Header image – detail from Pietro Vesconti’s chart of 1321 with (inset) ‘swallowtail’ crenellations on a castle in Almeria.

In treating the large, square, foldout drawing d’Imperio mentions this ‘swallowtail’ motif, initially describing one detail so adorned as being ‘like a castle’. The passage occurs on p.21 of Elegant Enigma. I’ll quote what isn’t speculation.

… a structure like a castle .. [with] a high crenelated wall and a tall central tower.”

Even in that passage, there is an implicit assumption that the detail will be a ‘portrait’ having a physical counterpart somewhere – but let that go for the moment.

We may date the beginning of modern conversations to about 1996, when Guy Thibault was wrestling with the whole drawing and working from an idea that it represented a map and a presumption that everything in the drawing, and in the manuscript altogether, would be a product of, and would refer to, nothing but western Europe’s ‘Latin’ (i.e. western Christian) culture.

He had reached a point where he was homing in on some such region as Venice, or Avignon, when Rene Zandbergen mailed a note to the list. It was not addressed to Thibault and did not engage with anything Thibault had shared from his own work, but was addressed instead to the ‘audience’ at large. Since the drawing was Thibault’s current project, others on the list (quite properly) did not reply and left responses to Guy.

Rene Zandbergen had written:

Tue Jun 18 11:02

Dear all,

I think that it is reasonable to assume that the little castle on f85/86, near the upper right rosette on the mega-foldout is a ‘fantasy’ castle, not intended to represent an existing one…. What I have been trying to find out (so far unsuccessfully) is whether the style of the crenellations of the square and circular buildings give any indication of age and origin of the VMs. These crenellations are .. of the ‘swallow’s tail’ type. ..

So far I have only seen this on medieval buildings in Northern Italy. If this style was already ‘en vogue’ in the earlier middle ages (up to, say, 1200), then, even if it is confined to N.Italy, it does not help us much. Anybody could have seen these or known about them; even Roger B[acon]. If the style is from a later period, it might tell us something, especially if it is regionally confined.

Anybody have any ideas?

Note – what I find surprising is that Zandbergen’s problem was easily resolved. Any good history of medieval architecture in general, or military architecture in particular could have provided the information that such crenellations are not used in Latin Europe before c.1100 AD. Since some examples are extant today, it is clearly impossible to date or place all the matter in the manuscript by reference to that one detail. It might be argued to offer a provisional terminus a quo of 1100AD with the radiocarbon dating providing the terminus ad quem of c.1438 AD. But if the rest of the drawing pre-dates the inclusion of the ‘swallowtails’ by any greater period of time, only the terminus ad quem might stand.

There is nothing about the way the crenellations are drawn in the manuscript which can tell us, of themselves, where, when or by whom the ‘swallowtail’ details were included. Considered in isolation, the ‘castle-like’ form cannot be asserted to have been a ‘portrait-style’ image. I’m not sure what genre of medieval imagery might be described as ‘fantasy’. The map has nothing in common with the drolleries, nor with the religious-visionary imaginings of persons such as Opicinus or Hildegard of Bingen.

In response to Rene Zandbergen’s introducing this note of fantasy, Thibault had replied, evidently a little disconcerted:

18 Jun 1996 11:19:03

I don’t recall if I have even commented on this castle, so please excuse me if I re-state these ideas… Suppose the connection between circles are indeed bridges, is there any way to find out [i.e. identify] ALL the medieval towns with nine (or more) bridges? I guess Venice and Avignon would fit, are there more ? If we find a point linked with those bridges in the same way as depicted in the “map” maybe we could progress a bit…

Did you notice the writings on the right side of the fold out seems to be upside down as if the scribe did not notice/know the full pattern of the circles when he was writing…

Note – I’ve corrected a few typos in the original. I do not think that English was Guy’s first language. 
As full disclosure, I should say that my own analysis of the larger drawing –  engaged after reading Nick Pelling’s post of May 29th., 2010 –  led finally to a conclusion that the whole of the large drawing is a map, one in which western Europe does not feature, save for Sicily, and that altogether it is no product of the western or the Arabic cartographic traditions, though some elements occur in common with the earliest Genoese and Venetian cartes marine
The ‘castle’ is no literal portrait, but it is certainly no fantasy. In much the way images of Egyptian deities or Christian saints’ images were constructed, the so-called ‘castle’ detail combines a reasonable idea of its subject, before adding the ‘swallowtail’ motif for the cultural significance it bore.
The ‘swallowtails’ thus serve to add practical and informative detail for anyone able to read the whole map. The spiral of ‘stars’ is a version of the motif (also seen in slightly different form, later, in the charts of Piri Reis), indicating a body of water mostly enclosed and relatively shallow. Almost all of the map’s research which I decided share online was published between 2011- 2013.
For people who have difficulty understanding why someone might use star-motifs to signify  seawater, may I recommend  … this.  It may also help explain why Hammond felt comfortable translating Homer’s οἶνοψ πόντος not, as was customary, by “wine-dark sea” but by “sparkling sea”. On which see D.M. Goldstein’s review, for the Bryn Mawr Classical Gazette,  of Mark Hammond, The Odyssey (2000).


During the five years from 1996-2001, Zandbergen’s invitation does not seem to have moved his own efforts much further forward. By the end of that time, it was no longer Guy Thibault but John Grove who was actively working on the large drawing which, in honesty, I can only describe as the Voynich map.

Much of what Grove says in the following passage is anachronistic. His understanding of the Guelf-Ghibelline split is inaccurate if, as it sounds, he perceived it in terms of national identities, but so far as I can discover it was he who first informed the ‘Voynich community’ of the swallowtails’ political connotations in medieval Italy. He presumes the ‘stars’ must refer to the heavens and also imagines that images cannot be read without written text to explain them..


Grove wrote:

I’ve been having fun reading about the two types of battlements that seem to have evolved directly from the dispute between the two opposing factions in Italian/German history. The Guelph used the square battlements, while the Ghibelline supporters flaunted their support in their architecture with the ‘fishtail’ battlements. I believe from what I’ve been able to locate on the web that these Ghibelline designs on castle battlements are indeed limited to castles in Northern Italy and Germany that were built in the period 1100-1300. Since the factions were not so big a deal in the 15th and 16th century, the castle design in the VMS only leads to (once again) presenting us with a rough geographical region – the same as has been discussed for quite some time (!).

Why a Ghibelline Castle is present in the large foldout and not a Guelph style may be meaningless to the author except that he lived near one and drew what he knew. The wall extending from the castle around the spiral of stars may be indicative that the castle and wall are only a symbolic representation of a formidable enclosure protecting the ‘heavens’. I don’t know if this sort of speculation has any place in discussions because one could never really prove any number of suppositions until we can actually read the text.


Again to be fair to my readers, I should say that my own survey of the ‘swallowtail’ motif’s occurrence in Europe to1438 (including in manuscript illustrations, charts and other artefacts,chess-rook-ivory-persian-style-12th-c.-constantinople-bargello-mus such as mosaics and early chess-pieces) led me to conclude that, during that period, the ‘swallowtail’ motif as such signified the limit of an area whose people were subject to an emperor, and examples show that in drawing it could refer not only to areas connected to the western emperor but, also, to the eastern Christian emperor, or the Mongol-Chinese emperor. It signified an ‘imperial boundary’.
Image (right)’ Castle’ – rook – chess piece in Persian style. 12thC. from Constantinople. now in the Bargello Museum. First published though voynichimagery, 31st. October 2012. A Persian embassy came to Charlemagne’s court, and a mosaic in Bobbio (c.10thC) shows chessplayers adjacent to Persian-Parthian motifs. 
A comparable – not identical – form has the same significance as early as the Roman Tabula Peutingeriana. Because instances of the ‘swallowtails’ still survive on buildings in and beyond Europe, it is evident that their significance in architecture, generally expressed, is also as marking the boundary of territory regarded – in something of the way a modern embassy is – as one whose residents declare in this way a level of independence from other duties and laws, owing allegiance to their own emperor and being entitled (at least nominally) to imperial protection.
A prime example of expatriate/colonial use is found in what was once a Genoese enclave at Caffa, in the Black Sea.

Back in 2001, John Grove had begun another mailing list topic entitled ‘Dovetail battlements in Rome?’ where he mentioned a drawing he had noticed. 

In response, Jorge Stolfi commented (14th Jan. 2001), nipping in the bud any suggestion that ‘swallowtails’  adorned the walls of ancient Rome, and incidentally proving a model for how such research should be organised.  He first shows that he has considered, and checked, Grove’s reference (the precedent), then provides full details of his own sources, and adds his own comments.  

> [John Grove:] While scanning the online Vatican Library images I found this 1498 sketch of Rome…
> http://www.ibiblio.org/expo/vatican.exhibit/exhibit/b-archeology/images/arch25.jpg

Jorge Stolfi:

The caption to that figure is

J. Annius, Antiquitates
Rome, 1498


This image of the earliest stage in the development of Rome is much cruder than Pietro del Massaio’s. Though the unknown artist tried to represent the small compass and exact contours of the early city, and labeled the Forum and other places of note, the crenelated walls and towers reveal the limits of his imagination. Unfortunately the text he illustrated was even less accurate; it was a forgery by the papal theologian Giovanni Nanni of Viterbo.

Inc. II 274 fol. M verso arch25 TG.15

… Jorge Stolfi.

Rene Zandbergen  had replied by posting link to his website where two images of a castle in Friuli could be seen.

Dana Scott had replied to Grove:

6th. January 2001

Then again, just maybe the author of the VMS (whom I think may have been Andrea Cesalpino) supported the Ghibellines of Arezzo (Andrea was born in Arezzo) and Pisa (where he was educated and taught) and the fact that Dante ended up switching his support from the Guelphs to the Ghibellines. Perhaps.

Dana Scott

Which – for all that I admire Scott’s work on the plant-pictures – is another example of chaining speculation to speculation, on premises insubstantial.

But Dana’s response shows that even so early as 2001 the study was moving away from efforts to discover the sense of the manuscript’s drawings, to using bits and pieces from the drawings to serve as springboard for a preferred theory.

Dana’s ‘givens’ – as untested assumptions – are clear enough: that the ‘castle’ is a literal representation of some Italian building, that the significance to be attached to the ‘swallowtail’ or ‘fishtail’ crenellations is limited to Italian politics; that the whole content of the Voynich manuscript is the work of a single author, and that this imagined ‘author’ was a person of such importance in Europe’s intellectual history that his name was recorded in contemporary documents – and so on, and so forth.

Unrecognised by most members in 2001, what Nick Pelling would later describe as the ‘theory-wars’ had already begun.

A majority still held to the opinion, expressed by Kraus and reported by d’Imperio, that the manuscript had been made in Italy.

A couple accepted the opinion offered by Panofsky in 1932 that it was ‘from Spain or somewhere southern’. In fact, the entanglements between regions in the south-western Mediterranean make the ‘Italian/southern’ positions less oppositional than complementary.

The Prinke-Zandbergen ‘Germanic central Europe’ theory was still that of a small minority in 2001, for the simple reason that it found no support in the primary document (exclusive of some marginalia) and no competent specialist had ever suggested that the vellum or binding indicated origins in a German-speaking region.

So long as research remained focused on the manuscript itself, this would remain the case. As attention shifted to ‘theory-wars’, and standards dropped, so too did the process of interaction and the tactics employed by adherents of that novel theory.

It is a curious thing, but true, that neither of that theory’s chief proponents has ever, in twenty years, presented it formally with evidence, argument and the usual documentation. Attempting to find out just what the believers believe has proven very difficult indeed. The two key words appear to be ‘Germanic’ and ‘Rudolf’ but there’s surely more to it.

In 2006, Pelling would publish his Curse of the Voynich, which remained in print for about a decade. Pelling’s research, and opinions having evidently moved on by the end of that period, he withdrew Curse from publication. To me it seemed a pity, because the book contained more than its theoretical history for the manuscript; it included numerous original contributions to other aspects of the study, including codicology, palaeography and ‘Voynichese’ which – whether Pelling’s opinions were the ‘right’ answers or not – were a stimulus to further enquiry and discussion.

Who drew the ‘swallowtails’?

The simple fact is that by 1438, even if the so-called ‘castle’ had been a portrait of some structure then existing, the drawing could have been made by an Englishman, an Ethiopian, an Armenian or a Syrian, a Persian or a Nestorian Chinese, a Jew from Majorca or from Venice.. The greater Mediterranean was a very busy international thoroughfare and to the papal court of Avignon or Rome, as to the Sicilian court, came ambassadors and pilgrims, traders and travellers. Within Rome itself, hospices were built to house foreign pilgrims, so numerous were they, and one ws was built solely for the Ethiopians’ use. Anyone who saw any instance of the Latins’ usage would know what the ‘swallowtail’ signified. Anyone might have used it to signify ‘imperial boundary’.

Of itself, as one small detail in a large and complex drawing, the ‘swallowtail crenellations’ motif tells us only that this particular detail’s first enunciation is most likely to have occurred at some time between 1100AD and 1438.

One might then ask, a more ordinary research environment, what aim Koen’s group has in mind as they try to ‘map’ such physical examples as survive in 2021. We must just wait and see.

I chose a Spanish example of ‘swallowtail crenelations’ for the header. I might as easily have shown one from Caffa in the Black Sea, or another and important example from Sicily, but since most Voynich theorists are focused on Italy or on Germany, I thought to widen the lens a little.

‘Pharma’? – getting the goods.

WE’RE CONSIDERING whether Baresch was being realistic in supposing matter now in Beinecke MS 408 had been collected – or could have been gathered no less than two hundred years earlier – from ‘eastern parts’.

So far, we’ve seen that it was certainly possible for a person to travel between the western Mediterranean and China before 1440.

As for plant-products, some eastern plants appear regularly in Europe’s antidotaries by the ninth century.

Riddle’s survey of early medieval Latin antidotaries remains a valuable study. He comments:

From a list made of the substances, the following are those appearing in eight or more recipes (The number of times per recipe is in parenthesis): aloes (15), ammonicum (11), amomum (9), apium semen (10), cassia (12), ciminum (8), colofonia (14), fenuogrecum (10), libanus (12), Unum (11), mastice (16), murra (17), piper white-, long-, and black- (33), petroselinum (17), picea (10), scamonia (14), storace (13), terebentina (17), and zinzibar (8).

An examination of the identities of these drugs reveals a startling fact: most can only be found in the orient. Though it is impossible always to identify each according to the exact plant species, one can be fairly certain of the family or, at least genus.

  • Amomum is an aromatic shrub said by Pliny to come from India, Persia, and the Aral Sea region and presently attributed to Persia and the Aral Sea region.
  • Ammonicum, a salt, is ammonium chloride and apparently associated in antiquity with the oracle Hammon in the desert regions of Africa where ammonicum is found. Both Pliny and Galen note its use in early medicine, but it is known to have been manufactured in the late middle ages from the distillation of the horns and hoofs of oxen.
  • Aloes, employed extensively in ancient medicine, is found in south Africa but mostly in India where there exists a variety of species. Medicinal aloes is a resin described in the Materia Medica of Dioscorides.
  • Cassia, probably a product of cinnamomum pauciflorum nees*, is said by Pliny to be the “skin” of a shrub, and it is known to be found only in the far east.
  • Crocus is simply the Latin and Greek form for saffron, an oriental product.
  • Libanus, or frankincense, is a product of the orient, though one variety of the tree bearing this gum is indigenous to the Somalia region.
  • Murra, or myrrh, remembered along with frankincense as two of the Magi’s gifts, is the gum resin product of commiphera myrrha, found only in Arabia and Abyssinia.
  • mastice or mastic, a resinous exudation obtained from the lentisk plant, is presently grown in the entire Mediterranean area though evidence shows that in antiquity and the middle ages it was imported from the eastern Mediterranean.
  • Pepper, of course, is a product of the far east, a fact widely recognized in antiquity.
  • Scammony [derived from the plant convolvulus scammonia].is found only in the eastern Mediterranean area especially Asia Minor.
  • Storace or storax, widely employed in ancient medicine, comes from Asia Minor, Syria, and the far east.
  • zinziber or ginger [described by many ancient writers], is a native to the warm parts of Asia.
  • The remaining substances, apium semen (parsley seeds), colofonia (a resin product), ciminum*, fenogrecum (or fenum Grecum, a plant), Unum (flax), petroselinum (rock-parsley), picea (various forms of pitch), and terebentina (terebinth) are all found in western Europe. Thus, the evidence from this typical antidotary of 9 th century Europe discloses a large use of eastern products which had to have been imported. That is to say, the drugs were imported if the manuscripts of recipe literature were in actual use.

In the same paper, Riddle comments on his various sources saying (e.g.):

A manual for traders, composed possibly in the 11th century or even earlier, lists ambergris along with camphor, musk, aloes, pepper, cinnamon, and ginger. (Kitāb al-ishārati ilà mahāsini ‘t-tjāra (Cairo A. . 1318), as cited by T. W. Arnold, “Arab travellers and merchants, A. D. 1000-1500”, Chapt. 5 of: Arthur Percival Newton, Travel and travellers of the middle ages (New York 1926), 93-4..

We know that the monks of Corbie in the 9th century planned to buy the followingmap Corbie France herbs and spices at the market: piper, ciminum, gingember [ginger?], gario file, cinamomum, galingan, reopontico, costus, spicum, mira, sanguinem draconis, indium, percrum, pomicar, zedoarium, styrax, calaminta, apparment, thyme, gotyumber, clove, sage, and mastick.”

To bring to the local market of Corbie such substances as pepper, ginger, cinnamon, galingale and cloves, and what may have been the true ‘dragonsblood’ of Soqotra, (resin of Dracaena cinnabari),* it was not necessary for the monks to travel east in person, but neither were Muslim traders so welcome in medieval France and England.

*After submitting, in 2009, an article identifying the chief subject of folio 25v as Dracaena cinnabari –  formerly described as Dracaena draco – I learned that Edith Sherwood had earlier offered an identification as the western Dracaena(s) from Morocco and the Canary islands. One of these is now called ‘Dracaena draco’.  As so often, botanical nomenclature has a long, confusing and irresolute history. The line is very easily blurred, in Voynich writing, between modern use of Linnaeus’ categories – which is the basis for modern botanical descriptions – and the ways of seeing which applied in ancient, medieval and non-European communities three centuries and more before Linnaeus was born. 

The cosmopolitan traders who passed easily through areas of diverse religious jurisdiction during the earlier medieval centuries included Nestorians, Radhanites and Jews,  groups whose networks extended far into the east, and who were content to ally in business with local merchants and middle men regardless of race or creed –  as documents of the Cairo geniza attest clearly for the India-to-Mediterranean region.*

*today, the Radhanites are said to be Jews, and were so classed by the Muslim rulers for purposes of taxation, but the earlier historical evidence suggests this might not have been the case and some medieval Jewish comments insist that they were only ‘messengers of the Jews’. This blogpost isn’t the place to explore the question.

apothecary Circenster 4thC gifWithin the Islamic empire, however, the itinerant Indian merchant-physician was also a well-known character, appearing in the Arabian nights as a stock character before the 12thC, and still so common a sight in the nineteenth century that it was in that guise Richard Burton lived in Egypt and travelled towards Mecca. We are yet to see a comprehensive study, in English, of the debt which Mediterranean countries owe to southern India and Ashoka.

Half-way Houses: Fonduk and Apotheca.

Baresch’s letter of 1639 1637 includes the following passage:

Regiones orientis adijsse, ibique thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos, partim ex monumentis librorum, tum etiam ex conversatione cum peritis artis adeptos, indeque reportatos, talibus notis in libro eo defodisse.

Neal translates this, “He would have acquired the treasures of Egyptian medicine partly from the written literature and also from associating with experts in the art, brought them back with him and buried them in this book in the same script”.

I won’t presume to correct Neal’s translation, but note that in medieval Latin, ‘thesauros’ meant not only a ‘treasure-house’ – as it did in classical Latin – but also now a commercial warehouse in which goods were kept and so organised that any item could be brought forward with ease. To the Greeks, the warehouse was an ‘apotheka’. To the practical traders working from Cairo, Alexandria or Tunis, storehouses meant the warehouse-complexes termed fonduks in Arabic. Each fonduk included many store-rooms in which goods being imported, or purchased for export, could be held securely. A favoured city, such as Venice or Genoa, might be granted use of one or more entire fonduks.

But there was a metaphorical sense, too, in which medieval Latins used the word ‘thesauros’ – to describe the memory’s ‘stored treasures’. Altogether, these diverses senses in which the Latin term had been used might have later affected Baresch’s understanding of just how matter now in the manuscript had been (or could have been) gained.

Writing almost two centuries later, Baresch envisages ‘thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos‘ as ‘treasures’ of Egypt’s medical learning, where it might been ‘the learning of the storehouses’. One bought or sold goods for their practical applications, and (as Flood says),* medical uses were among those for which ‘oriental’ plants were traded. It’s just a thought.

*passage quoted in the previous post.

The equivalent Greek term for a warehouse – ‘apotheka’ – had also shifted in meaning. Here again, Riddle

The best illustration of trade in drugs is exemplified in the derivation of the word apotheca or apothecary. The Byzantines had local depots, called àποθηκαι, in the main harbors and road termini of the Mediterranean area. Just how or when the word changed from a general depot to a dispensory of drugs is unknown, but some clues can be found. An edict of Frederick II, regulating medical activity, referred to apotheca apparently in the sense of a store house for drugs. During the 13th century, at least, the word apotheca comes to have the specialized meaning of the modern word. The very fact that the word for an import-export house came to be associated entirely with the meaning “drug-store” demonstrates vividly the relation between trade and drugs.

  • John M. Riddle, The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages’, Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, Bd. 49, H. 2 (JUNI 1965), pp. 185-198.

What I’d like to point out in this context is that

  1. The ‘leaf and root’ section’s unusual format finds few parallels in the west, but we’ve noted (in the previous post) two commercial documents, the one an illustrated invoice from fourteenth-century France by an Italian businessman, and the other the style of Chinese ‘Bencao’ herbal texts which were also employed as ‘forme’ for bills of lading and for the purpose of inventory and taxation.
  2. Artefacts represented in the ‘leaf and root’ pages display details characteristically ‘oriental’ (as I’ll show in the next post) and may represent the forms in which particular goods were presented, purchased, carried and/or stored.

The ‘Spice Islands’ –

As late as October 8, 2019, a blog devoted to the history of the ‘Spice Islands’ titled a blogpost “The first appearance of the Spice Islands on a world map – the Atlas Miller (1519-1522).”

The author’s definition of ‘world map’ allows him to claim the sixteenth century map a ‘first’ but in point of fact those islands had appeared on three notable worldmaps centuries earlier, viz. al-Idrisi’s twelfth-century world-map; Abraham Cresques’ great worldmap of 1375, and in specifically Latin European cartography, the Genoese ‘eye-map’* of 1457.

* Biblioteca Estense e Universitaria in Modena – shelf-mark C.G.A.5.b.)

Cresques’ worldmap refers to ‘Jeylan’ (Ceylon) as an important source for eastern spices, though in reality it was another trading hub trading not only in Indian, but in Arabian, Himalayan and far-eastern ‘spices’. Soqotra was another eastern mart of that that kind.

The earliest of the three is Al-Idrisi’s world-map. Al-Idrisi is also credited with a compendium of plants in which each was provided with a detailed description and its name in Syriac, Greek, Latin, Berber and Arabic, predating by a century the Clavis sanationis – popularly known as the ‘Synonyma’ – composed by Simon of Genoa and which was then presented to Pope Nicholas V (1288), commended by Roger Bacon and soon required by the faculty of the University of Paris to be held by every registered apothecary.

Two other books credited to al-Idrisi were about pharmacology, and medicine, but so far I’ve not found mention of any extant manuscripts.

For a first reference to the Jewish works of this type, see below.

  • Barbara. Zipser, Simon of Genoa’s Medical Lexicon (2013). https://doi.org/10.2478/9788376560236 – open access.

  • Simon Online‘ – the translation project. *highly recommended*

  • Savelsberg. Bos, Hussein, Mensching (authors), Medical Synonym Lists from Medieval Provence: Shem Tov ben Isaak of Tortosa: Sefer ha – Shimmush. (Book 29, Études Sur Le Judaïsme Médiéval), Multilingual Edition (English, … Aramaic, Arabic, Latin and Romance).

  • “Only ten manuscript copies of the Book of Roger currently survive, five of which have complete text and eight of which have maps. Two are in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, including the oldest, dated to about 1325. Another copy, made in Cairo in 1553, is in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, acquired in 1692. The most complete manuscript, which includes the world map and all seventy sectional maps, is kept in Istanbul”. (source – wiki article)

Genoese ‘Eye’-Map. and another traveller – Niccolo de’Conti

For this map, the original essay at the Henry Davis’ site cites a study by G.H.T. Kimble for recognising three distinct influences in it, apart from the western cartes marine namely, the Classical, the western Christian and the Arab. Of these Kimble said that only the Arab influence is strong, and that it is improbable that the Classical influence was direct.

However, in what appears to be an increasing tendency within certain central European faculties towards regression to the old Eurocentric default,* a recent essay published online (to which I won’t refer readers) claims that the ‘eye-map’ relies for much of its content on information delivered to Poggio Bracciolini by by Niccolò de’ Conti (c. 1395-1469).

*In the same way, in another paper from the same central European university – one fast gaining a reputation for ‘white washing’ European history – it is asserted that Abraham Cresques’ worldmap was influenced by no more than a couple of western Christian sources chiefly Marco Polo and Oderic of Pordenone.  The author of that paper offers no evidence, and makes no attempt to provide specific textual comparisons, his assertions defying both reason and the informed, detailed commentaries by earlier specialists whose better-informed and better-documented opinions have traced the literary sources referenced by Cresques’, finding that they refer, among other sources, to the ‘Alf Layla wa Laya’, to Ibn Jubayr’s travels and to others accounts of foreign parts such as that by Bejamin of Tudela who moved between centres of the Jewish diaspora.

Niccolo de’ Conti was a Venetian who lived and traded in the east for a quarter of a century, finally returning to Italy in 1439. During his lifetime in the east, de’Conti had married an Indian wife and by the time of his return had a large family by her. She may have been a southern Indian Christian, of the ‘Community of St. Thomas’ – traditionally said to have been founded from Egypt in the 1stC AD. The literature, religious images and history of this church was eradicated by the western church through the agency of the Portuguese, a new legend then created and still maintained by which which all Christian churches of southern India were asserted founded from Syria in the 3rdC AD. Little material evidence remains now to support the older tradition.

At some stage, de’ Conti had adopted Islam and as penance for that ‘heresy’ de’Conti was obliged to “deliver the narrative of his journey” to Poggio Bracciolini.

Whether this was done orally or whether it included surrendering other documents, is not known, but from that material Bracciolini then created a bowderlised and gentrified narrative in which de’ Conti is made a socially elevated ‘traveller’ – more or less a passing tourist – and his 25 years’ residence and life in eastern trade reduced to cursory and uninformative survey of ‘foreign marvels’.

It is evident from other sources of the time, that de’ Conti could not have spent a quarter century in the east as ‘a traveller’ of the sort Bracciolini makes him, but was an resident trader.

I’m not particularly inclined think that Beinecke MS 408 is Bracciolini’s copy of matter delivered to him by de’ Conti, but the possibility has to be noted, and it would at least offer an explanation for a text whose hand is said to be ‘humanist’ appearing in a manuscript whose layout and images are anything but characteristic of Latin Europe, let alone of the Italian renaissance.

I also doubt that de’ Conti could be the chief source of information for the ‘eye-map’ of 1457, because while certainly drawn in the style of the western cartes marine, it includes an image for Canopus+Crux which has it half bull and half fish. A ‘bull of the sea’ was one way to describe a master mariner and Canopus is the chief star of the once enormous ‘ship’ constellation, but in terms of the image qua image, the combination of bull and ‘fish’ is ancient in India. The example shown below was carved in Bharhut, in an early house established by Buddhists for the shelter and care of foreigners..

The idea of mariners as ‘sea-bulls’ was apparently not wholly unknown to the Mediterranean. The following is said (by Charles Singer) to copy an image in a fifteenth-century English manuscript but he offers no references. As I read its details, this image represents the ‘ship of the world’ as allegory of the universe.

  • A list of nine notable foreign traders, emissaries and visitors to India before 1450 is given here.

So now, having established that there is nothing in the historical record to oppose Baresh’s view that a ‘traveller’ might gather material from ‘eastern/oriental’ parts before 1440, we can turn to analyse the drawings in the leaf-and-root section, while keeping in mind that Baresch’s intention in using terms like ‘oriental’, ‘Egyptian’ or of thesauros remains uncertain.