For over a year, I’ve been collecting links to modern versions of the Mona Lisa made of weird materials – leaves, make-up, chocolate, meat, Lego, coffee, toast, pasta, buttons, jelly beans, mushrooms, Rubik’s cubes, dominoes, ketchup… all sorts of odd stuff.

As such lists go, it’s not even remotely complete (in fact, there were about twenty ASCII Art versions, so I just chose the one that impressed me most). But the fact that I’ve collected over forty different types of Mona Lisa would surely have Leonardo da Vinci squirming in his wormy Renaissance repos. If that were possible. Which it’s not. (Hopefully.)

Just so you know, my favourite (so far) is #23 Buttona Lisa (below), a 3d version covered in buttons, on permanent display at the Hankyu Shopping Centre in Kobe, Japan. Please let me know if you find anything better!


Just a quick note to let you know that a freshly printed boxful of my book “The Curse of the Voynich” arrived here today, and with shinier covers than ever. 🙂 It is, of course, a perfect last-minute cipher-mystery-related Christmas present (for others or indeed for yourself), so feel free to order a copy (click on the appropriate PayPal-linked Buy Now button at the top there, and off you go).

If you don’t know about my take on the Voynich Manuscript, I’ve posted a 1000-word summary of the book here, part of which was covered in the National Geographic Ancient X-Files half-episode you may have seen (and which YouTube has now taken down). What I like best about “Curse” is that for all the potshots people have tried to take at it, it’s all basically still standing, which – considering that this is a highly-contested field where a typical Voynich theory has a shelf-life of a few days at most – is pretty good going, I think. 🙂

As always, I sign all copies bought direct from the Compelling Press site, and offer the option of adding an anagrammatic dedication at the front: so if your name was (for example) “Leonardo da Vinci”, you could have your copy dedicated to “Vindaloo and Rice” (which remains one of the best anagrams ever, however much you happen to like “Invalided Racoon”).

Incidentally, of all the other books on the Voynich Manuscript out there, I’d strongly recommend Mary D’Imperio’s classic (1976) “An Elegant Enigma”, which is now freely downloadable from the NSA as a PDF. Anyone with an interest in the Voynich Manuscript should read this – even if it is a little bit dated in places, D’Imperio does cover a lot of ground.

Codes – ciphers – concealed stuff – secret histories – I love it all, really I do. But… in moderation and in balance: and the #1 reason I don’t believe in century-spanning conspiracies (of the kind so loved by trashy novelists) is not “because they’re impossible”, but because I haven’t as yet seen a single shred of evidence that actually supports the existence of such things.

Even the infamous ‘Priory of Sion’ was ultimately no more than an archival fantasy constructed by a man who believed it would help support his delusional claim to be King of France: and that was arguably the best of a bad bunch.

All of this is in my head as I turn to a new book called “The Encrypted“. Its author Loret Love claims to have found and decrypted a code more than 5,500 years old, that is hidden in plain sight in (you probably guessed already)…

“the Declaration of Independence, King Tut’s Throne, The Kensington Stone, The Statue of Liberty, Mt. Rushmore, Newport Tower, the Voynich Manuscript, and many others. Among the famous artists and writers associated with the code were Da Vinci, Jules Vern, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Francis Bacon, J.R. Tolkien, Picasso, Nostradamus, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Nikola Tesla, and Bram Stoker. All of these people, places and objects hold shocking mysteries protected and venerated by the early Knights Templar.”

Countless other historical X-Files get pulled aboard Love’s syncretic rollercoaster ride, which ultimately reveals to the world a “horrifying legacy exposing Vampires, Werewolves and shape shifting monsters“. All that and the Holy Grail too… really, if I didn’t know better I’d say the whole exercise comes across like “National Treasure” on badly cut mescaline.

What I found most, errrm, awe-inspiring when reading about “The Encrypted” was that when I looked back at my 2009 cut-out-and-keep map of historical conspiracy clichés, it was as if Love has treated that diagram as Level 1 of a giant game of ‘Conspiracy Buzzword Bingo’, and then decided to write a book around a brand new Level 2.

As a blogger, I’m supposed to operate under the guiding principle “I check out all this stuff (and then write about it) so that you don’t have to“: but in this instance, I simply can’t bring myself to buy a copy – it’s just too much, even for me. Sorry if this disappoints you!

Some days I wonder if I should forget all about cipher mysteries – which are, quite frankly, far too much like hard work – and instead start up a news feed that promises subscribers one thing and one thing only: a freshly hatched cracked Leonardo da Vinci theory every day.

But even if such a tragic nadir of historical non-journalism were to prove possible (and, unfortunately, I suspect it probably would), it would surely be no more than a postmodernist anti-triumph: for what would it prove? That “war, war is stupid, people are stupid, and love means nothing in some strange quarters“? I rest my case, m’lud.

Yet despite the obvious foolishness of sending yet another Leonardo theory floating off into the ether like some flying Chinese lantern, even the very best Leonardo writers still feel the need to do just that. For example, Martin Kemp – Emeritus Professor of History of Art at Oxford, the crème de la crème of da Vinci-studying historians – recently co-write a book (“La Bella Principessa: The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo Da Vinci”, summarized here) arguing that a picture long thought to be a 19th century fake is in fact a real 15th century drawing of Bianca Sforza by none other than Leonardo. Is it definitely by Leonardo (to be honest, Kemp’s not-quite-smoking gun proof is a fingerprint identification that seems more tendentious than tentative), or a German “Nazarene Brotherhood” creation from closer to 1820, as Christie’s wrote in their auction catalogue? Given the strong arguments both ways, I suspect Kemp may have subtly damaged his credibility by not really balancing his case out. He of all people should know that when it comes to Leonardo, things are rarely that one-sided. 🙁

But actually, that’s all by the by. Today’s fruity Mona Lisa story comes courtesy of p.22 of the Sunday Times, which reports “a startling theory about the work’s background” proposed by “Canadian doctor and amateur art historian” (do those words fill you with dread as well?) Donato Pezzutto. If, the good doctor claims, you join the right-hand edge of the Mona Lisa to the left-hand edge, you end up with a depiction of “Lake Trasimeno in Umbria” verrrry similar to the one that Leonardo depicted in his 1502-3 topographical map of Val di Chiana. If you want more, all I can do is refer you to Pezzutto’s article in the journal Cartographica: but… being honest… I have to say it sounds to me a lot like superficial nonsense built around a single rather unconvincing datapoint.

All of which of course points to why I couldn’t be the brains behind having to bite my tongue every day would kill me. Or rather, I’d probably need a new tongue every couple of days. Not my idea of fun, not by a long way. 🙁

What would it feel like to be a footballer with no goal? An actor with no stage? A projector with no screen? Or (finally getting to the point) a pseudohistorian with no infamous historical figure to attach his/her nutty theories onto?

All of which is why I feel sorry for poor old Leonardo da Vinci. He barely counts as a genuine historical figure any longer, for he has transformed into merely a blank canvas to be doodled upon by every new generation of messed-up researchers. Even the mention of his name in The Da Vinci Code is largely risible (he no more invented the ‘cryptex’ than the microwave oven). For every nutjob theory about Michelangelo, there must be a hundred crazy Leonardo ones: how they must be laughing at him in the Florentine Renaissance fama corner of Heaven.

Still, when you put a load of these fruity theories together, I (for one) come away with a reassuring sense of constancy: that the pareidoiliac capacity of the mass of human minds remains just as capable of finding new (yet often just as manifestly false as ever) ways of reading Leonardo’s works. So here are some recent ones you may not yet have heard of… probably for good reason, in most cases. Just so you know, I’ve placed them in broadly decreasing order of plausibility, to lull you into a frog-in-a-saucepan sense of false security.

(1) Might Giorgio Vasari have sealed Leonardo’s “Battle of Anghiari” mural behind a wall to preserve it? San Diego “art diagnostic specialist” Maurizio Seracini suspects he did, for when he worked on Santa Maria Novella, he sealed Masaccio’s fresco “Trinità” behind the wall on which he painted part of his “Madonna of the Rosary” – we know this to be true, because Masaccio’s original was rediscovered in 1861. And so Seracini is trying to build the most amazing camera in the world to peer through the wall, to see if Leonardo’s fresco is still at least partially there. And the evidence? “A tiny painted green flag” in Vasari’s picture, reading “‘Cerca, trova’ — seek and you shall find.” It’s not much, but is it enough?

(2) Not many people know that top-drawer da Vinci art historian Carlo Pedretti has long been hunting for a nude Mona Lisa: it’s a kind of Holy Grail of wobbly art history. In fact, Leonardo may well indeed have painted one, for there are a number of copies originating from the school surrounding the Florentine, all apparently from an original “Monna Vanna”. But is the one in the link Leonardo’s? Almost certainly not: but keep searching, Professor Pedretti, keep searching!

(3) In his imaginatively titled (but as yet unwritten) book-and-forthcoming-feature-film-documentary “The Mona Lisa Code”, Scott Lund thinks that Mona Lisa is an anagram of “Anima Sol”, and that she stands in for Janus in a deviously-crafted stereoscopic illusion, constructed around a map of Rome. Well, if it’s good enough for the Huffington Post, who am I to disagree? Personally, I’m rather more troubled by the anagram “No Salami”: did Leonardo intend the painting as pro-vegetarian propaganda? Or perhaps “Sal (sapit) omnia“? Once you start down that idiotic road, there really is no end to it. *sigh*

(4)-(6) If you’re suffering from intellectual poverty, here’s a bargain you can’t afford to turn down: three Last Supper theories for the price of one, courtesy of at Artden. Read all about Slavisa Pesci’s 2007 mirrored image wonderment; Giovanni Maria Pala’s 2007 claim that you can read a musical score from the hand-positions; and Sabrina Sforza Galitzia 2010 claim that there are hidden signs of the zodiac, pointing to a deluge to end the world starting on March 21st 4006 (but don’t worry, it’ll all be over by November 1st 4006).

(7) But finally, arguably the best of the lot is from Michelle Legro, an editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. Her hilarious post Top Chef, Old Master starts from the seed of [I think] truth that Leonardo was commissioned to automate the Sforza kitchens (though it all ended in disaster), but which she then grows into a wonderful towering wedding cake of nonsense. Sadly, the problem is that such gentle, well-informed satire is wasted on a world for whom mad Leonardo theories are ten-a-penny. I mean, why didn’t he just use his microwave oven? Tcha!

Once again, Leonardo da Vinci has been in the news. Firstly, a local journalist found a fragment of Leonardo’s writing in Nantes library, which had received it in 1872 along with 5,000 other documents (including an unknown Mozart score) from “wealthy collector Pierre-Antoine Labouchère“. It hasn’t yet been transcribed or translated, so I couldn’t possibly comment on whether it describes a cleverly enciphered herbal manuscript (à la Edith Sherwood). Still, there must be at least 10,000 people in the world [including me, *sigh*] who can decipher his (actually fairly clear) handwriting / shorthand, so we shouldn’t have too long to wait, should we?

Somewhat more extraordinary is enthusiastic TV historian Silvano Vincenti’s claims that Leonardo da Vinci hid a secret (if somewhat short) message in Mona Lisa’s eyes, which he’ll be revealing fully next month (Jan 2011). He says:

“Invisible to the naked eye and painted in black on green-brown are the letters LV in her right pupil, obviously Leonardo’s initials, but it is what is in her left pupil that is far more interesting. […] It is very difficult to make them out clearly, but they appear to be the letters CE, or it could be the letter B.”

What’s more…

“Under the right-hand arch of the bridge seen in the background, Leonardo also painted 72 or L2, another possible clue. Two expert painters we consulted on this tell us that all these marks, painted using a tiny brush and a magnifying glass, cannot be an error.”

OK, let’s have a look for ourselves:-

What should quickly be apparent is that the craquelure on the Mona Lisa’s eyes differs significantly from the paint surrounding it. Specifically, if you also notice that the long crack that runs either side of her right pupil (i.e. the above-left eye) seems to have been painted over, all of this would seem to be a bit of an art history giveaway that both eyes underwent ‘restoration’ (which is always an interpretative and, sadly, often damaging process) at a much later date – in fact, probably 50+ years later, wouldn’t you say? Which, given that Leonardo was commissioned in 1503 and died in 1519, would seem to rule him out.

Hence, I sincerely hope that Silvano Vincenti has engaged not just “expert painters” but also expert art historians to test out his intriguing ideas. Or else he may well make himself look a bit of a fool. Oh well! 🙁

You may have heard the curious story from May 2008 about how Sotheby’s withdrew a picture from auction that was suspected of having been optically captured by Thomas Wedgwood in the 1790s, some 30 years before the first ‘official’ photo was taken. Photography historian Dr Larry J. Schaaf speculated that this was so “based on the letter ‘W’ that – on close inspection – can be seen inscribed in an ‘unidentified hand’ in the bottom-right corner of the image and four others” in an album of early images known to have been owned by Englishman Henry Bright.

While this is a neat little narrative built on a tiny handwritten feature in the margins, it’s – quite frankly – just not crackpot enough to make the grade here. Here at Cipher Mysteries Towers, our palettes have become accustomed to overspiced Voynich Manuscript and Phaistos Disc theories, typically high-Scoville historical decoctions that would blow most historians’ mouths off. So, all I can say to all you photographic pseudo-historians out there is – guys, guys, you’re going to have to do better than that to make the front page here.

And so it is with a sense of both pride and awe that I doff my cap to Welshman Roger Davies. His theory – which is his, and his alone, so far as I can make out – is that Dürer’s 9-inch high 1514 engraving meisterwerke “Melancholia #1” is actually a photograph of a large (but lost) drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, probably with an exposure time of several days.

What first alerted Davies was the facial similarities between Albrecht Dürer’s cherub and a Leonardo cherub in a “sketch held at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Caen, France“. He then sketched out Dürer’s perspective, only to discover an underlying 532-point circle which trickily aligns to a good number of the picture’s features in a ‘sacred geometry’ kind of way. Davies then points to 1480 (34 years back from 1514, where 34 is the total of each line of Dürer’s magic square in the picture) and 2012 (532 years forward from 1480), but then corrects the figure to 2001, midway between the 1997 Montserrat volcanic events and the 2004 Asian tsunami.

Are you following all this?

With more than an echo of Wilfrid Voynich’s connecting the VMs with Roger Bacon and John Dee, “Davies believes that the artist must have possessed an extensive knowledge of mathematics, alchemy, geometry, astronomy and optics to, first, conceive the drawing and then photograph it onto a light-sensitive copper plate inside a camera obscura. The only person with such skills, according to Davies, was Da Vinci.

Not yet convinced by this? “Dürer’s connection with Da Vinci also lies in their sharing the same ‘mentor in mathematics’, Luca Pacioli“, the article continues. Well, that settles it, then. 🙂

(Note that the online article is in four pieces but the internal links are broken: so here are direct links to pages 2, 3, and 4 of it).

OK, much as I deplore the relentless, adulatory stripmining of Leonardo da Vinci’s works, I do rather enjoy seeing infra-red images of paintings, glimpsing the construction marks left beneath the surface. And so I have nothing but good things to say about Discovery News’ series of infra-red images of Leonardo’s “Adoration of the Magi”. I like the detailing on the feet, and especially the unexpected sketch of an elephant. Enjoy!

The person who made the discovery was Maurizio Seracini, helpfully described by Discovery News as “the only non-fictional living character mentioned in ‘The Da Vinci Code’“. Though I’m pretty sure that doesn’t appear on the top line of his CV! 😉

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! 🙂

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! 🙂