1. Finding The Right Detail
For decades, researchers have tried to date the Voynich Manuscript by examining fragmentary details apparently depicted in its shapes, such as…
- The baths in Quire 13 (‘Q13’) – (are these the Bagno di Romana?)
- The Sagittarius crossbow and his clothes, etc
- The Q9 and Q13 wolkenbanden [see the letters on p.50 & p.54 of the linked PDF]
- The hairstyles of the zodiac ‘nymphs’
- The pots in the early zodiac pages (are these maiolica albarelli?)
All of which is sensible historical research into its art, but not actually Art History per se.
You see, Art History practitioners view their discipline as a forensic anthropology of the mark – a rigorous study of the ways in which rendering techniques (such as the line, the brush-stroke, the cut, etc) flow between artists’ minds. Their focus on continuity-through-technique is consciously shared by intellectual historians, whose discipline extends Art History’s remit to encompass the idea behind all forms of human culture, and hence traces ideas flowing through time.
Contrast this with the (say) pre-1970 emphasis on iconographic patronage (how artists supposedly used deep-rooted patterns of thought and mythology to flatteringly represent things important to their patrons), which has rather faded. Modern art historians are less prone to swallow Giorgio Vasari’s tall tales, and are more likely to instead look at incidental documentation (such a letters, appearances in court, financial records, etc) when trying to build up a picture of a given artist’s context. But even they can be unreliable – documents don’t have to be written by Vasari to have an agenda. 🙂
And so we have reached a situation where art historians prefer to focus not on that-which-is-depicted (which, as we have seen all too often with the Voynich Manuscript, is subject to an infinity of interpretations, regardless of whether you believe they also have a symbolic dimension) but on that-which-is-performed, the forensics of the mark. Essentially, when a styled mark is made, art historians ask: from where did the idea for using that style come? And to where did it go?
The problem with the VMs is working out which mark to use. After all, we have literally hundreds of pages full of possible candidate marks to select from. After going down hundreds of blind alleys over the past few years, I think I’ve now identified the key styled mark to focus upon – parallel hatching.
2. The History Of Parallel Hatching
Anyone familiar with the drawings in Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1509) famous notebooks should recognize parallel hatching immediately. It is a line-drawing technique for expressing mid-tones though the use of closely spaced parallel lines that was very popular in Florence (where Leonardo learnt to draw) in the second half of the 15th century. You can also see it in the drawings of countless other Florentines of the same period, such as Michelangolo Buonaroti.
Several years ago, I heard it mentioned in a lecture that parallel hatching emerged in Florence circa 1440. (I’ll add links to any examples I find here). The technique then spread to Venice around 1450, and from there to the rest of Europe. In a post here last November, I mentioned a good example of this: if you look at the vignettes in the corners of the 1452 mappa mundi by Giovanni Leardo, you can see some parallel hatching there, whereas Leardo’s 1442 and 1448 mappae mundi have no parallel hatching at all.
Around this time, artists looked for ways to give the new medium of engraving more subtelty: perhaps most notable of these is Master E. S. (formerly known as “the Master of 1466”), a German goldsmith and engraver, who is thought to have created in the period 1450-1467 around 200-500 engravings, many with well-developed cross-hatching (two overlaid sets of parallel hatches).
But cross-hatching only became fashionable somewhere between 1465 and 1489 (opinions vary), with Florentine goldsmith and sculptor Antonio Pollaiuolo’s epic engraving “Battle of the Nudes“. Prints of his Battle rapidly circulated around Italy and Europe, and were both much admired and much copied, introducing the idea of cross-hatch to a much wider audience, as well as Pollauiuolo’s own deft brand of zigzag hatching. This is how cross-hatching and zigzag hatching came to be picked up by many artists of this period.
Yet beyond about 1500-1510, this whole artistic vogue for parallel hatching – right at the zenith of which Leonardo had been born – faded completely away. Because of the introduction of new paints and writing materials, there were numerous far easier ways for artists to represent mid-tones directly in their sketches: and so hatching became technically redundant. A significant reason for the distinctive style used in Leonardo’s notebooks, then, simply arose from his having been born in the right place (Florence) and at the right time (circa 1450) to become its most famous exponent.
As for the origins of parallel hatching, the most favoured answer currently seems to be that these lay in niello, a technique favoured by mid-Quattrocento Florentine goldsmiths. There, pieces of jewellery have shapes engraved into their surface with a burin (a round-handled chisel), and the resulting grooves are filled in with the niello itself, which is a dark-coloured mixture of silver, lead and sulphur. This gives the engraved shapes a distinctive (and quite attractive) high-contrast look. Though the basic technique had been common in the Ukraine in the 13th century, it was Florentine goldsmiths who introduced parallel hatching to the conceptual toolbox of niello techniques – this enabled mid-tones to be rendered in the (otherwise bitonal) medium.
This is why the goldsmith-turned-printmaker career trajectories of Master E. S. and Antonio Pollaiuolo are of so much interest to art historians – for without experience in making niello pieces, would either [the reasoning goes] have ever made the necessary conceptual leaps (to cross-hatching and zigzag hatching) for the new medium?
3. Parallel Hatching In The Voynich Manuscript
What, then, of the Voynich Manuscript? A careful examination of the Beinecke Library’s online scans reveals that parallel hatching (but not any other form of hatching) appears in a number of separate places:-
These examples of hatching all seem integral to the conception and execution of their respective drawings: and hence there seems no reason to infer that any of them was added by a later owner. Quite apart from the thorny issue of what these various drawings depict, can we say with strong certainty that these marks are parallel hatching? I think the answer is yes: and I hope you agree.
4. The Voynich Manuscript’s Earliest Date
With the above evidence in mind, I contend that it would seem highly improbable to an art historian that the parallel hatching in the Voynich Manuscript is anything apart from, well, parallel hatching. And because the whole idea of parallel hatching seems to have originated with Florentine goldsmiths working in niello and/or printmaking in the 1440s before spreading to Venice, Germany and the rest of Europe around 1450, we can comfortably place 1440 as the Voynich Manuscript’s earliest date if it was made in Florence, or 1450 otherwise.
Furthermore, given that parallel hatching died out not long after the end of the fifteenth century, it seems probable (if not quite as certain) that the Voynich Manuscript originated during the same 1440-1510 period that saw the hatching flourish, with a more likely date range (from the lack of cross-hatching or zigzag hatching) being 1450-1480.