it so that Klaus doesn’t have to) Antonio Averlino.

Of course, the awkward truth about the Renaissance is that for every one half-decent such historical candidate, there were probably a hundred better qualified ones long lost in the fog of time: so the odds are always strongly against anyone succeeding in taking on the Voynich in the absence of proper scientific / codicological data to build upon.

Perhaps this marks the line between cynicism and skepticism I mentioned a few weeks ago: whereas a cynic dismisses any such speculative exercise as a unsupportable waste of effort, a skeptic realizes that the challenge of acquiring proper, revealing historical information is always going to be significant, and so struggles to retain a core of optimism. Is getting to such an extraordinary end line worth precariously balancing optimism and pessimism for? I think so, but… opinions differ! 🙂

I recently blogged here about the difference between skepticism (which has at its heart both a guarded optimism and a realistic take on the practical difficulties involved in gaining knowledge) and cynicism (which by way of contrast is a denialist position, that says it is safer to believe nothing rather than get hurt by believing something that will turn out to be incorrect): but what I didn’t really go on to say was that I think there’s currently rather more cynicism at play in the Voynich research world than is properly healthy – and that perhaps the Wikipedia article simply reflects this critical imbalance.

So here’s my small wish for the day: that Voynich experts should try to use their insightful brains and creative historical imaginations not to construct yet more reasons why existing theories are wrong (which is, lets face it, about as hard as machine-gunning fish in a barrel), but instead try to construct questions they would really like to see answered. By doing this, we can start to map out the edges of our collective knowledge, and get some kind of frontier research mentality going again – perhaps it is simply this which is currently most conspicuous by its absence of late.

In this spirit but putting the codicological and palaeographical frontiers to one side (because the Beinecke doesn’t seem to be at all interested, and I suspect it will start to become clear over the next few months why this is so), here’s my proposal for an entirely new research front to open right up: Rome 1465-1467.

* * * * * *

The central cryptographic paradox of the Voynich Manuscript is that it manages to combine the simplicity of 14th century monoalphabetic ciphers (language-like and with a restricted alphabet size) with the mathematical inscrutability of 16th century polyalphabetic ciphers, yet has a (claimed) radiocarbon dating that sits between the two. Similarly, it contain a cipher letter pair (‘4o’) which was in use around Milan between 1440 and 1460, yet its cipher system is tangibly more sophisticated than anything found in the cipher ledgers of the day.

I’m going to put the radiocarbon dating on one side for the moment, and run with 1465-1467 – this was specifically when Leon Battista Alberti started researching in Rome not only how to break ciphers, but also how to make unbreakable ciphers. In fact, this precise time and place marked the birth of polyalphabetic ciphers, and arguably of modern cryptographic (and cryptologic) practice.

So far so well documented. But there’s a crucial element missing from this – the company Alberti kept in Rome while he was doing this. One of the only things I learnt from Gavin Menzies’ dismal “1434” (which I can’t even bring myself to review) was that while Regiomontanus was in Rome between 1461 and 1465, he often met up with Alberti and Paolo Toscanelli at Nicholas of Cusa’s house, though the mystery is what he was doing between 1465 and 1467  when “he seems to have disappeared”. [p.143] Of course, Nicholas of Cusa died in 1464, and though Toscanelli was a good friend of Nicholas, he only rarely ventured out of Florence, so this is already something of a simplification.

Yet here we have a critical moment when four polymathic giants of the Renaissance did somewhat more than cross paths (and one might throw others such as Filelfo, George of Trebizond, and [dare I say it] Filarete into this same mix): one might even speculate whether combining Nicholas of Cusa’s interest in concave lenses (De Beryllo, 1441) with Regiomontanus’ astronomy and with Toscanelli’s cosmography did indeed provide the conceptual spark that was to grow into the telescope (and then the microscope) during the course of the following century (even if the raw technology to make such an object was not yet there).

Might this intellectually rich time and place in some way be the loamy bed in which the seed of the Voynich Manuscript grew to its full fruition? To my eyes, there’s something innately multidisciplinary about the VMs, that speaks of subtle collaboration – people contributing to make something more than merely the sum of its parts.

Hence the new research frontier I propose is based on a single question: what are the archival resources that historians have used to reconstruct these meetings (and this community) in Rome in 1465-1467? Perhaps if we now revisit these same resources, we might notice a fleeting mention of the VMs in conception, in construction, in motion, or in retrospect, who knows?

* * * * * *

So, what question would you like answered? What research frontier would you like opened up in 2010?

Somewhere during the last decade, historians picked up got the idea that history book publishers wanted to be pitched ‘vertical’ books about individual microsubjects, books that somehow try to recapitulate the last N-thousand years of human history as viewed through the narrow prism of, say, salt or swearing or codpieces. All of which somehow reminds me of the joke about the gynaecologist who preferred to decorate the hall through the letterbox, I’m not quite sure why…

Anyway, I’ve been working my way through Pamela O. Long’s epic (2004) book “Openness, Secrecy, Authority”, which is basically ‘the (vertical) history of secrecy pre-Enlightenment’. It covers pretty much all of the historical things I think every Voynich researcher ought to be acutely aware of – books of secrets, alchemy, patents, recipes, Hermeticism, Theophilus, Poimander, Pythagoras, Plotinus, Vitruvius, Hero of Alexandria, Philo, Guido da Vigevano, Fontana, Brunelleschi, Taccola, Kyeser,Valturio, Ghiberti, Filarete, Piero della Francesca, Leonardo da Vinci, Alberti, Ficino, Agrippa, Paracelsus, etc. However, it’s proving to be a haltingly slow process, because every chapter or so I feel compelled to go away and check out what she’s saying to see if I believe her or not. Even though 50% of the time I actually disagree with her conclusions and interpretations, this is almost certainly because she has attempted to cover an extraordinary breadth of subject-matter within a single volume, as well as to give some kind of a socio-theoretic chapter-ending spin on the extraordinarily heterogenous set of things that fall within range of her chosen subject thread, both things that tend to work out badly for authors. 🙂

A full review will follow (because I haven’t yet finished it), but I thought I’d briefly mention it because it inspired the following brief note on books on machines of war. As I mentioned yesterday, Johann Adam Schall von Bell wrote one for the Ming Emperor; Roberto Valturio’s “De Re Militari” caused a stir when Sigismondo Malatesta tried to send a copy to Istanbul with his favourite court painter Matteo de’ Pasti; gay vegetarian pacifist Leonardo da Vinci famously tried to ingratiate himself with the Sforza Duke of Milan with his 1482 war machine sketches; Guido da Vigevano wrote one; Giovanni Fontana wrote one; Antonio Averlino sort-of-claimed to have written one (on engines); and so on.

What I learnt from Pamela O. Long’s books was also that Cornelius Agrippa “attempted to obtain patronage… by making reference to a treatise he planned to write on a engines of war” (p.162), while Alberti promised (in his De re aedificatoria, p.135 of the 1988 Rykwert edition) to “deal with war machines at greater length elsewhere, perhaps implying that he was planning to write a treatise on the subject” (p.125).

But… hold on a minute?! Even though the conventional starting point for this whole subject is one of archival rarity (i.e. that manuscript books of secrets are the exception rather than the rule), it seems that if you mine the subject matter enough you find that people back then didn’t qualify as a free-agent master architect / engineer looking for courtly patronage unless they could point to their own secret book of extraordinary machines to back up their claims. I suppose this is broadly the Quattrocento equivalent of the modern Cult Of The Business Plan, where startup founders could only get audiences with those 1990s princes (yes, Venture Capitalists) if they had a suitably weighty document & spreadsheet to back up their outrageously nonsensical business bet (i.e. a virally-marketed scalable global pet massage franchising scheme etc).

Historians often point to the Quattrocento as being the effective birth of intellectual property (yes, I know Venice issued various earlier patent-like documents, but it’s arguable whether these count): drawing a broad modern parallel, the notion of intellectual capital was sometimes caricatured in the late 1990s as being a way of making a bunch of PhDs losing money look like a good investment. In case you think I’m stretching language too far here, the Quattrocento has two constrasting examplars for these trends: Brunelleschi and Leonardo da Vinci. Brunelleschi started off (it’s highly likely) as a goldsmith with a close interest in clockmaking, and used his own personal practice to develop complex machine ideas – he was empirical/experiential/adaptive, preferring not to transfer his physical constructions onto paper because people would then copy them ad infinitum. Leonardo, by contrast, was constructing theoretical and speculative models for designs without significant regard to their practicalities: I would argue that he could only construct his designs on paper as that was where they belonged – he was theoretical/abstract/creative. In short, Brunelleschi is all about intellectual property while Leonardo is all about intellectual capital, and never the twain shall meet: perhaps his innate practicality is why Brunelleschi is held in higher esteem than Leonardo in Italy.

I think that even though intellectual capital (a demonstrable capacity for having bright ideas, usually theoretical) has a quite different rationale to intellectual property (a set of bright ideas someone believed they owned, usually pragmatic), both types of Quattrocento books of machines performed roughly the same kind of function even though the ideas in them were hardly ever used. Viewed from this angle, they are no more than “alchemical herbal”-style McGuffins that people constructed to try to gain credibility and/or patronage, by becoming an auctor/authority – AKA hire me “because I’m worth it”. Ultimately, I suspect that hyping up your secret book on machines was simply the early modern equivalent of the entrepreneural elevator pitch. 🙂

But now I’m mixing business school models with historical models, while straying dangerously close to the kind of theoretical stuff I was happy to lambast a mere six paragraphs back: probably a sign I ought to call a halt for the day. Make of it all what you will! 🙂

Art historians have long debated whether or not dissatisfied architect Antonio Averlino made the trip from Italy to Constantinople in 1465: one of the key pieces of evidence supporting the notion is the letter of recommendation written in Greek by Averlino’s old friend Filelfo (the humanist writer and Hellenophile) and addressed to George Amirutzes (Mehmed II’s personal tutor).

This is one of those things that is often referred to fleetingly (such as in my book “The Curse of the Voynich”), but rarely substantively: so I wondered if I could track it down. Handily, Valentina Vulpi’s dissertation had a mini-bibliography for it in footnote 148 on p.47, which directs you to:

  • Finoli & Grassi’s (1972) Italian translation of the libro architettonico, p.XXXIX (in the introduction)
  • Emil Louis Jean Legrand’s (1892) “Cent-dix lettres grecques de Francois Filelfe“, p.120
  • Lavino Agostinelli’s (1899) “Lettere volgarizzate dal greco“, p.86.

Handily, it turns out that Legrand’s book is accessible through Gallica, and here’s a link to the page where the letter transcription begins. The French translation (which you only need a GCSE in Franglais to read) of the Greek goes:-

“Le porteur de la présente lettre, Antoine Averulino, est un homme de bien en même temps qu’un de mes meilleurs amis. C’est pourquoi, en vertu de vieux proverbe, je te le recommande comme étant mon ami, devant être le tien, se trouver ainsi l’ami commun de deux personnes intimeme liées l’une à l’autre. Averulino connaît à merveille une foule d’excellentes choses et est un architecte de très grand talent. Il se rend à Constantinople dans l’unique intention de voir le pays. Tu me feras un sensible plaisir, si tu daignes l’accuellir avec amabilité et lui témoigner toute l’affection que tu as pour moi-même. Porte-toi bien.”

i.e. “He [Averlino] is going to Constantinople with the sole intention of seeing the country” (rather than working as an architect there). However, the last direct record we have of Averlino is from 16th August 1465:

Coram prefatis dominis stipulantibus nomine hospitalis . . . Magister Antonius Florentinus Inzignerius et architector h[ospitalis] novi et magni, cum salario mensuali florinorum XX vigore litterarum ducalium et conventionis per eum habente cum d[ictis] deputatis prout contra in libro conclusionum, liberali annuo et illari vultu manifesta dixit, quod ipso habente solutionem eius quod habere debet ab hospitale ab hodie retro quod eius intentio est, et ita deliberat a modo in antea, quidquid non petere nec habere a dicto hospitale omnis predicti sui salarij, vigore dictarum litterarum et conventionis nec alio jure et predicta atenta inhobilitate [!] hospitalis. Et quod se in futurum fabricari continget in hospitali, quod amore benevolo visitarit laboreria, et nichil pro mercede petet, nisi prout fuerit dispositione dominorum tunc deputatorum.”

Filelfo knew Averlino from at least 1447, when he wrote another letter of recommendation from Milan, this time to Antonio Trebano and dated 26th February 1447: this is discussed in Lazzaroni & Muñoz’s (1908) monograph on Filarete p.110-111, and transcribed in note 26 of Oettingen’s (1888) “Über das leben und die werke des Antonio Averlino: genannt Filarete“, which is available online here. Just to save you the trouble of clicking, Oettingen’s transcription (p.55 of the original, or p.70 of the PDF) reads:-

Francisci Philelfi Epistolarum familiarium libri XXXVII etc., Venetiis 1502, Liber Quintus, fol. 39 v:

Franciscus philelfus. Antonio trebano. sal. – Antonius florentinus, fictor et excussor egregius, aeque tempestate nostra atque praxitelen apud priscos memorant copanve aut phidian aliquem, et te diligit plurimum et mihi est carissimus. Itaque a me petiit, ut te in familiaritatem benevolentiamque acciperem, quippe qui mei studiosissimus sis. Cupere enim se non secus suos amicos omnes fieri meos atque ipse est. Quare ut et homini amicissimo et humanitatis officio satisfacerem, iccirco hasce litteras ad te dedi, ut tibi perpetuo testes essent singularis dilectionis erga te meae. Vale – Ex Mediolano . IIII . Kal . Mart . MCCCC XLVII.”

Fascinatingly, Francesco Filelfo also wrote a later letter to the Sforza ambassador Nicodemo Tranchedini in Florence (on 1st Feb 1466), asking him to pass on a letter to their mutual friend “Antonio architecto“: this is Riccardiana di Firenze MS 834, and is discussed by Maria Beltramini in a 1996 article (which I unfortunately haven’t seen). From this, it seems reasonable to infer not only that Filelfo did indeed expect Averlino to be back from the East within a few months, but also that Averlino had told his old friend he would be returning directly to Florence.

However, there the archival trail goes cold: we don’t have any record of a response from Tranchedini back to Filelfo, though it is entirely possible that such exists – Tranchedini certainly streamed a good volume of enciphered messages back to Francesco Sforza during his many years in Florence, and I don’t know to what extent the remains of these in the Milanese archives have been mined for information.

So… did Averlino make the trip? The only record we have of him past this date is Vasari’s claim that he had allegedly died in Rome in 1469 (and Vasari has proved notoriously unreliable on matters of specific detail). Still… there aren’t any alternative claims, so it seems likely he did die in Italy. There is some contested evidence that places Averlino briefly in Constantinople around this time, so there has to be a reasonably good chance he did make the two-way trip. Everyone seems to be waiting for some slightly more conclusive evidence to surface… but will that ever happen?

Having said that, there are two Quattrocento diaries from Rome that allegedly mention Averlino (but neither of which I’ve yet seen):

  • Iannotii Manetti De vita ac gestis Nicolai quinti summi pontificis, a cura di A. Modigliani, Roma 2005 (Fonti per la Storia dell’Italia Medievale – RIS3, 6) – page 80.
  • La mesticanza di Paolo di Lello Petrone, a cura di F. Isoldi, Città di Castello 1910-1912 (RIS2, 24/2), pp. 1-63 – page 59.

Might these hold a clue? Possibly… (but probably not, alas).

In the last few days, several people have independently asked me to summarize my “The Curse of the Voynich” Voynich Manuscript theory (that it is an enciphered copy of Antonio Averlino [Filarete]’s lost books of secrets). Good theories generally improve when you retell them a few times: for example, back when I was first pitching my new type of security camera [i.e. my day job], it would take me about an hour to explain how it worked, but now it takes me about a minute. So… can I condense 230 pages from 2006 into a thousand words in 2010? Here goes…

The first part of my art history argument places the VMs in Milan after 1456 but before about 1480, and with some kind of architectural link to Venice:-

  • “Voynichese” uses a “4o” verbose cipher pair (but not as Arabic digit pairs, i.e not 10/20/30/40). This appears in North Italian / Milanese ciphers dating from 1440 to 1456 and is linked with the Sforzas, yet here forms part of a more sophisticated cipher system. This points to a post-1456 dating, locates it in Northern Italy (specifically Milan), and links it somehow with the Sforza court.
  • One of the rosettes in the nine-rosette page contains a castle with swallow-tail merlons and circular city walls. However, the only towns traditionally depicted with circular walls are Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Milan, of which Milan is the only one in Italy. Therefore, I conclude that this is probably Milan.
  • Also, the Sforza castle in Milan only had swallow-tail merlons after 1450. This gives a probable earliest date & place for the VMs of (say) 1451 in Milan.
  • Late in the 15th century, swallow-tail merlons were covered over to protect the defenders from flaming projectiles. This gives a probable latest date for the VMs of 1480-1500.
  • I argue that the central rosette shows a (slightly scrambled) view of St Mark’s Basilica as viewed from the Campanile beside it, linking the author of the VMs with Venice.

The second part highlights (what I consider to be) very close parallels between the VMs and the “little works” of secrets mentioned by Antonio Averlino in the later phases of his libro architettonico (but which have been presumed lost or imaginary), and which he compiled between 1455 and 1465.

  • The subjects of Averlino’s lost little books were: water (spas), agriculture, engines, recipes, glass-making, and bees.
  • I think Quire 13 depicts water – both spas and plumbing machinery / engines
  • I think that Herbal A pages are agriculture (grafting, herbiculture, etc)
  • I think that Herbal B pages contain engines (but visually enciphered to resemble strange plants). I also suspect that Averlino was the author of the lost mid-Quattrocento “Machinery Complex” manuscript postulated by Prager and Scaglia.
  • I think f86v3 specifically depicts bees (Curse pp.138-140)
  • After publishing my book, I discovered that Averlino did indeed have his own herbal, written “elegantly in the vernacular tongue

The third part outlines what I suspect was Averlino’s opportunity and motive for creating the VMs, based on well-documented historical sources (plus a few specific inferences):-

  • Antonio Averlino was interested in cryptography, specifically in transposition ciphers. His libro architettonico partly fictionalizes himself and many of the people around the Sforza by syllable-reversing their names – for example, his own name becomes “Onitoan Nolivera“.
  • Averlino was friends with the powerful cryptographer Cicco Simonetta, who ran the Sforza Chancellery: when Averlino suddenly left Milan in 1465, he left his affairs and claims for back pay in Simonetta’s hands.
  • Disenchanted by his experience of working for Francesco Sforza, Averlino planned to travel from Milan across Europe to work in the new Turkish court in Istanbul – his friend Filelfo drafted a letter of introduction for him.
  • I infer (from the peculiarly intentional damage done to the signature panel of his famous doors in Rome) that Averlino travelled to Rome in the Autumn of 1465, perhaps even with the party travelling from Brescia with what is now known as MS Vat Gr 1291.
  • I also infer (from a close reading of Leon Battista Alberti’s small book on ciphers) that an unnamed expert in transposition ciphers debated cryptography practice in detail with Alberti in late 1465, and I suspect that this expert was Averlino, who would surely have sought out his fellow Florentine humanist architect while in Rome.
  • Some art historians have put forward particular evidence that suggests Averlino did indeed travel to Istanbul around this time to work on some buildings there.
  • However, this happened not long after the notorious incident when Sigismondo Malatesta’s favourite painter Matteo de’ Pasti was arrested in the Venetian-owned port of Candia in Crete. His crime was attempting to take a copy of Roberto Valturio’s book on war machines “De Re Militari” to the Turks, punished by being hauled back in chains to Venice for interrogation by the Council of Ten.
  • Though not always 100% reliable, Giorgio Vasari asserts that Antonio Averlino died in Rome in 1469: so there is good reason to conclude that if Averlino did indeed travel East, he (like his old friend George of Trebizond) probably travelled back to Italy before very long.
  • Overall, my claim is that if Averlino made (or tried to make) the dangerous trip East in 1465 and wanted to take his books of secrets (which, remember, contained drawings of engines just like “De Re Militari”) along with him, he would need to devise a daring way of hiding them in plain sight. But how?

The fourth part of my argument describes how I think Averlino trickily enciphered his books of secrets to make them seem to be sections of a medieval herbal / antidotary written in a lost language. However, given that this section is extraordinarily complicated and I’m rapidly closing in on my thousand-word limit, I’ll have to call a halt at this point. 🙂

Three years after committing all this to print, I still stand by (pretty much) every word. Obviously, it’s a tad annoying that the recent radiocarbon dating doesn’t fit this narative perfectly: but historical research (when you do it properly) is always full of surprises, right? We’ll have to see what the next few months bring…