…though not at all from the nice Frascati DOC we were pleasantly plied with at lunchtime on the Friday.

No: rather, my head is still buzzing from the giant mass of tangled, fascinating stuff that came my way – some from the presentations, but a lot from conversations and spirited debates. So alas, anyone hoping that I’ll post some kind of a conference-in-a-nutshell micro-report here is going to be sadly disappointed: it’s going to take me months to work through it all, there’s just too much.

So, in no particular order, what you broadly have to look forward to is:
* My reflections on the radiocarbon dating
* Voynich and the Rosicrucians (yes, really!)
* Rich SantaColoma’s ‘Optical Instruments Hypothesis’ (but radically revisited)
* Claudio Foti’s new ‘Poggio Bracciolini’ hypothesis
* Rafal Prinke’s news on Baresch & Sinapius
* Rene Zandbergen’s discussion of Carl Widemann
* Johannes Albus’s new angle on f116v’s maddening marginalia
* Why I think Voynich statistics are a roadblock, not a bridge
* The three next big challenges – scans, error rates, language mapping
* etc

PS: having said all that, if you were there and have any neat photographs you’d like to share, please upload them to one of the many filesharing sites out there and send me through a link to them, as it would be quite nice to put together a bit of a visual walkthrough here. (Thanks Karsten for your photos!)

For the most part, constructing plausible explanations for the drawings in the Voynich Manuscript is a fairly straightforward exercise. Even its apparently-weird botany could well be subtly rational (for example, if plants on opposite pages swapped their roots over in the original binding, in a kind of visual anagram), as could the astronomy, the astrology, and the water / balneology quires (if all perhaps somewhat obfuscated). Yet this house of oh-so-sensible cards gets blown away by the hurricane of oddness that is the Voynich Manuscript’s nine-rosette page.

If you’re not intrigued by this, you really do have a heart of granite, because of all the VMs’ pages, this is arguably the most outright alien & Codex Seraphinianus-like. Given the strange rotating designs (machines?), truncated pipes, islands, and odd causeways, it’s hard to see (at first, second and third glances) how this could be anything but irrational. Yet even so, those who (like me) are convinced that the VMs is a ‘hyperrational’ artefact are forced to wonder what method there could be to this jumbled visual madness. So: what’s the deal with this page? How should we even begin to try to ‘read’ it?

People have pondered these questions for years: for example, Robert Brumbaugh thought that the shape in the bottom left was a “clock” with “a short hour and long minute hand”. However, now that we have proper reproductions to work with, his claim seems somewhat spurious, for the simple reason that the two “hands” are almost exactly the same length. Mary D’Imperio (1977) also thought the resemblance “superficial”, noting instead that “an exactly similar triangular symbol with three balls strung on it occurs frequently amongst the star spells of Picatrix, and was used by alchemists to mean arsenic, orpiment, or potash (Gessman 1922, Tables IV, XXXIII, XXXXV)” (3.3.6, p.21).

Back in 2008, Joel Stevens suggested that the rosettes might represent a map, with the top-left and bottom-right rosettes (which have ‘sun’ images attached to them) representing East and West respectively, and with Brumbaugh’s “clock” at the bottom-left cunningly representing a compass in the form of the point of an arrow pointing towards Magnetic North. You know, I actually rather like Joel’s idea, because it at least explains why the two “hands” are the same length: and given that I suspect that there’s a hidden arrow on the “bee” page and that many of the water nymphs may be embellished diagrammatic arrows, one more hidden arrow would fit in pretty well with the author’s apparent construction style.

This same idea (but without Joel’s ‘hidden compass’ nuance) was proposed by John Grove on the VMs mailing list back in 2002. He also noted that many of “the words appear to be written as though the reader is walking clockwise around the map. The words inside the roadway (when there are some) also appear to be written this way (except the northeast rosette by the castle).” I’ve underlined many of the ’causeway labels’ in red above, because I think that John’s “clockwise-ness” is a non-obvious piece of evidence which any theory about this page would probably need to explain. And yes, there are indeed plenty of theories about this page!

In 2006, I proposed that the top-right castle (with its Ghibelline swallowtail merlons, ravellins, accentuated front gate, spirally text, circular canals, etc) was Milan; that the three towers just below it represented Pavia (specifically, the Carthusian Monastery there); and that the central rosette represented Venice (specifically, an obfuscated version of St Mark’s Basilica as seen from the top of the Campanile). Of course, even though this is (I think) remarkably specific, it still falls well short of a “smoking gun” scientific proof: so, it’s just an art history suggestion, to be safely ignored as you wish.

In 2009, Patrick Lockerby proposed that the central rosette might well be depicting Baghdad (which, along with Milan and Jerusalem, was one of the few medieval cities consistently depicted as being circular). Alternatively, one of his commenters also suggested that it might be Masijd Al-Haram in Mecca (but that’s another story).

Also in 2009, P. Han proposed a link between this page and Tycho Brahe’s “work and observatories”, with the interesting suggestion that the castle in the top-right rosette represents Kronborg Slot (which you may not know was the one appropriated by Shakespeare for Hamlet), with the centre of that rosette’s text spiral representing the island of Hven where Brahe famously had his ‘Uraniborg’ observatory. Kronborg Slot was extensively remodelled in 1585, burnt down in 1629 and then rebuilt: but I wonder whether it had swallowtail merlons when it was built in the 1420s? Han also suggests that other features on the page represent Hven in different ways (for example, the three towers marked ‘PAVIA?’ above); that the pipes and tall structures in the bottom-right rosette represent Tycho’s ‘sighting tubes’ (a kind of non-optical precursor to telescopes); that one or more of the mill-like spoked structures represent(s) Hven’s papermill’s waterwheel; and that the central rosette represents the buildings of Uraniborg (for which we have good visual reference material). Han’s central hypothesis (on which more another day!) is that the VMs visually encodes information about various supernovae: the suggestion here is that the ‘hands’ of Brumbaugh’s clock are in fact part of the ‘W-shape’ of Cassiopeia, which sits close in the sky to SN 1572. Admittedly, Han’s portolan-like ‘Markers’ section at the end of the page goes way past my idea of being accessible, but there’s no shortage of interesting ideas here.

Intriguingly, Han also points out the strong visual similarity between the central rosette’s ‘towers’ and the pharma section’s ‘jars’: D’Imperio also thought these resembled “six pharmaceutical ‘jars'”. I’d agree that the resemblance seems far too strong to be merely a coincidence, but what can it possibly mean?

Finally, (and also in 2009) Rich SantaColoma put together a speculative 3d tour of the nine-rosette page (including a 3d flythrough in YouTube), based on his opinion the VMs’ originator “was clearly representing 3D terrain and structures”. All very visually arresting: however, the main problem is that the nine-rosette page seems to incorporate information on a number of quite different levels (symbolic, structural, physical, abstract, notional, planned, referential, diagrammatic, etc), and reducing them all to 3d runs the risk of overlooking what may be a single straightforward clue that will help unlock the page’s mysteries.

All in all, I suspect that the nine-rosette page will continue to stimulate theories and debate for some time yet! Enjoy! 🙂

Here it is, the Austrian Voynich documentary we’ve been waiting so eagerly for – and you don’t even need to have a satellite dish to watch it (as long as you hurry, it’ll probably only be online for a few days).

(Hint and tip: if you click on the diagonal arrow button just above the video, you can watch it in your own media player – and if that happens to be Windows Media Player (*sigh*), don’t forget that you can turn on the (German) subtitles with the unforgettable key combination CTRL-SHIFT-C.)

The documentary features Micky Bet Rene Zandbergen chatting amiably with 21st century Voynich stalwarts Gordon Rugg and Richard SantaColoma, lots of “flying-low”-style rostrum sequences of the Voynich Manuscript, together with other historical / forensic talking heads you may not have heard of, such as Paula Zyats, Kevin Repp, Joseph Barabe, Gerhard Strasser and Greg Hodgins.

My German isn’t really industrial strength, but I’m reasonably sure I picked up most of the research-relevant stuff: a blue pigment that was tested was azurite, a red was red ochre (but I wasn’t sure about the green). And the 1404-1438 range was indeed 2-sigma (95%), and there’s a nice graph showing the peaks against the C14 dating curve.

The documentary showed Greg Hodgins slicing a fine edge off from the Quire 9 sexfolio: which I would argue is a Very Good Thing, because that is one of the bifolios least likely to be old vellum. Doubtless we shall hear more about this over the next few days…

I don’t know, though: at the end of the whole beautiful-looking documentary, the researcher part of me felt a tiny bit cheated – that for all their hard work, the documentary makers hadn’t really managed to engage with the last decade of proper Voynich research (and I don’t really include Gordon Rugg in that), but rather had steered their televisual plough along what I would call a resolutely “Voynich 1.0” furrow. Basically, whenever I hear keywords like “inquisition”, “alchemy”, “allegorical”, “Doctor Mirabilis” and “heresy”, something in me switches off: rather, I want to be hearing words like “layer”, “spectroscopic”, “multispectral”, “ductus”, “hands”, “composition”, “sequence”, “Raman”, “DNA”, “pollen”, “Urbino”, “ledger”, etc.

What do you think? Were Andreas Sulzer and his team wide of the target or did they actually hit the spot?

(1) A big hello to Rich SantaColoma as he emerges from the VMs “List Closet” into the bright(-ish) light of the blogosphere. His “New Atlantis Voynich Theory” blog sets out his basic stall – which is that, thanks to his “Nagging Sense of Newness” about the Voynich Manuscript, he harbours strong doubts that it is anywhere near as old as mainstream Voynich researchers (such as, errrm, me, apparently) think it is.

The truth is that historians have basically frittered the last century away on foolish conceits (such as the Roger Bacon thing, the Dee-and-Kelley thing, or the it’s-a-hoax-because-the-NSA-can’t-break-it thing), and so until such time as a single proper codicological and palaeographical analysis comes along to define the research problem properly, we’ll remain in the same old evidential free-fall.

As for me, I’m sticking with John Manly’s assessment (that the quire numbers were added in the 15th century) as a basic starting point for the dating: and if that turns out to be wrong, then so be it. That doesn’t make me “mainstream”, just… old-fashioned, I guess. 🙂

Incidentally, it’s a little-known fact that the Beinecke’s catalogue originally listed MS 408 as fifteenth century, but that in the 1970s (perhaps as a result of Brumbaugh’s wobbly claims?) this got extended forwards to the sixteenth century… I suspect they got it right the first time round.

PS: Rich, given that I think Q13 has a water theme, I’m sticking with the catoblepas (with its heavy head hanging down) rather than the armadillo – given that even Leonardo wrote that the catoblepas was found at the Nigricapo [the source of the Niger river], it was very much part of the mental landscape of the Florentine Quattrocento.

(2) And another big hello to (the apparently email-address-less?) “acevoynich” and [his/her] eponymic “acevoynich’s blog“. Though given [his/her] apparent inability to find Cipher Mysteries, the Voynich Manuscript Mailing List, The Journal of Voynich Studies, voynich.nu, the Voynich Wikipedia site, the Voynich dmoz entry, etc (let alone D’Imperio or The Curse) I have to say I’m somewhat dubious that [he/she] is, as [he/she] claims, actually writing a “thesis”. Does [he/she] really have a research question in mind, or is [he/she] just a [troll/trollette]? Hmmm…

Still, acevoynich feels confident to ask the five key W-questions of the big V-manuscript: who, what, where, when, why. Again, I refer the honourable member to my previous answer: and add that until such time as we have the forensic side (the “What happened?” question) considerably more locked down than it is at the present, I suspect that these W’s are (sad as it is) actually more harmful than helpful. Oh well! 🙁

At the beginning of this year, I became interested in the mystery surrounding the invention of the telescope, spurred by Richard SantaColoma’s outrageous claims that the enciphered Voynich Manuscript contained images of telescopes disguised as strange tiered albarelli. But really, who did invent the telescope? Where did it come from?

At first, I thought the answer ought to be straightforward to find out, particularly as this year (in fact this month, September 2008) marks the 400th anniversary of the supposed invention. But the more accounts I read, the less I believed.

You see, for four centuries, people have asserted that three Dutchmen suddenly invented the telescope all at the same time: but my opinion is that this is a placeholder for an explanation rather than a proper explanation – bluntly, whatever actually happened back then, you can be fairly sure that that wasn’t it.

When you strip it all down, there are basically two rival accounts to choose from: the mainstream story (“three Dutchmen invented it, take your pick whichever you prefer“) and the one offered by the Milanese rich kid courtier Girolamo Sirtori in his 1618 book “Telescopium, siue Ars perficiendi nouum illud Galilaei visorium instrumentum ad sydera”. Essentially, Sirtori said that he had gone to Gerona and met the real ‘first inventor’ of the telescope, a man called Roget of Burgundy: however, given all the uncontestable documentation in Dutch archives, historians had long thought this too marginal a research lead to pursue. And anyway, Sirtori offered no means by which Spain and Holland were connected.

However, I managed (thanks to Google and the helpful staff of the Municipal Archive in Barcelona) to dig up a transcript of an obscure 1959 radio broadcast written by a particularly dogged investigator called Jose Maria Simon de Guilleuma – an optometrist, scientific instrument collector and amateur historian from Barcelona. He was so intrigued by Sirtori’s account that he spent probably a decade or more sifting through numerous Spanish and French archival sources – and in so doing verified much of Sirtori’s story.

Fascinating stuff! And furthermore, when I combined Simon’s findings with more up-to-date research, a brand new narrative of the invention of the telescope presented itself, which I believe joins all the disparate pieces together (in a kind of intellectual history sort of way).

I wrote up my findings and reconstruction, sanity checked them with several very experienced telescope historians, and submitted them as a fairly substantial article to History Today (it’s on the front cover, you can’t miss it). Perhaps it’ll cause a stir, perhaps not – but all the same, it’s certainly a fully-rounded hypothesis which I hope will prove to be a spur to other historians and researchers to look that bit further.

There’s a short piece in the Guardian today by Ian Sample, and I did a short interview on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning: there’s also a longer piece in El Mundo, and doubtless several more to come out this week. But for the full story, you’ll have to buy a copy of History Today for yourself… 🙂

I’ve been reading up on the pre-history of the telescope recently (hence my reviews of Eileen Reeves’ Galileo’s Glassworks and Albert van Helden’s The Invention of the Telescope), but have omitted to mention why I thought this might be of relevance to the Voynich Manuscript.

The answer relates to Richard SantaColoma’s article in Renaissance Magazine #53 (March 2007) with the title “The Voynich Manuscript: Drebbel’s Lost Notebook?”, which claimed to find a persuasive familial similarity between the curious jars arranged vertically in the pharma sections and Renaissance microscopes, specifically those described or designed by Cornelius Drebbel. His (updated) research also appears here.

The biggest problem with Voynich hypotheses is that, given 200+ pages of interesting stuff, it is comparatively easy to dig up historical evidence that appears to show some kind of correlation. In the case SantaColoma’s webpage, this category covers the stars, the hands, braids, caps, colours, four elements, Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis and handwriting matches suggested: none of these is causative, and the level of correlation is really quite low. All of which is still perfectly OK, as these parallels are only presented as suggestive evidence, not as any kind of direct proof.

It is also tempting to use a given hypothesis to try to support itself: in the 1920s, William Romaine Newbold famously did this with his own circular hypothesis, where he said that the only way that the manuscript’s microscopic cipher could have been written was with the aid of a microscope, ergo Roger Bacon must have invented the microscope. All false, of course. Into this second category falls the “cheese mold”, “diatoms” and “cilia” of SantaColoma’s webpage: if these are to used as definitive proof of the presence of microscopy in the VMs, the level of correlation would need to be substantially higher. But these parallels are, once again, only presented as suggestive evidence, not proof.

Strip all these away, and you’re still left with the real meat of SantaColoma’s case: a set of striking similarities between 17th century microscopes and the curious devices in the Voynich Manuscript’s pharma section. Even if (as I do) you doubt that all the colouring on the pages was original (and upon which some of SantaColoma’s argument seems to rest), it’s an interesting observation.

Having said that, no actual proof or means of proof (or disproof) is offered: it is just a set of observations, resting upon a relatively little-tested tranche of history, that of the microscope. Can we do better? I think we can.

Firstly, modern telescope historians (I’m thinking of Albert van Helden here, though he is far from alone in this respect) now seem somewhat dubious of the various Janssen family claims: and so I’m far from comfortable with placing the likely birth of the microscope with the Janssens in 1590. As Richard SantaColoma points out, Cornelius Drebbel is definitely one of the earliest documented microscope makers (from perhaps a little earlier than 1620, but probably not much before 1612, I would guess).

Secondly, it is likely that the power of the lenses available for spectacles pre-1600 was not great: Albert van Helden calculated that a telescope made to della Porta’s (admittedly cryptic) specification could only have given a magnification of around 2x, which would be no more than a telescopic toy. I would somewhat surprised if microscopes constructed from the same basic components had significantly higher magnification.

Thirdly, the claimed presence of knurled edges in the VMs’ images would only make sense if used in conjunction with a fine screwthread, to enable the vertical position of an element along the optical axis to be varied: but I’m not sure when these were invented or adapted for microscopes.

All in all, I would assert that if what is being depicted in the VMs’ pharma section is indeed microscopes from the same family as were built by Drebbel from (say) 1610 onwards, there would seem no obvious grounds for dating this to significantly earlier than 1610: even if it all came directly from Della Porta, around 1589 would seem to be the earliest tenable date.

The problem is that there is plenty of art historical data which places the VMs circa 1450-1500: and a century-long leap would seem to be hard to support without more definitive evidence.

As always, there are plenty of Plan B hypotheses, each of which has its own unresolved issues:-
(a) they are microscropes/telescopes, but from an unknown 16th century inventor/tradition
(b) they are microscropes/telescopes, but from an unknown 15th century inventor/tradition
(c) they’re not microscopes/telescopes, they just happen to look a bit like them
(d) they’re not microscopes/telescopes, but were later emended/coloured to look like them
(e) it’s all a Dee/Kelley hoax (John Dee was Thomas Digges’ guardian from the age of 13)

Despite everything I’ve read about the early history of the telescope and microscope, I really don’t think that we currently can resolve this whole issue (and certainly not with the degree of certainty that Richard SantaColoma suggests). The jury remains out.

But I can offer some observations based on what is in the Voynich Manuscript itself, and this might cast some light on the matter for those who are interested.

(1) The two pharma quires seem to be out of order: if you treat the ornate jars as part of a visual sequence, it seems probable that Q19 (Quire 19) originally came immediately before Q17 in the original binding.

(2) The same distinctive square “filler” motif appears in the astronomical section (f67r1, f67r2, f67v1), the zodiac section (Pisces, light Aries), the nine rosette page (central rosette), and in a band across the fifth ornate jar in Q19. This points not only to their sharing the same scribe, but also to a single (possibly even improvised) construction/design process: that is, the whole pharma section is not simply a tacked-on addition, it is an integral part of the manuscript.

(3) Some paint on the pharma jars appear original: but most seems to be a later addition. For example: on f99v, I could quite accept that the palette of (now-faded) paints used to colour in the plants and roots was original (and I would predict that a spectroscopic or Raman analysis would indicate that this was probably comprised solely of plant-based organic paints), which would be consistent with the faded original paint on the roots of f2v. However, I would think that the bolder (and, frankly, a little uglier) paints used on the same page were not original.

Put all these tiny fragments together, and I think this throws doubt on one key part of SantaColoma’s visual argument. He claims that the parallel hatching inside the ornate jar at the top of f88r (the very first jar in Q17) is a direct indication that it is a lens we are looking at, fixed within a vertical optical structure. However, if you place Q19 before Q17 (as I believe the original order to have been), then a different story emerges. The ten jars immediately before f88v (ie at the end of Q19) all have vertical parallel hatching inside their tops, none of which looks at all like the subtle lens-like shading to which SantaColoma is referring. For reference, I’ve reproduced the tops of the last four jars below, with the final two heavily image-enhanced to remove the heavy (I think later) overpainting that has obscured much of the finer detail.

This is the “mouth” of the top jar on f102r: the vertical parallel hatching seems to depict the back wall of a jar, ending in a pool of faintly-coloured yellow liquid (probably the original paint).


This is the mouth of the bottom jar on f102r, which appears to have vertical parallel hatching right down, as though the jar is empty near the top (or perhaps its contents are clear).

This is the top jar on 102v, enhanced to remove the paint. I think some vertical hatching is still visible there: it would take a closer examination to determine what was originally drawn there.

This is the bottom jar on f102v, again heavily enhanced to remove paint. Vertical hatching of some sort is visible.