The ‘tabella picta’ and an image from Beinecke MS 408. Preface.

Following the publication of an essay by Patrick Gautier Dalché, two other historians of cartography* have asked if I’d present again my analysis of the Voynich map.

*NOT Voynicheros.

  • Patrick Gautier Dalché, ‘Francesco Patrizi et la Géographie Antique’, in Encarnación Castro-Páez and Gonzalo Cruz Andreotti (eds.), (2020) Geografía y cartografía de la Antigüedad al Renacimiento: Estudios en honor de Francesco Prontera. (pp.399-420).

I feel I must decline for the moment, partly because in the meantime the Beinecke library has changed its pagination and I’m unwilling to alter the original text of my work, and partly because three members of a Voynich forum are in the process of expounding two more ‘alternative’ explanations for that drawing and it seems a bit much to ask other Voynich readers, just now, to cope with a third and different view even if it might be described as the seminal study.

I would emphasise that from 1912-2010 the drawing in question had been supposed quite incomprehensible and had received nothing but the occasional speculation. Pelling had used the simple positivistic ‘correspondence’ sort of argument to assert the drawing a plan of Milan; another author whose work I never saw had evidently put forward an idea that the drawing described the scheme of Dante’s Cantos. No analytical-critical study had been attempted before 2011 and no suitably qualified person had addressed the manuscript’s pictures since Panofsky in 1932.

Since my study was published there have been, I guess, about a dozen attempted ‘alternatives’ offered by Voynich writers. Many begin by supposing the drawing a map – without explaining the process by which they reached that view – and have simply imposed on the Voynich drawing part of some modern map and argued that the one has points of correspondence with the other. In effect, these alternatives have no aim but to create an interpretation of the drawing compatible with some predetermined theory of the manuscript overall. The great majority begin by presuming true whatever they seem to prove – principally that the manuscript and all its content ought to be an expression of medieval Europe’s own culture and have its origin in the mind of someone who lived contemporary with the manuscript’s manufacture.

A simple ‘Comparison’ argument.

The usual method adopted has, therefore, been the same as that which, in 1921, led Newbold to presume that the containers in the leaf-and-root section must be pharmacy bottles, and which has seen its full flowering in Tucker and Janick’s book, The Voynich Codex. Regular readers will know my strong objection to that simplistic ‘points-of-similarity’ approach and will be familiar with the paradigmatic example shown again at right.

A few writers have turned from maps to the schemes in literary or religious or alchemical texts but relied, still, on the same sort of argument from alleged points of correspondence while expounding only the purpose and meaning of the compared image(s) without addressing the Voynich image as a drawing.

Koen Gheuens and JKPetersen introduced a slightly different method, one enabling a still more tenuous connection to be proposed between a Voynich drawing and a selected Latin model. In a series of posts to their blogs, each made the tacit argument that the Voynich manuscript’s drawings, which contain very little in the way of Christian attitudes, motifs or customs in drawing, can be interpreted as Christian images by applying what is in effect the allegorical method of medieval Christian exegesis.

Koen introduced that method – by which an argument is offered for correspondence between a proposed model and what is not drawn – when he imagined that among the plant-pictures a vine-tendril resembled the profile of a human or semi-human face.

It is too soon to say if he intends to apply the same “absence-as-evidence” technique in his current posts about the Voynich map (or as some call it, the ‘rosettes page’) but his first post seems again to depend on asserting ‘points of correspondence’ between the Voynich drawing and others chosen to illustrate his present theory of the map as a conceptual city.

But it is probably unfair to critique his current work since he has published only the first installment of an argument developed by Koen and his co-writer, Cary Rappaport Rapaport It seems best to let them complete their exposition without creating more controversy by republishing my own work, especially given that Linda, another member of the same Voynich forum, is in the process of explaining her own ‘alternative’.

What I think I can fairly do is reprint my analysis of the image on folio 5v.

In his paper, Dalché’ makes a passing reference to ‘tabella picta’ and this drawing on folio 5v is an exceptionally fine and informative example of a genre of memorial image which I think of as a ‘tabula picta’ for the elegance with which a surprising amount of information is conveyed, or rather ‘cued’.

For most Voynich readers, the only instance of the ‘tabula’s terse, rote style will be the original text of Ibn Butlan’s ‘Tables of Health’, known in Latin translations as Tacuinum sanitatis. Unfortunately, much of that text’s original character is lost in translation, the translators having expanded a few brief words into nicely turned sentences. In the same way, illustrations in remaining copies of the Tacuinum sanitatis display little of the qualities which make so many of the Voynich manuscript’s images a delight – particularly its plant pictures.

Given that the majority of a ‘Voynich audience’ has their primary interest in subjects other than classical and medieval history, in the history of cartography and/or in comparative iconography, the material I put online for that audience omitted or summarised technical discussions which I felt unlikely to be of interest to them.

I have no doubt, though, that colleagues will easily identify the points where I’ve summarised or elided and have no difficulty in, so to speak, reading between the paragraphs.

My thanks to those two historians and to others who have, from time to time, been kind enough to express interest in my analytical-critical study of the Voynich map.

Folio 5v.

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