In his 1665 letter to Athanasius Kircher accompanying what we now call the Voynich Manuscript, Johannes Marcus Marci wrote [Philip Neal’s translation]:-

Doctor Raphael, the Czech language tutor of King Ferdinand III as they both then were, once told me that the said book belonged to Emperor Rudolph and that he presented 600 ducats to the messenger who brought him the book. He, Raphael, thought that the author was Roger Bacon the Englishman. I suspend my judgement on the matter.

You be the judge of what we should think about it. […]

All very well: but surely this begs a huge question, one that everyone has seemed content to duck for the last century. Let’s not forget that Raphael Sobiehrd-Mnishovsky de Sebuzin & de Horstein was a lawyer, writer, poet, cryptographer, and even a favourite at the Imperial Court: basically, a smart, super-literate, well-connected cookie. So why on earth did he think this odd manuscript had anything whatsoever to do with Roger Bacon, of all people?

Of course, now that we have a 15th century radiocarbon date for the manuscript, Voynich researchers are a little inclined to be sniffy about Bacon, thinking this mostly a sign of Wilfrid Voynich’s personal folly – or, more specifically, WMV’s antiquarian obsession with finding any link that could be proven between his “Roger Bacon Manuscript” and Roger Bacon himself. Perhaps it was WMV’s burning desire that ultimately claimed poor William Romaine Newbold’s life, drained by his pareidoiliac compulsion to reveal its craquelure shorthand, with his friend Lynn Thorndike then unwillingly laying Newbold’s hopeful nonsense to rest.

But all the same, Roger Bacon is mentioned right there in Marci’s letter: and this is one of the very first things we have that describes the Voynich, as well as the manuscript’s earliest provenance link with Rudolf II’s Imperial Court. So why Bacon? What possible candidate explanations have been put forward?

Actually, surprisingly few of any great credibility, it has to be said. Some people have argued (without great enthusiasm) that the manuscript might possibly be a 15th century copy of a lost work by Roger Bacon. However, its tricky cryptography seems light years beyond Bacon’s era, while the near-complete absence of religious imagery (combined with the nakedness of its ‘nymphs’) also seem sharply at odds with Bacon’s monastic severity, let’s say.

In “The Curse of the Voynich” (2006), I speculated [p.219] that Roger Bacon might have been part of a cover story deliberately planted by the original author. Certainly there is reasonable evidence that the Voynich’s cipher alphabet was consciously constructed to look somewhat archaic to mid-fifteenth century eyes: say, 100 to 150 years older than its physical age. Bacon’s familiarity with Arabic sources and even possibly his (alleged) link with alchemy might then have commended him to the real author as a fake author… back then history was a little more forgiving, let’s say, over such issues as authenticity.

However, a key problem with this hypothesis is that many of the previous objections (the lack of religious imagery, the nymphs) apply just as strongly. Moreover, I’m now fairly sure that Bacon only had alchemical works (falsely) ascribed to him many decades later (around 1590-1600), which further weakens the argument. Hence six years on, I’m not so convinced any more… oh well!

And yet Dr Raphael thought it was Bacon ‘wot dun it’. How can that be? What reasonable explanation might there have been for this otherwise inexplicable lapse of judgement? Well, here’s my 2012 attempt to form an Intellectual History account of all this…

Could it be that the link with Roger Bacon wasn’t in the content of the manuscript but in something to do with Bacon’s Franciscan order? Simply put, might the Voynich Manuscript have been owned by Franciscans? Might it have lived in a Franciscan library? Even more specifically, might it have lived in a Franciscan Library not too far from Lake Constance?

I suspect that the deliberately plain brown habit and white belt of a Franciscan or Capuchin monk would have been an unusual sight at the Imperial Court, where the white and black habits of the Benedictine, Cistercian and Augustinian orders were very much more usual. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but Wikipedia’s list of Imperial Abbeys seems not to contain a single Franciscan friary, monastery or convent.

So, might the messenger bearing the Voynich Manuscript have therefore been a Franciscan monk? If it was, then I think Dr Raphael could indeed have reasonably inferred that the author of the Voynich Manuscript might well have been Roger Bacon: for if it was an enciphered manuscript of the right age from a Franciscan library with an unknown early provenance, Roger Bacon’s authorship could well have been a perfectly reasonable inference, and in fact no less wobbly than most of what has generally been passed off as 20th / 21st century Voynich theorizing.

Hence I’m pretty smitten by this Franciscan Voynich Theory: if true, it would explain Dr Raphael’s testimony in a parsimonious and reasonable way, even if it doesn’t actually help us read the manuscript itself. It may also be the case that the back page (f116v) was a little more readable circa 1610: the presence of what looks like “six pax nax vax ahia maria” interspersed with crosses then might have had far more religious import back then than it does to us moderns.

A reasonable next step might well be to start looking for Franciscan libraries in the Lake Constance area circa 1600-1610: I asked the well-respected Franciscan historian Bert Roest where to look next, and he very kindly directed me to the extensive online list of Works/info on medieval and early modern Franciscan libraries he helps maintain. I should mention quickly that it’s, errrm, a bit big.

Does anyone want to kindly volunteer to trawl through it to compile a preliminary list of candidate Franciscan libraries? For example, Bad Kreuznach, Thuringia, Gottingen, and Frankfurt are all in there, but I suspect that these might all be a little bit too far North, while Fribourg was also perhaps a little too far West. I’m not sure if there are many left! Perhaps this would best be done as some kind of Google Maps overlay?

However, I should caution that real history often turns out to be an unexpected anagram of all the things we suspect: that is, all the right ingredients, but arranged in an order that subtly confounds your expectations and carefully laid plans. Here, the historical ingredients are:
* a Franciscan Library
* Lake Constance (i.e. the Bodensee)
* Rudolf II’s Imperial Court
* a Chinese Whispers-like process whereby the original provenance was forgotten over many decades.

Given all that, I did notice one rather intriguing alternative possibility: Lindau, an Imperial Free City on its own island in the Bodensee. This was formed from the core of a Franciscan Library that was given over to the city in 1528 as part of the Protestant Reformation: it’s now part of the Reichsstädtische Bibliothek Lindau. Once again, do I have any volunteers for looking through the library’s early catalogue?

Really, the question comes down to this: might a representative of the Imperial Free City have taken a strange herbal-like book to Prague circa 1605-1610 from the former Franciscan library in Lindau as a splendidly odd gift for Emperor Rudolf II? Personally, I think it’s entirely possible and – best of all – something that might well be checkable against the historical record. Testable history: it’s something I can’t get enough of! 🙂

Here’s what I think the Voynich Wikipedia page ought to look like. Enjoy! 🙂

* * * * * * *

History of a Mystery

Once upon a time (in 1912) in a crumbling Jesuit college near Rome, an antiquarian bookseller called Wilfrid Voynich bought a mysterious enciphered handwritten book. Despite its length (240 pages) it was an ugly, badly-painted little thing, for sure: but its strange text and drawings caught his imagination — and that was that.

Having quickly convinced himself that it could only have been written by one particular smart-arse medieval monk by the name of Roger Bacon, Voynich then spent the rest of his life trying to persuade gullible and/or overspeculative academics to ‘prove’ that his hunch was right. All of which amounted to a waste of twenty years, because it hadn’t even slightly been written by Bacon. D’oh!

Oh, so you’d like to see some pictures of his ‘Voynich Manuscript’, would you? Well… go ahead, knock yourself out. First up, here’s some of its ‘Voynichese’ script, which people only tend to recognize if they had stopped taking their meds a few days previously:

A nice clear example of Voynichese

Secondly, here’s one of the Voynich Manuscript’s many herbal drawings, almost all of which resemble mad scientist random hybrids of bits of other plants:-

Finally, here’s a close-up of one of its bizarre naked ladies (researchers call them ‘nymphs’, obviously trying not to mix business and pleasure), in this case apparently connected up to some odd-looking plumbing / tubing. Yup, the right word is indeed ‘bizarre’:

voynich f77v central nymph Q13 and Voynich balneology sources...?

Did any of that help at all? No, probably not. So perhaps you can explain it now? No, I didn’t think so. Don’t worry, none of us can either. *sigh*

Back to the History Bit

Anyhow, tucked inside the manuscript was a letter dated 1665 from Johannes Marcus Marci in Prague, and addressed to the well-known delusional Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher. Marci’s letter said that he was giving the manuscript to Kircher both because of their friendship and because of Kircher’s reputation for being able to break any cipher. The manuscript seems then to have entered the Jesuit archives, which is presumably why the Jesuit college near Rome had it to sell to Wilfrid Voynich several centuries later, just as in all the best mystery novels.

But hold on a minute… might Wilfrid Voynich have forged his manuscript? Actually, a few years back researchers diligently dug up several other 17th century letters to Kircher almost certainly referring to the same thing, all of which makes the Voynich Manuscript at least 200 years older than Wilfrid Voynich. So no, he couldn’t have forged it, not without using Doc Brown’s flux capacitor. (Or possibly the time machine depicted in Quire 13. Unless that’s impossible.)

Incidentally, one of those other letters was from an obscure Prague alchemist called Georg Baresch, who seems to have wasted twenty or so years of his life pondering this curious object before giving it to Marci. So it would seem that twenty lost years is the de facto standard duration for Voynich research. Depressing, eh?

So, Where Did Baresch Get It From?

Well… Marci had heard it said that the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II had bought the manuscript for the ultra-tidy sum of 600 gold ducats, probably enough to buy a small castle. Similarly, Wilfrid Voynich discovered an erased signature for Sinapius (i.e. Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz, Rudolf II’s Imperial Distiller) on its front page. You can usefully assemble all these boring fragments of half-knowledge into a hugely unconvincing chain of ownership going all the way back to 1600-1610 or so, that would look something not entirely unlike this:-

Which is a bit of a shame, because in 2009 the Voynich Manuscript’s vellum was radiocarbon dated to 1404-1438 with 95% confidence. Hence it still has a gap of roughly 150 years on its reconstructed CV that we can’t account for at all – you know, the kind of hole that leads to those awkward pauses at job interviews, right before they shake your hand and say “We’ll let you know…

Hence, The Real Question Is…

Fast-forward to 2012, and Wilfrid Voynich’s manuscript has ended up in New Haven at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Yet many Voynichologists seemed to have learnt little from all that has gone before, in that – just as with Wilfrid himself – they continue to waste decades of their life trying to prove that it is an [insert-theory-here] written by [insert-historical-figure-here].

If repeatedly pressed, such theorists tend to claim that:
* the ‘quest’ is everything;
* it is better to travel than to arrive; and even
* cracking the Voynich might somehow spoil its perfect inscrutability.
All of which, of course, makes no real sense to anyone but a Zen Master: but if their earnest wish is to remain armchair mountaineers with slippers for crampons, then so be it.

Yet ultimately, if you strip back the inevitable vanity and posturing, the only genuine question most people have at this point is:

How can I crack the Voynich Manuscript and become an eternal intellectual hero?

The answer is: unless you’re demonstrably a polymathic Intellectual History Renaissance Man or Woman with high-tensile steel cable for nerves, a supercomputer cluster the size of Peru for a brain, and who just happens to have read every book ever written on medieval/Renaissance history and examined every scratchy document in every archive, your chances are basically nil. Zero. Nada. Zilch. Honestly, it’s a blatant exaggeration but near enough to the truth true: so please try to get over it, OK?

Look, people have been analyzing the Voynich with computers since World War Two and still can’t reliably interpret a single letter – not a vowel, consonant, digit, punctuation mark, nothing. [A possible hyphen is about as good as it gets, honestly.] Nobody’s even sure if the spaces between words are genuinely spaces, if Voynichese ‘words’ are indeed actual words. *sigh*

Cryptologically, we can’t even properly tell what kind of an enciphering system was used – and if you can’t get that far, it should be no great surprise that applying massive computing power will yield no significant benefit. Basically, you can’t force your way into a castle with a battering ram if you don’t even know where its walls are. For the global community of clever-clogs codebreakers, can you even conceive of how embarrassing a failure this is, hmmm?

So, How Do We Crack It, Then?

If we do end up breaking the Voynich’s cipher, it looks unlikely that it will have been thanks to the superhuman efforts of a single Champollion-like person. Rather, it will most likely have come about from a succession of small things that get uncovered that all somehow cumulatively add up into some much bigger things. You could try to crack it yourself but… really, is there much sense in trying to climb Everest if everyone in the army of mountaineers that went before you has failed to work out even where base camp should go? It’s not hugely clear that even half of them even were looking at the right mountain.

All the same, there are dozens of open questions ranging across a wide set of fields (e.g. codicology, palaeography, statistical analysis, cryptanalysis, etc), each of which might help to move our collective understanding of the Voynich Manuscript forward if we could only answer them. For example…
* Can we find a handwriting match for the marginalia? [More details here & here]
* Can we find a reliable way of reading the wonky marginalia (particularly on f116v, the endmost page)? [More details here]
* Can we find another document using the same unusual quire numbering scheme (‘abbreviated longhand Roman ordinals’)? [More details here].
* Precisely how do state machine models of the Voynich’s two ‘Currier language’s differ? Moreover, why do they differ? [More details here]
* etc

The basic idea here is that if you can’t do big at all, do us all a favour and try to do small well instead. But nobody’s listening: and so it all goes on, year after year. What a waste of time. 🙁

A Warning From History

Finally: I completely understand that you’re a busy person with lots on your mind, so the chances are you’ll forget almost all of the above within a matter of minutes. Possibly even seconds. And that’s OK. But if you can only spare sufficient mental capacity to remember a seven-word soundbite from this whole dismal summary, perhaps they ought to be:

Underestimate the Voynich Manuscript at your peril!

Now ain’t that the truth!?

London, UK, 11 Nov 2010. In a surprising twist worthy of Voldemort himself, A-list children’s author and philanthropist J.K.Rowling has stepped forward to claim responsibility for the popular Internet cipher mystery meme “The Voynich Manuscript”.

She now says it all was a 1990 publicity stunt for an early release of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, which was – much like Norwegian band’s a-ha’s 1985 hit single “Take On Me” – released multiple times before gaining market acceptance from young readers. Rowling’s first version (“Harry Otter and the Voynich Manuscript“) was set in “Hogshead School of Wizardry” and introduced many of the timeless elements of her story that toy conglomerates have since stripmined so mercilessly, but where all the characters were animals – for example, Ron Weasel, Hermione Echidna, and the ancient Albus Iguanodon (though note that Rubeus Hagfish played only a minor role).

In an attempt to promote her book to publishers, Rowling assembled her own ‘Voynich Manuscript’ on cafe tables in Edinburgh on old vellum she’d bought in a jumble sale, and added a threadbare cover story linking it to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II that ought to make any sensible historian shake his or her head in appalled disbelief: the fake manuscript then somehow ended up in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University (much to its curators’ embarrassment). But once some early Internet chat group participants got hold of low-quality “CopyFlo” scans of it and decided to try to ‘crack’ its cipher, the rest is cryptographic and cultural history.

“To all the codebreakers who have fruitlessly spent decades on this, I can only apologize for my viral marketing prank”, says Rowling. “Honestly, I tried to flag it was a fake on the first page but perhaps the clue was simply too obvious:-”

As a postscript, Rowling did subsequently manage to get all copies of “Harry Otter and the Voynich Manuscript” pulped: however, copies of her intermediate version (“Harry Snotter and the Handkerchief of Doom”) do still occasionally come up at auction. Jim Reeds was unavailable for comment yesterday.

When Wilfrid Voynich bought his (now eponymous) manuscript in 1912, it was accompanied by a 1665 letter from Johannes Marcus Marci to Athanasius Kircher. In that, Marci noted three things that Raphael Mnishovsky (King Ferdinand III’s Czech language tutor) had told him about the strange artefact:-

  1. that the said book belonged to Emperor Rudolf
  2. that [Rudolf II] presented 600 ducats to the messenger who brought him the book
  3. that Raphael “thought that the author was Roger Bacon the Englishman

Voynich, perhaps seduced by a private ambition to sell a Roger Bacon manuscript, subsequently insisted that everyone should call it “The Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript”, and even went to the trouble of reconstructing a (probably completely wrong) Anglo-centric provenance based around John Dee’s selling a Roger Bacon manuscript to Emperor Rudolph II. However, since Voynich’s death, the whole notion that Roger Bacon was connected with the VMs has slipped ever further into the background, to the point that no Voynich researcher has considered Bacon a viable possibility for years (if not decades), basically because we all thought 1450 was the earliest workable date for it.

However, with the recent Austrian documentary vellum dating (1405-1438 @ 95% confidence), it seems we may all have been wrong about that. OK, not necessarily by much, but enough to be a tad annoying. Which is why I decided to revisit the whole Roger Bacon / VMs claimed linkage: might there actually be something in it, however tangential?

The first issue to consider is Raphael Mnishovsky’s idea that the VMs had anything to do with Roger Bacon. When did Mnishovsky form or conceive this opinion? There seem to be five main scenarios to consider:

  1. Mnishovsky had seen the VMs pre-1612 at court and had formed that opinion on his own
  2. Mnishovksy had seen the VMs in Jacobus de Tepenecz’s possession
  3. Mnishovksy had seen the VMs in Baresch’s possession
  4. Mnishovsky had seen the VMs in Marci’s possession and had formed that opinion only then
  5. Mnishovsky had not seen the VMs, and was passing on a second-hand opinion

The problem with Scenario #1 is that I don’t think Mnishovsky was quite old enough to have been at Rudolph’s court. Similarly for #2, my understanding is that Mnishovsky was essentially a post-1612 courtier, and de Tepenecz was never close to court after Rudolph II’s death. The problem with #3 is that Baresch doesn’t mention any link with Roger Bacon in his 1637 letter to Kircher: while the problem with #4 is that it seems inconsistent with Marci’s letter (unless I’m subtly misreading it).

Which leads me to point my stick of historical judgment at Scenario #5: and to assert that the manuscript was probably linked to Roger Bacon while still at Rudolph II’s court (though Baresch probably knew nothing of this). Might the VMs have been sold to Rudolph as having been composed by Roger Bacon?

Given that Roger Bacon (genuinely) constructed his own computus and that the first manuscript copies of the famous “Mirror of Alchemy” (Speculum Alchemiae) ascribed (falsely) to him appeared in the fifteenth century, the suggestion that the (early-to-mid-fifteenth century) VMs could also have been (falsely) ascribed to Roger Bacon is hardly that far-fetched. Yes, I agree the claim is false – but where and when did that claim originate?

I wonder… is there a list anywhere of lost (genuine or ascribed) Roger Bacon works? Perhaps there are references to a Roger Bacon herbal in correspondence close to the Imperial court 1600-1612 that might have been overlooked. Something to think about, anyway. 🙂

PS: here’s a 1928 article on Newbold’s claims that recently popped up in JSTOR. Enjoy (the first page, at least)! 🙂

Just to let you know that a Voynich Manuscript radio interview I gave a few days ago (either download it, or click on the Flash Player play button [half a screen down on the right] to hear it) has just gone live on the Red Ice Creations website. They wanted me to chat about all things Voynich… and an hour later I eventually ran out of steam. 🙂

Pretty much all the fashionable VMs research topics you’d expect to me to crank out – Wilfrid Voynich, John Dee, Rudolf II, Rene Zandbergen, Sinapius, Newbold, dating, TV documentaries, the nine-rosette page, page references, the evolution of Voynichese, cipher history, Trithemius, Leon Battista Alberti, unbreakable ciphers, intellectual history, books of secrets, Brunelleschi’s hoist, enciphered machines, Voynich Bullshit Index, Quattrocento intellectual paranoia, patents, even quantum computing! – get covered, so there should be something there for nearly everyone. 🙂

And if that’s not enough for you, Red Ice Radio has a 45-minute follow-on interview with me in their member-only area: this covers cryptology, intractability, alchemy, Adam Maclean, hoax theories, Gordon Rugg, Cardan grilles, postmodernism, astronomy, astrology (lunar and solar), calendars, Antonio Averlino / Filarete, canals, water-powered machines, (not) the head of John the Baptist, Alan Turing, Enigma, Pascal, the Antikythera Mechanism, Fourier analysis, Ptolemaic epicycles, Copernicus, Kepler, Kryptos sculpture, Tamam Shud, Adrenalini Brothers, steganography, copy vs original, wax tablets, even al-Qaeda!

OK, I’m not a professional broadcaster, and it’s all impromptu (so there are a handful of pauses), but it does bring plenty of Voynich-related stuff that’s appeared here over the last 18 months together into a single place. Enjoy!

A big tip of the hat to Rafal Prinke: thanks to a swift reply from him last night, I can now say definitively that “The True Path of Alchemy” is not the VMs (confirming Rene’s suspicion), because both still exist independently. And the romanticized 1904 mention of the former by Henry Carrington Bolton that quickened my historical pulse yesterday with its uncanny resemblance to the VMs was, shall we say, rather less than 100% accurate. All the same, the affair is not completely closed just yet…

The manuscript of “The True Path of Alchemy” currently lives in the National Museum Library in Prague (though it doesn’t appear in any of their online catalogues). The first person to write about it in any detail was Otakar Zachar, whose 112-page 1899 monograph “Mistra Antonia z Florencie Cesta spravedlivá v alchymii” is available online (you can download it as a set of six 20-page PDFs). As an aside, “Otakar” was the name of Rudolph II’s pet lion, whose death in 1612 was (reputedly) seen as a portent of Rudolph’s own death later that year. Just so you know! 🙂

Zachar’s monograph contains (facing p.47) only one rather underwhelming scan of the original manuscript’s text: click on the following cropped & enhanced thumbnail to see a larger version:-

“The True Path of Alchemy” f22v and f23r

Unless I’m hugely mistaken (no laughing at the back), the True Path appears to be written not in Italian or Latin but in Czech / Bohemian in an apparently 15th century hand, with the folio numbering in a standard 16th century hand.

Zachar also includes (facing his page 24) an image of a flask with a crown, which unfortunately appears as a near-black page in the scan (though you can just about resurrect it using fairly heavy image enhancement):-

“The True Path of Alchemy”, flask with a crown

According to note 43 on this webpage, a more up-to-date article on the Ms by V Karpenko appeared in Ambix 37, 61 (1990), which I shall try to read. Karpenko mentions that the ms contains 13 questions for telling whether an alchemist is false. Presumably #1 is: “does he/she claim to be an alchemist?” 🙂

As to attribution, one webpage I found seems to claim that the manuscript was actually written by Jan z Lazu (A.K.A. “Laznioro”, reputedly the first Czech alchemist) [the claim appears here as well]: but as my Czech extends no further than occasional words such as “rukopisu” (manuscript), I couldn’t say whether that relates to authorship, translation, or adaptation. Perhaps my Czech mate Hurychnioro will have a look and tell me how badly I’ve got it wrong. 🙂

I then went hunting for the MS reference in the scans of the National Museum Library’s card index, where Zachar’s book merits five cards (is that five copies? or five cross-references?): the card annotations mention “86 J 121”, “Schiller 294”, and “Zeyer 1977”. However, even though “86 J …” appears to be a plausible-looking shelfmark for the Knihovna národního muzea v Praze, searching for “86 J 121” in the Manuscriptorium returned no hits. Oh well!

Rene Zandbergen also very kindly sent over the GIFs absent from the site: unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious mention of the “True Path” there. Really, to identify any manuscript in the Kunstkammer inventory (whether the True Path or even the Voynich Manuscript!), you’d need to know how it was bound (i.e. whether the cover was red or white leather etc) and what else was bound in with it. Zachar and/or Karpenko may well have included this information, of course, but I’ve yet to get quite that far. 🙁

And so… back to Bolton, where this all started.

If you compare the basic factuality with Bolton’s floridity, I think you’d have to conclude that the two don’t quite gel:-

  • 1475” – should have been 1457 (d’oh!)
  • “beautifully illuminated” – though there are some pictures and illuminated letters, from the poor quality of the handwriting I’d be fairly surprised if they were “beautiful” per se
  • “rare” – given that it’s the only extant copy, perhaps we’ll give Bolton the benefit of the doubt on this one 🙂
  • couched in exceedingly obscure and mystical language” – the jury’s out, as Karpenko seems to gives the impression that the text is a touch more rational than most alchemical texts. All the same, an alchemy text that’s not exceedingly obscure is probably a fake, so perhaps this is just Bolton being tautologous. 🙂
  • “library of Wresowitz” – Rafal Prinke highlights a good-sized 1855 article on Czech alchemy by Ferdinand Mikovec in the periodical “Lumir”, which says that Vaclav Vresovec z Vresovic (d. 1583) bequeathed his library (containing various alchemical mss) to the town council of Mala Strana in Prague. However, even though linking “The True Path” to this collection would be a good guess, I saw no mention at all of Counsellor VVzV in Zachar’s monograph, so I’m a little skeptical…
  • high price” – without any textual source, this may well be another Boltonian ’embellishment’, let’s say. 🙂

Despite my obvious disappointment that the True Path hasn’t turned out to be an early sighting of the Voynich Manuscript, I remain optimistic that it might yet turn out to be linked with Filarete. For example, 1457 is a perfect match for when the Florentine claimed to have been collecting and writing his little books of secrets in his (ample) spare time. It may well be that nobody to date has thought to examine “The True Path of Alchemy” specifically with a Filarete hypothesis in mind – might there be some textual ‘tell’ hidden in there? There’s only one way to find out…

Finally, Zachar includes (pp.91-95) a decent chunk of Latin taken from Knihovna Národního muzea v Praze MS III H 11 that relates to this manuscript. Thanks to the online magic of Manuscriptorium, I can see that these Observationes quaedam circa suprascriptum processum Bohemicum appear on pages 129r to 153r, and that they were written at the beginning of the 17th century (the text specifically mentions “1606”). Later on I’ll ask Philip Neal if there’s anything hugely interesting there – though the chances are quite small, you never know until you look!

A vast constellation of curious books revolves around the hazily uncertain core of the Voynich Manuscript: as with most things, some are outright good, some are just plain bad, while most live in a mixed-up zone in the middle.

Henry Carrington Bolton’s (1904) ” The Follies of Science at the Court of Rudolph II” is a poster-child for that mixed-up zone – equal parts fact and fiction, Bolton’s oeuvre contains more than a dash of both historical sense and hysterical nonsense. Though it does go on to cover many varied aspects of Rudolph’s court, the first half of it amounts to a greatest-hits compilation of the credulous alchemical mythology surrounding John Dee’s Bohemian adventure – “Now That’s What I Call Bohemian Alchemy #1“, if you like. 🙂

However, for all the hallucinogenic tableaux he conjures up via the shewstone of his historical imagination (and for all the brazen liberties he takes with the facts), Bolton clearly did go to a great deal of trouble to fabricate his Ikea mansion out a lot of, well, basically good stuff. Hence the reader (though often deeply suspicious) finds hundreds of genuine factual nuggets embedded into the walls of the proto-scientific passageway Bolton has tunnelled through the Rudolfine era.

So, my question to you is this: is the following particularly shiny nugget (pp.37-38) gold or lead?

[...] when conversation was interrupted by the
entrance of Martin de Rutzke, bringing with him a beautifully
illuminated and rare manuscript rescued at the dispersal of
the library of Wresowitz, who was reputed to have been a
successful experimenter. The work was entitled "The True

Path of Alchemy," and was written by Antonio of Florence
in the year 1475; being couched in exceedingly obscure and
mystical language, hinting only at the secrets of the black
art, it was particularly admired by Rudolph who ordered his
treasurer to pay the high price demanded for it, and instructed
his librarian to add it to his valuable collection.

For a start, this “beautifully illuminated and rare manuscript… couched in exceedingly obscure and mystical language, hinting only at the secrets of the black art” bought by Rudolph for a “high price” does sounds terrifically like the Voynich Manuscript as described by Dr Raphael Mnishovsky (according to Johannes Marcus Marci in 1665).

Furthermore, even if I just happened to have a time machine in my shed I could barely have engineered a more blatant archival link between Rudolph II and a mid-Quattrocento Florentine called “Antonio”. (Note that Antonio Averlino is reported by Giorgio Vasari to have died in Rome around 1469, but given that there is no documentation to support or refute this, 1475 is entirely possible.)

As far as the book’s 16th century provenance goes, Wolfgang von Wresowitz died on 21st March 1569, while Bernhard Wresowitz died in 1571, and presumably the alchemical “library of Wresowitz” Bolton mentions was dispersed not long after: Rudolph moved his court to Prague in 1583, but it would probably take someone like Rafal Prinke to trace the Wresowitz alchemical library connection any further.

All in all, the big research question then becomes: did Bolton just make up this whole thing (the document name, author name, date, price, and provenance), or was he reporting something he found while trawling relevant books for intriguing-sounding alchemical stories? He comments elsewhere that he made use of the books by Czech historian Josef Svatek (1835-1897), so perhaps that’s one place to start.

Normally, the first proper place one would look for this would be the 1607-1611 Kunstkammer inventory drawn up by miniaturist Daniel Fröschl, as described in detail in Rotraud Bauer and Herbert Haupt’s (1976), “Die Kunstkammer Rudolfs II“. Unfortunately, the relevant gifs have long disappeared from the Bauer-Haupt page, so doing this will probably require someone (i.e. probably me) to spend a day at the library. However, I should also caution that, because Rudolph II may well have presented the same book to Sinapius around 1608 when he gave him the “de Tepenecz” title (i.e. while Fröschl was drawing up the inventory), it is entirely possible that it may not appear there – so, absence of evidence there would (as ever) not be evidence of absence.

However, the problem with this is that Fröschl’s inventory was completely unknown to historians until the middle of the twentieth century, and hence was unknown to Bolton: so, whatever Bolton’s source for this story, the one place we can be sure it didn’t (directly) come from is that inventory.

But all the same: if not there, where on earth did Bolton happen to read about “The True Path of Alchemy“? If we could answer that question, we might well be able to find out about the Voynich Manuscript’s very early history… definitely worth a closer look, I’d say… 🙂

PS: quick reminder not to forget the London Voynich pub meet at 5pm tonight!

PPS: thanks to a high-speed reply from Rafal Prinke, it now looks as though this is not (after all) the Voynich Manuscript (which is a shame, but what do you expect if you rely on Bolton?) – and possibly closer to a chicken nugget than to a gold nugget. Even so, expect a further post on this shortly! 😮

For me, there’s something wonderfully apposite about the “Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian” exhibition currently downstairs at the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery in London. Having just read and reviewed the revised (2006) edition of David Hockney’s “Secret Knowledge” book, the opportunity of looking really up close at some of the key pictures on Hockney’s wall was something I simply had to jump at.

The first obvious biggy there was Van Eyck’s 1434 Arnolfini couple, a fabulous picture by any standards. But was it eyeballed (painted from life in the conventional manner), projected (according to some abstract mathematical perspective scheme), traced (from some kind of clever optical projection, something like a curved mirror), gridded (through some kind of fixed eye-position gridded frame) or some ad hoc mix of all the above? There are plenty of (what seem to me) obviously eyeballed features, such as the dog and, indeed, the Arnolfini couple themselves: yet while Hockney’s key feature (the ornate chandelier) is an impressive piece of craft, the level of draughtsmanship apparent in the whole picture is extremely high (for example, Hockney’s book fails to stress the unbelievably tiny size of the two characters coming through the door reflected in the convex mirror on the back wall). Perhaps Hockney has got it right that Van Eyck did make us of some kind of technological assistance: but I really couldn’t stand up and say that this could only have been via optical trickery. In my experience, artists are highly ingenious people who will apply whatever tricks they can conjure up to the particular problem of depiction or representation in their mind at the time.

In short, “not proven”.

The second biggy was Giovanni Bellini’s scintillating, (literally) silky-smooth 1501 portrait of Doge Lorenzo Loredan. David Hockney places great value on the huge advances in rendering complex folded fabrics that artists made during the fifteenth century, followed by the similar advances made in rendering shiny objects (most notably polished armour and glass) during the sixteenth century. Cleverly, though, the exhibition curators placed Bellini’s Doge close to the 1454 bust of Niccolo Strozzi by Mino da Fiesole, where the pattern in the (probably silk velvet) fabric had been subtly rendered in stone. And I think this holds the real point about the shimmering Doge: that to me, it comes across not as having been executed within the tradition of painted portraiture, but instead as having been sculpted from light, in a way that is unnervingly close to cinematographic. Yet simultaneously, of all the portraits in the exhibition, Bellini’s Doge was – for all its svelte finesse and brilliant sheen – one of the least “alive”, in much the same way that ultra-high-speed photographs manage to sever their association with the sheer physicality of the subject.

The single technique that transformed during the 15th century involved a brand new way of seeing: unlearning what you would expect to see in a scene, and instead allowing yourself simply to be guided by the light. Painters had always painted what they saw, but as they now saw the world in a quite different way, the paintings they produced radically reflected that new vision: and paint technology changed (from egg tempera to oils) just as radically to support this vision.

Did some kind of projective / optical technological trick help (if not drive!) this Quattrocento sea-change in artistic approach and technique? David Hockney is convinced that there had to have been, while Martin Kemp remains agnostic (if not actually unconvinced). My own opinion is simply that unpicking the multiple overlapping revolutions that occurred during that period is a far trickier job than Hockney would like it to be: and that he is building his case on a relatively small set of features in paintings by painters with almost peerless technique.

But move on to the sixteenth century, and I think the whole question is thrown open again. There you have artists openly working with convex mirrors (such as Parmigianino’s self-portrait in a convex mirror of 1524), a slowly growing body of theoretical literature on the camera obscura, and the emergence, later in the century, of a certain look (tenebrous/flat backgrounds, sharply lit, optically dramatic, but with an often-unconvincing collage aspect) whose distinctive filmic virtuosity almost inevitably impresses the eye. Was this merely the Mannerist artistic fashion of the moment, or the necessary byproduct of an optical assist?

In this regard, one tiny detail in the National Gallery’s exhibition caught my eye. The picture called “Portrait of a Lady with Spindle and Distaff” by Maertin [Martin] van Heemskerck (dated 1529-1531) has an ultra-complex foreground object – an ornate spinning wheel on a decorated base. But there is one place where the picture appears (like a badly assembled railway station poster) to have been stuck together incorrectly. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me, and it’s right on the limit of what you can comfortably see in an A4-sized reproduction. Here, I’ve taken a small piece from the website of the Museo Thysen-Bornemisza in Madrid (which owns the picture), tweaked the brightness and contrast, and added an unsubtle red arrow to show where I think the collage-like break occurs:-

Is this (a) another possible smoking gun to add to Hockney’s list, (b) a faithful reproduction of a flaw in the actual marquetry, (c) a slip of the painter’s brush, or (d) a subtle mistake made by a later restorer? I’m just flagging it here, I’ll leave it to others to settle the question. If you’d like to have a look for yourself, the exhibition continues until the 18th January 2009 – it’s £10 to get in, and worth every penny (in my opinion).

Incidentally, van Heemskercks’ picture is reproduced on p.131 of the hefty (but beautiful) exhibition catalogue, which I’ll be reviewing in a few days’ time.

PS: Voynich completists will probably enjoy Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s “Vertumnus” fruit-and-flower portrait of Rudolf II, as well as Holbein’s “Ambassadors” (with its array of finely-rendered Renaissance gadgetry), both also in the same exhibition! 🙂

Peter Marshall’s (2006) “The Mercurial Emperor: The Magic Circle of Rudolf II in Renaissance Prague” takes a sideways look at everyone’s favourite mad Holy Roman Emperor, by using those around him as a kind of slightly wonky mirror. The choice of who makes the cut is a bit arbitrary in places: John Dee (who never came close to gaining Rudolf’s favour) gets rather more coverage than I think justified, however much some Voynicheros happen to like him. 😉

By using the Imperial court to cast light on the man in the middle, it is reminiscent (and perhaps consciously so?) of John Christanson’s “On Tycho’s Island”, which does much the same thing for Tycho Brahe (who features here too, of course).

Even though Marshall does sometimes feel compelled to thicken up his text with Wikipedificatory asides, overall you can’t help but enjoy the ride – it’s a basically good book. What you end up with is a feeling for Rudolf’s overall character arc, from his ultra-stiff Spanish upbringing, through the alchemical / astronomical / allegorical golden years, to the slow-motion showdown with his bluff soldier brother Matthias (which Rudolf lost, if you didn’t already know).

For me, the biggest takeaway I got from the book came from the raking light it cast onto Rudolf’s relationship with art. His collection of paintings was not, as Warburgian historians formerly liked to believe, imbued with Neoplatonist symbolic power, their artists digging deep into the cultural psyche to tease out deeper archetypes from myth and legend, which only heroic modern ‘symbologists’ (*ack* *spit*) could ever decode. Oh, no: it’s far worse than that; and perhaps worse even than Charles Hope’s art historical cynicism would put it. I think Rudolf’s all-star proto-Mannerist painters spent their time constructing his Imperial Internet pr0n browser: the vision that is conjured up for me is of them feverishly thumbing through their emblem books (etc) finding stories that prominently featured young women, and then ‘artfully’ arranging them on the canvas for maximum fleshly exposure. Shame on me for even thinking it, but ultimately Rudolf’s gallery reeks more of “Beavis and Butthead Win The Lotto” than anything else. Uh huh, huh. *sigh*

But I digress. 🙂

Marshall’s book did have one complete laugh-out-loud moment for me, which made my wife chuckle too (no mean feat). The engraving on p.151 depicts Nostradamus in a magic circle, conjuring up a procession of future kings of France for Catherine de Medicis in a “magic mirror” (not much to do with Rudolf II, but a fun picture all the same). I looked at it and thought – that’s not a mirror, that’s a bloody big plasma TV he’s got there. But perhaps you disagree?

Nostradamus showing off his widescreen TV to the Queen of France

Enjoy! 😉

I recently stumbled across a forum discussion comparing the Voynich Manuscript to the “Maybrick Diary” (oh, and the Vinland Map, too) inasmuch as they are all high profile documents that have been dubbed fakes or hoaxes. James Maybrick was a Victorian cotton merchant from Liverpool high up the ludicrously long list of people variously accused of being Jack the Ripper, as well as the alleged author of a Ripperesque diary that surfaced in 1992.

It seems that just about everybody (apart from Robert Smith, the present owner) is reasonably sure that the Maybrick Diary (written in a Victorian diary with the first 20 pages ripped out) is a fake: Michael Barrett, who originally claimed to have bought it in a pub, later swore (twice) that he had dictated the diary to his wife, though these affadavits were (apparently) subsequently repudiated.

To me, the Maybrick Diary fits the general template of hoaxers falling out after the event, guiltily unable to keep up the pretence, not unlike the mad furore over the fake alien autopsy I described a while back. In pattern-speak, one might observe that a Beneficiary (Michael Barrett / Ray Santilli) benefits from the appearance of a MacGuffin (the Maybrick Diary / alien autopsy footage) claiming to unravel a notorious unexplained Mystery (Jack the Ripper / Roswell), but couldn’t quite keep up the pretense for a long time.

Compare that with the Vinland Map, and you can see why historians like Kirsten Seaver go looking for that person who benefitted from its appearance: for without a Beneficiary, you haven’t really got a hoax. Seaver proposed that the VM was forged by an Austrian called Josef Fischer (1858-1944) after about 1923, for a rather tortuous (dare I say Jesuitical?) reason involving teasing unknown Nazi scholars. However, introducing Nazis (particularly without any actual evidence) is normally a sign that you’ve lost the argument: so it’s easy to understand why Seaver’s otherwise intensely detailed research has failed to please. What everyone does now agree is that it is an astonishingly clever object, whichever century (or centuries) it was from.

And what of the Voynich Manuscript? While some unknown person did benefit (to the tune of 600 ducats) from its first half-documented appearance in Prague, you’d have to imagine really hard (to the point of hallucination) that they actually created it as well – the VMs has a complex, multi-layered codicology that speaks of a busy 15th century existence in the hands of multiple owners, a whole century before Rudolf II’s collecting heyday. Oh, and the other problem with seeing the VMs as a hoax is that it is doesn’t claim to unravel a Mystery – it is itself the Mystery. Unless you can imagine something even more mysterious?