Glass and the pearl band

two prior:

FOR AN ARCHAEOLOGIST, or anyone specialising in a some specific field of technology or art, one’s first instinct when presented with a problematic artefact is to seek that point, within the axes of time and of geography, that it rightly belongs. In the present case, though, another preliminary step must intervene, because since 1912 Beineke MS 408 has been seen through an old and narrowly-defined Eurocentric lens.

That narrative is still substantially that which Wilfrid Voynich created, which was early adopted and maintained by William Romaine Newbold, and later fixed in the public imagination by its repetition in prestigious sources such as d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma and the holding library’s catalogue entry.

Pressures of repetition, and earnest efforts to justify one or more aspects of Wilfrid’s narrative after the fact (while still altering it the better to support some variant) have fixed an impression among most people that among the few items we can say ‘we know’ is that the whole content of the manuscript should exhibit an exclusively western Latin Christian character.

Given the consistency with which those assumptions have been maintained despite (or perhaps because of) never being investigated with a critical eye, it is perfectly understandable that any suggestion about the content’s perhaps including unmediated foreign matter would cause disquiet.

So in this post, rather than risk being thought to have dispensed arbitrarily with a Eurocentric focus, I’ll do what I can to re-define what might be called the medieval ‘European horizon’.

In the map below, the darker coloured area had been, over the centuries, part of the Persian empire, then of Alexander’s empire, and next of the Median-Persian and Sasanian empire. It then became part of the Islamic empire until, during the thirteenth century AD, much of it fell to the Mongols, whose policy during the first wave of conquests was to wipe from the map any city offering active resistance.

Some sites named in that map (above) were household names in medieval Europe because they find mention in the Bible. Nineveh is mentioned repeatedly and not only in the Jewish religious books incorporated into the Christian bible but in the Christian testament itself (e.g. Luke 11:32).

Babylon was another proverbial name, so well known that when the western pope took his court to Avignon and it remained there almost seventy years (1309 to 1376), the period was commonly called its  ‘Babylonian captivity’.

Tabriz I’ve had reason to mention* as the city where Claudius’ Ptolemy’s astronomical co-ordinates were updated and that new data acquired  by the Byzantine scholar Gregory Chioniades between 1295-96. He called it the ‘Persian syntaxis’.

*see post of July 11th., 2021

Across the whole width of that territory and to as far as China, western Christian missionaries, diplomats and traders were already passing before the end of the thirteenth century.

By 1350 – about half a century before the Voynich manuscript was made – a census of Franciscan houses lists twenty-two on the route from Constantinople through the Black Sea and overland to as far as China, with four houses established by then in China itself – two in Peking at the terminus of the overland routes, and two in the southern, foreigners’ port known as ‘Zayton’ (Guangzhou) where the Genoese or Venetian Katarina Vilioni had died in 1342.

For a time, early in the seventh century, the Sasanian Empire had included the whole of present-day Iran and Iraq and also much of the eastern Mediterranean (including Anatolia and Egypt.

The Byzantines had reason to remember the Sassanians, whose army had alone succeeded in resisting Rome, and it was never forgotten that in c.260AD King Shapur had captured the Roman Emperor Valerian and him kept in captivity for the rest of his life.

(Those familiar with the Voynich manuscript may recognise in Shapur’s stepped-turreted crown a form similar to that given a female figure appearing twice in the Voynich calendar. In both cases (see diagrams for July and August); the figure holds a large 9-pointed ‘aster’ and is set on the innermost tier at 90 degrees right from the vertical. The inset in the picture (below) shows the example from July, where the crown and certain other details are evidently late additions to the original.

In 532 AD and following several major losses to the Persians, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I agreed to pay 440,000 gold pieces in return for an ‘eternal peace’.

Justinian evidently treated this final defeat as a triumph of diplomacy, and it is memorialised in a mosaic made for the basilica S.Vitali in Ravenna, the work begun in 526 and completed in 547.

Sassanian seal-ring set with a carnelian ‘sardion’.

The mosaic shows Justinian wearing as his ‘badge of honour’ a gem then called a ‘Sardion’ after the city of Sardis, stones of this type often used as a seal-stone by the Sasanians (see example at right).

Worn as Justinian’s badge of honour, the stone is shown surrounded by ‘ring of dots’ as pearls – another typically Sasanian-Persian motif in textiles, ceramics and glass but one equally characteristic of Byzantine art.

The bowl which Justinian carries is also patterned in Sasanian style, though the glass appears richly gilded.

(detail) Justinian I. 6thC mosaic, Ravenna. Basilica San Vitale.

Chan mentions that within each of the hexagons that form that bowl’s basic honeycomb pattern is set another and smaller one. In the upper left of the photograph (above) one of them can be seen fairly clearly – it appears as a ‘dot’.

However, the Sasanian emperor almost immediately broke that first ‘eternal peace’ and another mosaic portrait of Justinian, made for Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, shows Justinian now without his ‘sard’ and wearing a different expression.

This mosaic is believed made in 561 AD or shortly before, when work on Sant’Apollinare Nuovo was completed. A second ‘eternal peace’ would finally be achieved in 562, after six hundred years’ war between the Romans and Sasanian Persia.

The point I want to make is that even if we ignore the probable significance for the Sasanians of that ‘circle of pearls/dots’ it was an established motif in Byzantine art, and for those who made glass, and fabric, and mosaics.

Tesserae of both stone and glass were employed for mosaics, and such motifs as the ‘pearl band’ remained as a constantly present model for the ‘finishing’ or ‘crowning’ touch, even when the subject was not a member of the Byzantine court.

Ravenna is a little more than a hundred miles down the Adriatic coast from Venice, and its magnificent basilicas remained a model of what could be achieved, if only one had the technical means and skilled artisans. Thus, we know (although not every Venetian site will say so) that when Venice decided to remodel the Basilica of S.Marco during the thirteenth century, it imported both eastern materials, and workers. A nicely condensed account of this basilica’s complicated history is offered by the author of a wiki article, who writes:

The earliest surviving [mosaic] work, in the main porch, perhaps dates to as early as 1070, and was probably by a workshop that had left Constantinople in the mid-11th century and worked at Torcello Cathedral.* They are in “a fairly pure Byzantine style” but in succeeding phases of work Byzantine influence … was reduced by stages, disappearing altogether by about the 1130s, after which the style was Italian in essentials, reflecting “a change from a colonial to a local art”. The main period of decoration was the 12th century, a period of deteriorating relations between Venice and Byzantium, but very little is known about the process .. The main work on the interior mosaics was apparently complete by the 1270s, with work on the atrium continuing into the 1290s.

*we have already noted, in the post previous to this, that at Torcello  the glass objects were made ” using cullet (glass refuse) or glass cakes imported from the eastern Mediterranean’.

The basic drawings may have been ‘local art’ but the artisans were apparently not from any local tradition of mosaic-making, for..

After [the 1279s-90s]the St Marks workshop seems to have been disbanded, so that when a fire in 1419 caused serious damage, the only Venetian capable of the work had just died and the Signoria of Florence had to be asked for help; they sent Paolo Uccello.

San Marco never made the transition to fresco wall paintings … probably partly due to Venetian conservatism and also to a wish to support the local Murano glass industry, which supplied the tesserae. The point is that from 1290 – 1419 (at least) no mosaics were added.

Who then is the ‘old master’ among the 13thC images of Venetian trades? His ‘Sasanian’ cap is enough to point us in the right direction, even without the visual pun of his ‘Mosaic’ beard.

It cannot be Master Aldrevandin, but is perhaps his teacher.

Work on S. Marco’s mosaics finished officially in the 1290s – during which time glassmakers were first confined to Muran and then prohibited from leaving the city. Master Aldrevandin, as we know, then made beakers which introduced the the long-traditional ‘pearl band’ of Sasanian and Byzantine work into the traditions of Muran. They served initially in western Europe as his own hallmark and then became a standard motif on Murano glass. Sasanian ‘crystal’ glass had been known to as far as China by the 3rdC AD.

Sasanian clear glass beaker
coins Sasanian headwear
photos: (above) two versions of Sasanian headwear.

Ge Hong (283-343), a well-known .. Daoist philosopher with an expertise in alchemy left an important information in his work ‘Baopuzi’ that ‘the crystal bowls made in foreign countries, are in fact prepared by compounding five sorts of (mineral) ashes. Today this method is being commonly practiced in Jiao and Guang (that is, Annan and Guangdong). Now if one tells this to ordinary people, they will certainly not believe it, saying that crystal is a natural product belonging to the class of rock crystal.’

  • Mei-Ling Chen, ‘The Importation of Byzantine and Sasanian Glass into China during the fourth to sixth centuries,” in Harris, Incipient Globalization?, 47-52 [pdf].

One of the curious details relayed to Nick Pelling by the curators of the Murano glass museum was the secret by which Angelo Barovier produced his hard, clear glass in 1450, was allegedly  “a special flux, made of a sort of alum obtained from eastern plants.” (Curse p.). 

Plant-ash sodas are not a form of alum, but that type of plant-ash alkali was regularly preferred in Muran, even when other Italian glassmakers used natron, and was known popularly as alluma catana, literally ‘basin alum’.  Of itself, however, it couldn’t harden or clarify glass and in theory the ashes from sola kali would not produce a different result, whether burned in Spain, in ‘the east’ or in Italy. The important question, of course, is “how could Barovier know?” If the seller told him the virtues of a new type of plant-ash, it was not Barovier’s invention. If not, where and how would a man restricted to his island and prohibited from discussing his craft, even think to look for and then to find and import the right sort of ‘plant-ash’? Is it more likely that some Venetian trader brought back both the material and an understanding of those ‘five mineral ashes’?

I suspect the ‘eastern plant ash’ was another of those memories passed down in Murano from the time of Master Aldrevandin, but Barovier’s method for clarifying and hardening glass is still not easy to discover.  The answer may lie in one of the following references. I’ve been unable to sight either during the past few months.

  • Cesare Moretti and Tullio Toninato (eds.) and David C. Watts and Cesare Moretti (ed. and trans.),Glass Recipes of the Renaissance: Transcription of an Anonymous Venetian Manuscript. (2011).
  • Antonio Neri, L’Arte vetraria = The Art of Glass, translated and annotated by Paul Engle, 3 vols., (2003–2007).

for those references, I am indebted to the author of

Ravenna mosaic three wise men and artefacts. Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo

(above) The three wise men from the east. Artefacts display characteristically Sasanian techniques in metalwork (and glass?). detail of a mosaic in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna.


POSTSCRIPT – regarding the figure who holds a nine-point ‘aster’ in the Voynich calendar’s months of July and August:

Persia’s star was ever Perseus ‘the destroyer’ envisaged as a horse mounted by a skeleton or phantom rider. The equation was known to Herodotus in the 5thC BC and still in the fifteenth century AD – at least to some. Herodotus therefore has Perseus as the progenitor of the Persian people. Ibn Majid, writing in the fifteenth century, names this horse (as the constellation was earlier envisaged) ‘Al Kumait’ – the unbridled. The image on the card below, showing the rider ‘backward-turned’ is the older and more authentic form.  See also Alamy image (WP338D) which I cannot include here.

The pictures in this set of 17 cards show a markedly different origin and intellectual level from all others known in Europe. Unlike most who comment on such game-cards, I’m of the opinion that these represent an original type and I’m quite prepared to believe such cards as these might have served as tutorial aids in fourteenth century France.

Perseus and Perseids





Sasanian head band

Sasanian hunt backward turning

If that ‘aster’-holding figure is meant for the Persians’ star, it is most likely to refer to Algol, properly named Al-ghul in the Arabic, though I don’t know the old Persian term for it.  The star was envisaged as a blaze, or trophy (see above, and below) on the horse’s hip, though at other times represented as a trophy-head -or even as a wine or water-skin.  (see further below).

Sasanian hunt with trophy.

…as a wine-skin or water-skin. 

Sasanian hunt as stellar triumph oveer zodiac

Due to precession, Perseus’ ‘rain of arrows’ (the Perseid meteor showers) now  peaks in August.  For more on this see: here. The floating scarves parallel the wisps of the Milky Way.

On retention of pre-Islamic elements in later Iranian art, including the ‘flying gallop’ and the scarves, see ‘ART IN IRAN xii. Iranian pre-Islamic Elements in Islamic Art’, Encyclopaedia Iranica. (online).

image courtesy Encyclopaedia Iranica.

In the Greek astronomy, Perseus is a human figure and the ‘ghul’ the trophy as Medusa’s head.

PPS – apologies to readers for the numerous ‘updates’ – mainly typos, grammatical errors and other small annoyances. Just had my second inoculation and the brain isn’t working properly.

“Pharma”? Pt 2-ii. glass?

Recap of previous post.

William Romaine Newbold relied on nothing but his imagination and a false analogy in supposing that a section of the manuscript shows “receptacles used by [western European] pharmacists”.

But that notion was relayed, untested, through following generations of Voynich writers, until its repetition in Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma and in the Beinecke Library’s catalogue, now sees Newbold’s notion constantly mistaken for fact.

*H.P. Kraus may have influenced the Beinecke and d’Imperio, but his description (Enigma p.79) mentions neither ‘pharmacy’ nor ‘pharmaceutical jars’.

Investigation of the pictorial, documentary and archaeological records, however,  shows that medieval pharmacies in western Europe were using the same practical, utilitarian containers at that time as they had done for generations before and would continue to do for generations more.  Most of the forms and varieties of pharmacists’ containers, other than the albarello and some unguent containers (as seen in images of the ‘three Marys’) are accurately shown in the scene below, in painting made fully sixty years after the manuscript’s radiocarbon range of 1404-1438.  


Abstract. Setting aside Newbold’s anachronistic ‘pharma-‘ jars, it is still worth asking whether any drawings in the ‘leaf and root’ section were meant to describe items made of glass.   Information given to Nick Pelling during his visits to the Murano glass museum, and which he reported in his Curse of the Voynich (2006) opens new avenues for research when considered in the broader historical context, including the work of a ‘Master Aldrevandin’ who worked in Muran from 1290 to 1350. 

An editorial comment considers problems of interpretation and whether we may reasonably read some drawings in the ‘leaf and root’ section as representing glass. 

In a subsequent post, we track the re-emergence of clear (colourless) hard glass from thirteenth-century Venice back to Syria and Egypt where, after 1221, such glass had suddenly re-emerged in beautifully enamelled and gilded glass objects, centuries after the secret of making such glass had been thought lost. 


band Murano floral 15thC gif

Preliminary note: About the Voynich manuscript’s written text – when it was first composed and whether what we now have is a transcription, translation, a text newly composed in the fifteenth century and/or an enciphered text I have no opinion and none, I think, has yet been established certainly. More accessible information is offered by the manuscript’s pictorial text – if treated seriously- and it is with that we are here concerned.

NICK PELLING made his first visit to the Murano glass museum in December 2004, before samples of the manuscript’s vellum returned an adjusted radiocarbon date-range of 1404-1438 AD.

Pelling was hoping to resolve a question as to whether these ‘ornate and florid’ forms (as d’Imperio called them) found any counterpart in glass produced from fifteenth-century Venice. In 2004, Pelling was one of a very few current researchers who considered the manuscript to have been produced during the fifteenth century. (The others who reached that view before the radiocarbon-14 results were published were Philip Neal, Patrick Lockerby and Edith Sherwood. The present author, dating the content distinct from manufacture, had the early fifteenth century as terminus ad quem).

When Acco fell to the Mamluks in 1271 AD, Latin Europe lost its last possession in the Mediterranean’s eastern shore. Venice managed to maintain certain prerogatives in the region (not least by actively collaborating with the Mongols’ plans to invade parts of Europe), but the city realised that it might also capitalise on the fact that other regions of Europe no longer had easy access to glass or to materials needed for its making.

The very next year, 1272, saw Venice issue a law forbidding glass furnaces to be built anywhere in its territory save on the island of Muran, and the glassmakers were thus obliged to remove there too.

(detail) from a 17thC map of Venice and environs. Note that the islands were not yet (or not shown) linked by bridges to each other or to the mainland.

Among the earliest of the glass-makers to arrive were the Barovier family and a certain ‘Master Aldrevandin’. It is possible that the latter, who had the secret of making a good, hard clear glass, was the reason that in 1295 Venice issued a further law, prohibiting glassmakers from leaving Venice, under pain of death.* Muran then became a ghetto but we should not think of it as an artisans’ commune. Epstein, citing Trivellato, speaks of how the concentration of Venetian glassmakers along one street of that small island fostered intense competition. As ever, a technical secret was one’s fortune.

*‘under pain of death’ – allegedly. I’ve not yet verified this.

  • S. R. Epstein, ‘Craft Guilds, Apprenticeship, and Technological Change in Preindustrial Europe’, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Sep., 1998), pp. 684-713. p.701n.

  • Trivellato, Francesca. “Was Technology Determinant? The Case of Venetian Glass Manufacture, Late 17th Century – Late 18th Century.” Mimeo, University of Venice, 1996.

But none of these laws could overcome the fact that Venice was not naturally endowed with the materials needed for glassmaking. In theory, glassmaking needs silica, usually in the form of sand, and an alkali which was usually natron or ash obtained from salt-loving members of the ‘glasswort’ family and, of course, a constant plentiful supply of fuel for the furnaces. Muran had none of those things, and the Adriatic did not contain sand suitable for glassmaking, nor the right sort of plants to make the right sort of soda-ash..

In Italy, at Torcello (seventh–eighth centuries) and at San Vincenzo al Volturno (ninth century), glass waste found on the site was interpreted as evidence not for a glass factory but for the making of objects from glass using cullet (glass refuse) or glass cakes imported from the eastern Mediterranean. Venice became a major glass-making centre, manufacturing both raw glass and glass objects, only by the [late] thirteenth century. To achieve this status, however, the city was forced to import a considerable range of raw materials, natron, plant ash, sand and cullet, from elsewhere in Italy and the Levant, and to impose stringent trading restrictions on these materials. This level of imports suggests that a trade in raw glass alone might have been generally easier and more straightforward than one in the materials for glass manufacture. (p.36)

  • Liz James, ‘Byzantine glass mosaic tesserae: some material considerations’, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Vol. 30 No. 1 (2006) 29–47.

see also.

  • various papers in Marlia Mundell Mango (ed..), Byzantine Trade, 4th-12th Centuries: The Archaeology of Local, Regional and International Exchange : Papers of the Thirty-eighth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, St John’s College, University of Oxford, March 2004, (2009) pp.199-220. (p.208).

  • One contributor to the same volume comments on inter-regional studies in glass that “locally produced glass [in China] is lead glass, where foreign glass is predominantly soda-lime glass”. Hiromi Kinoshita, ‘Foreign glass excavated in China from the 4thC – 12thC’ in Mango (ed) op.cit., pp.253-262.

While the guide at the Murano glass museum was happy to agree with Pelling’s idea that various details in this section’s drawings found counterparts in works made in Murano, the subsequent radiocarbon dating now makes the most telling question whether or not any of the drawings were meant to refer to clear (decolourised) glass, because the history of ‘clear’ glass provides quite limited historical and geographical parameters and while it is not true that Angelo Barovier ‘invented’ hard, clear glass in 1450, its earlier history in Europe is, again, both clear and clearly limited.

The first and most important question, however, is not how drawings may strike us, but how the person who first gave them form (i.e. first enunciated them) expected they would be read. Since we still do not know when and where the drawings were first enunciated, and have already seen evidence of some antiquity in another section (see ‘Green stars’ posts), so the question of reading becomes of primary importance and worth pausing now to consider.

Discerning intention – editorial comment.

Apart from other important considerations, it must be kept in mind that in different places, and in different times, different codes have been employed to represent three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface. 

For example, Europe began indicating depth and distance by use of a ‘vanishing point’ perspective, where e.g. the side of a table nearest the viewer was drawn larger and the more distant, smaller.  East Asian art, and Manichaean art did the opposite.  What we find in the Voynich drawings is an apparent lack of interest in, or lack of awareness of, either of those two conventions. This is one reason that Panofsky could say that these drawings are no product of the Renaissance (which in his time was dated from c.1500).

The ‘leaf-and-root’ section uses a very limited palette, This means that we cannot presume that the colours used are being used literally, and in fact we cannot know certainly  whether the colours we see now are those of the first enunciation of these drawings.

We cannot presume that the colours used for parts of these artefacts are used literally, or whether some are employed according to a code of significance – as for example, whether green might mean one material and red another – as between metal and ceramic, or silver versus gold. 

Since the palette includes no pigments in the range from pink though purple to black so – to take another hypothetical example – if one wanted to represent a black stone mounted in silver, the convention might be to leave the silver areas blank and represent black by the darkest colour in the palette, which in this case might be blue or dark red.

The important factor is not what seems ‘commonsense’ to a twenty-first century, western-educated and literate person, but what graphic conventions were shared by the first enunciator and his contemporary audience.

Surfaces which are coloured red, as in examples [A,B] (below) might be intended to be interpreted as showing a red substance through a translucent or transparent material but might, equally, mean that the surface is coated with coloured earth, paint, or enamel – or that it is of some particular material, such as marble or gold.

In example [A] the correct reading might be of a stoppered bottle. Or instead, a solid or a hollow elipsoid with metal mounting. To illustrate the latter, I’ve chosen an object made in nineteenth-century Australia to ensure that no inference will be taken that their juxtaposition implies a Voynich theory. 

Then we have the ‘dots’ seen on some of these drawings; they might be simple ornament as Pelling initially supposed, or they might signify that the material is pieced, or set with jewels, or patterned with dots repousse.,, or something else again.

In my experience, comments made about the drawings in the Voynich manuscript have most often fallen into easy errors when the most intelligent and self-confident researchers suppose that research is unnecessary – who would not bother testing a Venetian hypothesis by visiting a Venetian museum, but would expect the answer could be gained by subjective impressions, or ‘commonsense’.  What any group of people regard as ‘commonsense’ is a product of their own time and community; there are very few universals – not even about whether human beings cannot fly unaided or walk on water, let alone how to convey information through the graphic line.

One error is especially common among Voynich writers, and that it to adopt a ‘binary’ attitude to images, seeing them as being either easy because literal ‘portraits’ of a thing, or as being essentially inaccessible because the result of some ‘artist’s personal creative vision, with which the reader can only connect by turning to his own emotions and responses to the picture.

Newbold made that mistake. He supposed the ‘leaf and root’ section comprised of portrait-style drawings and his ‘commonsense’ reading resulted in anachronism. For other sections, especially the ‘ladies’ pages, he relied on his personal emotions and responses and so interpreted them as a combination of biology and late-classical philosophy.

Botanical scientists have been among the most over-confident, presuming that a plant-picture ‘ought’ to be a specimen-portrait and (worse) one informed by the categories of Linnaeus. Finding that the drawings do not allow such easy reading, most have ignored the fact that these are drawings, not photos nor plants, and have ignored or arbitrarily ‘corrected’ what is on the page – so they identify drawings from a virtual-Voynich manuscript, not the real one. O’Neill was among the first, but has not been the last to presume as default that the purpose of  a botanical image is to relieve ignorance.  A farmer needs no scientifically accurate drawing to know a cabbage; an embroiderer may not care at all whether a design is botanically accurate.

I consider that the vegetable elements in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section, as distinct from the larger plant-pictures, were meant fairly literally – a little stylized to be sure, and with the most important points exaggerated or dramatised (as e.g. spines of Bombax ceiba) but I do not presume the same true of the way these accompanying artefacts are rendered. 

Attempting to discern how those details were designed to be read might be easier if we could access the written text. As it is, the only way is the harder way. 

Five examples.

What persuades me that some, at least, of the artefacts in this section are meant to be read as made of glass is the depiction of a thick ‘white ring’ around the neck of example [C].

‘The neck-ring ‘wreath’

It is a regular feature of glass made during the period of Roman and of Roman-Byzantine rule in those glass-making areas of the lower, eastern Mediterranean shores – the region that was then and which remained the principal source of glass objects and of materials for glass-making.

Photos below: (left) an example from Karanais in Egypt (3rd-4thC AD); The wide top is intended to hold a strainer or materials serving that purpose. (centre and right) four examples from Palestine under Byzantine-Roman rule (3rd-7thC AD).

A scientific study published in 2020 has finally proven beyond doubt that both opaque and transparent decolourised glass (‘white’ and ‘clear’ glass) originated in the same region and principally in what had been the multicultural Hellenistic city of Alexandria. The term ‘Roman’ glass speaks to a period of time, not to provenance.

The sand along the Mediterranean coast of Egypt and Levant (Palestine, Israel, Lebanon and Syria) originates from the Nile and is ideal for glass production because it naturally contains the amount of lime needed to keep the glass stable and not degradable. In the Levant, they made transparent glass by adding manganese – it was good, but not perfect. The second type of Roman glass, which scientists now show came from Egypt, the glassmakers made transparent by adding antimony (Sb), which made it crystal clear….The research team who made the discovery stated that Roman glass was “not surpassed until the rise of the European industries in the eighteenth century,” news release dated July 9th., 2020.

Scientific Reports DOI 10.1038/s41598-020-68089-w

The curious thing is that the secret of making ‘clear’ glass by either method appears to have been lost in about the 2ndC AD, and would not reappear until it does so quite suddenly, in Syria from c.1221 AD  … and then in Europe in the last decade of that century or the first half of the next, first and most notably in the works of Master Aldrevandin within Europe. 

Contrary to what the historians of Murano glass would have us believe, the technique for making clear hard glass was not ‘invented’ there by Angelo Barovier in 1450.  

All of which means that if any drawings in the manuscript’s ‘leaf and root’ section are meant to be read as clear glass, and yet lack any figural decoration, our likely options are limited:

  • the image was first enunciated within the Roman world before the end of the 2ndC AD. 
  • it was first enunciated in whatever region the secret was then preserved, and from whence it would return to the Mediterranean coast early in the thirteenth century.
  • It was first enunciated in the Levant after c.1221 by persons of unknown origin.
  • it was first enunciated in Europe by the only person in Europe who seems to have had the secret of making clear glass before 1440, the a person we know only as ‘Master Aldrevandin’ and who is associated with Muran between the years 1291/2-1350. So far all known examples of his work are drinking beakers and simple, small, bottles. None has a profile ‘ornate’ or ‘florid’.

Thus, understanding these Voynich drawings reduces to two factors – the question of clear glass, and comparable function and/or profiles.

What is not typical of Roman glasses any is inclusion of a lower ring about the object’s stem – as seen in examples [B,C,D] though it does occur in regions of Umayyad influence

In Muran, where the early models imitated pottery goblets we see knobbed stems. The more interesting detail on this example, however, is the style of the gilded ornament as a very simple interlace-and-dot that may be compared with the finer border from a mid-fourteenth century beaker from Mamluk Egypt or Syria, where the ‘dots’ are within the interlace.

early glass [15thC?} from Muran. Photo courtesy N.Pelling (2004)

The conclusion which appears unavoidable, in relation to Muran, is that ‘Master Aldrevandin’ had acquired the secret himself or, more likely, through a master who had worked in Alexandria or in the Levant after 1221 but before 1290 when Master Aldrevandin is said to have arrived in Muran.

Since nothing known of Master Aldrevandin’s work suggests he made other than small beakers and small bottles, and the clear glass of Angelo Barovier comes too late, so the obvious next step is to look to the east.

A series of carvings on S.Marco represent Venetian crafts. Among them is one curious figure, described as an ‘old man’ though his skin is not shown withered; his face is fully-fleshed and his limbs well rounded. He wears a Sasanian(?) style helmet or turban, has a ‘Mosaic’ sort of beard. His eyes are provided pupils yet he appears to be both blind and lame. He sits in a chair, like a master, but with the robe hitched up to show a bare foot. What is he doing there, among the farmers and wine-makers, cobblers and fishermen? The lameness may be literal, and so too the blindness. Both were professional diseases of those who worked with metal or with glass and this is so well known that a seventeenth-century map of Venice makes the wind which blows upon Muran a figure with covered eyes.

In the closed-off world of the Muran glass-makers, talk of old Master Aldrevandin’s clear glass and its lost secret was surely transmitted down the years until, a century later, one of the Barovier family managed to make a similar glass. It was obvious that a fortune had awaited the first to obtain that secret and fame as well as fortune then followed Angelo Barovier.

Unlike the technique for decolourising glass, that of enamelling (well or badly) is quite widely attested and the evidence also suggests that the plain glasses were exported from Muran, and painted by others, to the buyer’s order.

Beaker with prunting 13thC. provenance uncertain. Possibly Germany.

In 1290, Master Aldrevandin may have remained on Muran, but his glasses appear elsewhere in Europe and bear his name, so it is thought possible that he went travelling for a time, making his clear glass beakers and small bottles – perhaps in England but with a better argument possible for Germany where, however, glass of such clarity soon after ceases to appear in the archaeological record.

All our evidence to date indicates that during the last years of the thirteenth century, Master Aldrevandin was, quite literally, the only glassmaker in Europe who knew that secret – which is why it is conceivable that he was a chief reason for the Republic’s introducing the more restrictive law of 1295 prohibiting any glassmaker from attempting to leave the city.

So we have two threads to Master Aldrevandin’s story. One has it that he produced glass only in Venice for sixty years, from 1290-1350, and the other that for a time he made glass elsewhere (rather than Venice’s simply exporting it) and did so chiefly, if not only, in Germany so far as the current archaeological evidence would indicate. One Aldrevandin beaker carries heraldic motifs that were again recorded in the “Züricher Wappenrolle”, dated to about 1320-1330. (Krueger, op.cit.) But for such work, the glassmaker needn’t have been in Germany, nor the enamelling done in Muran.

  • Ingeborg Krueger, ‘A Second Aldrevandin beaker and an update on a group of enameled glasses’, Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 44 (2002) pp. 111-132. (with thanks to Nick Pelling for drawing my attention to the article).

His production ceases in 1350 and though one might posit that the master-apprentice line (if any) was then broken when Plague arrived in Venice in January 1348, two years at most before his death, we have no information about why the secret of his clear glass remained lost to Venice for the following century – that is, until after the date-range for the Voynich manuscript.

The chief objection to positing any European origin for the artefacts in the ‘leaf and root’ section, is that during the years 1404-1438 it appears there was no-one within Europe who made such objects and none living who knew the secret of clear colourless glass – if any is meant to represent glass of that sort.

The next logical place to look is the eastern Mediterranean, where we find some echoes and some items of apparently comparable purpose, though no exact matches.

The curious-looking base of [D] for example, finds an echo, if not ‘match’ in pottery produced in Palestine under Byzantine rule (below, left). (The chevron patterns on those glass and pottery items, like the spiral trail about the bottle’s neck remind us that transmission of a craft in the old way tended to preserve forms over millennia so long as the master-apprentice line could be maintained).

From the ‘Eretz Israel’ pavilion.

Phoenician glass c.700BC

The structure given the object in drawing [B] appears to me to indicate its purpose was that of a strainer and/or cooler for some liquid, possibly wine if we are to read the red pigment literally, but as a rule when a bowl-shape is found formed without any attached base, we should describe it as lamp.* I know of no example having a precisely similar form, but artefacts having that function and a design on similar principles are attested in the same region – as the example shown (below, right). Apparently the drawing envisages a smaller strainer (if that’s what it is) able to sit over an individual vessel (goblet?). Such an arrangement might also be used to add a scent or flavour to the liquid.

*for numerous examples, including examples with bowl of similar ‘goblet’ profile see e.g. Shulamit Hadad, ‘Excavations at Bet Shean, Vol.2: Islamic Glass Vessels from the Hebrew University Excavations at Bet Shean’, Qedem Reports, Vol. 8 (2005), pp. I-IX,1-202. 

An engineer could doubtless explain in technical terms the meaning of the drawing’s ‘cutaway’ parts [B, enlargement below]. My impression – and it is only an impression – is that the parts coloured green might be meant for pottery rather than glass.

The most interesting drawing of our five examples, I think, is drawing [B] if the lower part is intended to represent a substance seen through a transparent or translucent material.

Others of our five examples, and indeed all of them, might be meant for glass, but the rest can be explained as easily as ceramic or as opaque glass of a type made in the Mediterranean from ancient times.

And ‘from ancient times’ may well be a clue, since we know that in late medieval Italy, all things ‘antique’ were highly valued both aesthetically and financially. I think one might also expect that ‘Roman’ glass pieces turned up more often then than now.

Even so the weight of evidence is that the artefacts in the leaf-and-root section, being depicted before 1440, refer either to the pre-Christian era or to Syria and Egypt after .1221 for there too the secret of clear glass, which had been lost for centuries, re-appears suddenly, in the form of clear glass beakers superbly enamelled and gilded.

Postscript –

It is interesting to speculate, but is a matter for the genealogists to discover, whether Master Aldrevandin is related to Ulisse Aldrovandi, a sixteenth-century collector of many things, one of which was a Ming bowl, and another a small group of curious medieval plant-books, for which Aldrovandi coined the term ‘herbals of the alchemists‘ (- not “alchemical herbals” as is sometimes said).