Here’s another post inspired by the book I’m currently reading, Joscelyn Godwin’s “The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance”.

Whereas 15th century Renaissance art was largely orderly, linear, a lot of Mannerist late 16th-century art is disorganized, curvilinear, riotous – this has led to the label of antirinascimento, the “Anti-Renaissance”. But to someone like Godwin with both feet in the iconological trenches, this speaks of a deeper dichotomy – between the ordered Apollonian meme and the disordered Dionysian meme. Godwin pitches the austere, Roman-loving Quattrocento humanists’ dry perspective against the carnal obsessions and pagan thematics of corrupted Cinquecento cardinals – an extended Apollo vs Dionysus grudge-match in an art historical arena.

All of which is quite cool, in an iconological sort of way. 🙂

But once you start looking at things in this way, you begin to see echoes everywhere: in my own research area of Quattrocento ciphers, you could view Alberti’s über-ordered cipher wheel as a quintessentially Apollonian solar device, and then compare it with the apparently disordered, fragmented Voynich manuscript cipher statistics (that I link with Antonio Averlino, AKA Filarete) – Roman austerity against Greek cunning.

Yet does this kind of dichotomistic model really give us a real insight into the kind of secret history that iconologists believe lurks just beneath? Or is it just a modern quasi-thermodynamic meta-narrative (historicizing the universe’s eternal battle of order vs disorder) being stamped over the top of something that is no more significant than a difference in personality?

Reading anything to do with iconography makes me feel like I’m watching a renegade episode of the X-Files, where Mulder and Scully are arguing the toss over something foolishly marginal. Though occasionally I have brief moments where I think “Yes, that does make sense”, you simply cannot infer from the existence of a debate that any of the mad theories being proposed has to be correct. Oh well!

Update: Dennis Stallings points out off-list that the Apollo vs Dionysus grudge-match as an art-historical thema only really kicked off with Nietzsche’s (1872) “The Birth of Tragedy”, which is entirely true – here’s a nice 1996 paper showing (basically) how you can use the A. vs D. dichotomy as a way of blagging your way through literature studies. 🙂

There are many different ways of, well, reading the unreadable: what isn’t so well-known is that the technical terminology we use tends to highlight those particular aspects that we think are worthy of study (as well as to occult those aspects we are not so interested in). The big three buzzwords are:-

  • Cryptographywriting hidden messages – a historical / forensic approach
  • Cryptanalysis: analysing hidden messages – a statistical / analytical approach
  • Cryptology: reading hidden messages – a linguistic / code-breaking approach

Generally, you’ll see these terms used extremely loosely (if not interchangeably): but that’s something of a tragedy, as each strand is concerned with a different type of discourse, a different type of truth to help us get to the end-line, that of finding out what happened.

(1) If you study the cryptography of the Voynich Manuscript, you would primarily focus on issues such as: the intellectual history behind (and embedded within) the glyphs, the forensic layering of the writing itself, the physical strokes that make up the letters, what corrections there are to be found, how Voynichese practice evolved during the construction of the document, how the writing interrelates with the drawings, etc. This is reconstructive forensic history, that seeks to establish the truth of the writing system – to establish the mental structures that were given systematic shape (and yet were hidden) in the writing. In many ways, the end-product would be an accurate transcription of the text – but I strongly believe that this strand has not yet been pursued to its logical conclusion.

(2) If you study the cryptanalysis of the Voynich manuscript, you would instead take the study of the cryptography completely as a given, and use the resulting transcription as a starting point for your analytical research, however (in)accurate it may be. The argument has typically been that even if, say, 10% of the transcription is wrong, statistical analysis of the remaining 90% should still yield informative results that are (to a certain degree) illustrative of the underlying mechanisms. Yet the specific reliance upon the transcription cannot be ignored, particularly when you go hunting for larger-scale patterns (such as words, or lines).  And there is a very strong case to be made that the absence of convincing statistical results to date arises not from inadequate statistical testing, but instead from some basic division within the text being misunderstood.

(3) If you study the cryptology of the Voynich Manuscript, then you would take as a given a carefully-selected set of statistical properties previously derived from cryptanalysis, and look for some kind of linguistic fit between those properties and the properties of known languages and/or transformations of known languages (such as shorthand, patois, abbreviation, contraction, etc). Many Voynich theories are based on a very naive cryptological reading, often filling the vast gaps between the two models by expanding the range of possible languages that are present all at the same time, and hence resulting in a claimed plaintext that is a hugely interpretative soup of Romance language fragments – though Leo Levitov’s “polyglot oral tongue” is a prime example, it is very far from being the only one of its kind.

In terms of this framework, I’ve invested most of my time on the VMs’ cryptography, to the point where I believe I can give an account of each of the glyphs and of the evolution of the writing system: but I’m now at the point where I have to move on to the cryptanalysis in a more focused way to make progress.

The overall point I’m trying to make is that we need to get the history (cryptography), the statistics (cryptanalysis) and the linguistics (cryptology) sorted out in order to get over the high walls of the Voynich Manuscript’s defences: its singular beauty arises from how it manages to confound all three of these approaches simultaneously. This is, I suspect, merely a byproduct of the ‘undivided’ Quattrocento thinking that gave it life – that it comes from the time-period just before we (as a culture) imposed artificial divisions on the way we think about the world… just before intellectual specialization took hold. The historian part of me wants to shout: look, it’s the product of a Renaissance Man, in every useful sense of that much-abused phrase.