Consider this.. (cont.). Numerals, networks, Spain and something of Kabbalah.

This post is almost 2800 words.

The earliest close examples of an upright ‘4’ numeral noted so far come from Florence at the beginning of the fourteenth century and then in Cresques’ great pictorial compendium of 1375, which includes various diagrams and a great worldmap, gridded by the ‘rose’ and containing what is still the first known inset ‘compass rose’ (see further below).

Contrary to what you might find said elsewhere, Cresques’ map is not a ‘mappamundi’ and its connection to the rutters or ‘portolans’ is certainly debateable, given that the same notion was rejected on technical grounds as early as the mid-twentieth century.

The recent, astounding assertion by one writer, on a nicely presented and official looking website was that Cresques had all his information from a couple of northern European Christian missionaries and that is surely pure invention. The sources of Cresques’ inscriptions for that map are already known, and include sources such as Ibn Jubayr’s journeys and the Alf Layla wa Laya. Allusions are also made to Jewish legends, such as that Noah settled north Africa after the flood and began viticulture again from there.

One cannot now discover how that modern author came to entertain the ‘Christian missionaries’ notion, for he died during the pandemic and I know only that he claimed some connection to the Central European university of Prague. With both authors of that project now lost, the translation of all the labels into English may be stopped or at least halted for the foreseeable future, but we do not have to rely on that material to consider the problem of the ‘4’.

IN the same way that Genoa was under Milanese control by the time the Voynich manuscript was made, so it was with two more of the four once-independent Italian maritime states.

Amalfi had earlier been taken by Pisa (August 6th., 1136) and in 1406 Pisa itself was taken, by stealth, by the Florentines. Amalfi had been absorbed into the Kingdom of Naples during the late fourteenth century.

Oddly enough, Florence did not develop Pisa as its maritime arm, but on the contrary suppressed the naval activity of both Amalfi and Pisa.

The significance of Florentine control of Pisa, Neapolitan control of Amalfi and Milanese rule in Genoa, is that direct political power meant access to all technical secrets, skills and any system of ciphers earlier held exclusively by the neighbour. Trade secrets were treasure then, just as now.

When we find the ‘4’ form appear briefly in Florence, early in the fourteenth century, within a copy of the Pisan ‘Liber abaci’ we know the exemplar might have been a local copy, or an earlier one acquired directly from Pisa or indeed from Amalfi, noted for its schools of mathematics. The best copies were known to be ones closest to the date of composition.

It should be noted here too that (to quote an online tourist site) “by about the 1230s Amalfi became one of the first locations in Europe to produce paper…. [which] was soon sold all over the Mediterranean. Paper making continued as an important local trade throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance.”

My own view of the ‘4’ numeral’s history, at present, is that we shall probably never know absolutely who first wrote the numeral as ‘4’ in Europe and that if there were a single key to the problem it may well have been lost in 1343, when a tidal wave obliterated Amalfi’s harbour and lower town, ushering in a period of decline from which the town never recovered. It s relevant, in my opinion, that all four – Genoa, Amalfi, Pisa and Venice had allotted quarters in medieval Constantinople. (see interactive map by Saffran and Nicolescu)

However, we may still regard Amalfi or Genoa as likely to have brought that ‘4’ form to Italy, because of a demonstrable connection between those maritime states and Cresques’ great work.

The semi-legendary Amalfitan surnamed ‘Gioia’ is popularly credited with having first placed a magnetised needle over a diagram of the western wind-rose and enclosed all in a glass-covered box. Properly, that was not the ‘compass’ but the bussola (buxula), and the true navigational compass (as qumbas) the eastern navigator’s ‘rose’ whose points were named for stars. In my opinion it was in that sense Cresques describes himself as ‘master of bussola and compass’. The islands of Majorca and Minorca were remarkably cosmopolitan at that time and Arabic had been the island’s official language until just 70 years before. What is more, the original ‘Barbary’ pirates of the north African coast around Sicily, who were Berber and Arabs, are said by Ibn Majid to share the same skills and know-how as he – an Arabs master of the eastern seas.

Seen in daylight, Cresques’ great worldmap shows the world below, but at night with no illumination save a few candles what one sees is as if a veil scattered with golden dots were laid over the darkened world. Makers of terrestrial maps and marine charts also made maps of the heavens. Bussola and qumbas.

You may think such technicalities aren’t needed here but, as I first discussed some years ago in the course of providing a detailed analysis and commentary for the Voynich map, there is a precedent for Cresques’ inclusion of his ‘angel of the rose’ and for his map’s mirroring along its centre line. I won’t elaborate on the last point here, but refer again to the fourteenth century Genoese cartographer, Pietro Vesconte (sometimes found as ‘Vesconti’).

In one of his ‘rose-gridded’ charts, composed in 1311 1318 – that is, about or shortly after the time of that Florentine ‘4’ – there is another faint allusion to the same motif found in Cresques’ work and in the Voynich map and in all three cases – that is, the Vesconte carte marine, Cresques’, and the Voynich map, the motif of its ‘surveying angel’ is even placed within the same – north-west – quarter.

Note (added 5th. Dec. 2021] Pietro Vesconte’s date of birth is uncertain, but he is described as ‘flourishing’ c.1310-1330. Genoese by birth and education, his earlier charts and maps were produced there, but most of his extant work was produced in Venice.

This is less obvious in the Voynich map because it presents with its east and west reversed from the European norm. Western custom permits such east-west reversal with a constant North only in literal representations of the night sky.

I apologise to long term readers for again repeating points first made by me and in research published before 2020, but some of that research was treated as if its conclusions were just ‘an idea’ to be imitated, and its illustrations to be re-used without their context – so what was ‘lifted’ by the imitators was invariably – perhaps inevitably – badly mangled, and has never been well used by Voynich theorists and so must be repeated here. I regret having to deface the illustration for the same reason.

(left) detail from the Voyich map, its North-west roundel (upper right) detail from Abraham Cresques rose-gridded world-map, its north-western quadrant; (lower right) detail from a chart by Pietro Vesconte (sometimes found as ‘Vesctonti’, its upper-west corner). From the 1318 Vesconte atlas (Museo Correr, Venice)

and so, again..:

Since I have already said that the final recension of the Voynich map should be dated to c.1350, with our present copy dated to the early fifteenth, I think here again we may narrow the environment for the ‘4’ shape as numeral and, just possibly its use in the Voynich manuscript, to the specific environment of calculation and geometry gained in service to navigation and trade.

In other words to apprenticeships and the ‘abaco’ school rather than in schools offering a more literary, theoretical or philosophical education. More evidence may demand that opinion be altered, but that’s where I stand so far.

It might even be that the Voynich ‘4’ shape is meant in the manuscript as a numeral, even if also used, or originating, as an alphabetic sign, though I should be wary of assuming that the Voynich script’s other glyph of similar form – that with a more curved ‘eye’ – is necessarily to be read as it is.*

*a question I’ve not ever looked into, but which arises from time to time, is a possible origin for the ‘Cistercian’ numerals in a version of Syriac script. See later note on a mixed alphanumeric system.

For those who enjoy the slog of using pictorial archives of kind typified by the Index of Christian Art (as was), it might be fun to see what else turns up for ‘4’ in European sources around 1300.

In any case, the story which puts Leonardo of Pisa and his ‘Liber abaci’ centre stage is an over-simplified one. That story’s short version runs something like ‘Arabs brought the Hindu numerals westwards. Leonardo (‘Fibonacci) saw them, and brought them to Europe’.

But Leonardo didn’t use that ‘4’ shape. His relevance to our present problem is rather the pattern of his travels, which illustrate nicely contemporary networks of trade and travel.

The Pisan Leonardo first learned Arabic numerals in a major Berber-speaking city of North Africa, during the last decade of the twelfth century. His sobriquet ‘the traveller’ was well earned.

Fibonacci states that his father wanted him to stay and be taught “for some days” in a “calculation school” in Bejaïa, where he was introduced to the “art [of calculation] by the nine figures of the Indians”. The knowledge of this art pleased him so much that he learned all he could about how it was studied in Egypt, Syria, Greece, Sicily and Provence when going there for the sake of trade.

So there it is. Those ‘Indian’ numerals were already known in Greece, in Sicily and in Provence before the end of the twelfth century. I’ve used the quote only so I can reference:

  • Charles Burnett, Numerals and Arithmetic in the Middle Ages (Variorum Collected Studies Series CS967) 2010.

There were especially close ties between Pisa and Béjaïa during the twelfth century. In c.1350, it was rather with Tunis and Cairo that the Venetian traded who wrote the zibaldone now Beinecke MS 327.

Béjaïa, formerly Bougie and Bugia was by Roman times known as  Saldae.    Béjaïa is still among the centres where the Berber language Kabyle is in daily use.  

Poor Ramon Lull would arrive in Béjaïa during the early fourteenth century (in 1314) as an 81 year old Dominican friar hoping to make converts to the Latin Christian church. He was dead within a twelvemonth, though accounts of his death differ, some saying he was executed for trying to persuade Muslims to become apostates to their faith – something prohibited in every region under Muslim governance as indeed it would have been in regions under Latin Christian governance had the reciprocal occurred.

Other accounts have Llull dying on the ship returning him to Majorca.

——-

Correction. (December 15th., 2021).

I see that my sources are out of date, superseded by an updated (Feb.2021) entry in Stamford University’s Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, where it says that Llull did not enter the Dominican order, nor the Franciscans’ and gives the following account of his fruitless trip to Béjaïa.

‘De vita’ narrates this trip in detail. Llull spent most of the time in prison. Instead of seeking to meet intellectuals, as he did on his first trip to Tunisia, right after disembarkation, he went to the main square and harangued passersby and anyone present at the time. The crowd was infuriated, and Llull was placed under arrest. The authorities questioned and imprisoned him. He would stay there for six months, receiving visits from sages who sought to convert him to Islam. He was later expelled from the city, but his hardships would not end there. His ship sank on the trip back to Genoa, but Llull and another passenger managed to survive by reaching the coast. He would then remain in Pisa, where he would finish texts he had previously began writing, such as ‘Ars generalis ultima’.

——-

Llull has his place in western Europe’s history, but unless one of his works contains examples of Majorcan-Florentine ‘4’ he is less relevant to our present question than the more congenial, secular, interactions between Berbers, Jews, Arabs and Italians before 1300, including within the naval, commercial and cartographic schools.

Voynich writers interested in the possibility that the Voynich ‘alphabet’ may be composed of elements taken from a number of other systems may be interested in an account of the invention, during second quarter of the twelfth century, of a new mixed system of mathematical notation.

Burnett writes:

*Charles Burnett, ‘The Semantic of Indian Numerals in Arabic, Greek and Latin’, Journal of Indian Philosophy, Vol. 34, No. 1/2 (April 2006) pp.15-30. [JSTOR]

 For those who’d like to see what Greek script of the fourteenth century looked like, here’s a detail from a Greek fourteenth-century map in Codex Vatopedinus 655.

“Europe gained its numerals from the Jews”

“The Jewish community… reconstituted in 1306” from ‘Amalfi’ in the Encyclopaedia Judaica JVL online. 2005.

As early as 1891, when European scholars were just beginning to enquire into the history of the forms for their numerals, it was already being accepted as fact that they had come from Spain. (See for example the off-hand “or rather, from Spain” in a review published in the Scottish Antiquary (Vol. 6, No. 22, (1891) p.54).

But even more unexpectedly, an association was made with Kabbalah as early as 1839!

I’ve just learned the last fact thanks to Phineas Mordell’s meticulous documentation of his sources and precedents in a very brief note of 1925. For its historical value, I’ve reproduced this note in full.

  • Phineas Mordell, ‘Note on the Theory of the Kabbalistic Origin of “Arabic” Numerals’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Oct., 1925), p. 207.

Of course it is possible that by 1932, Erwin Panofsky had read one or more of those sources listed above, or even an article published late in 1931; in addressing Friedman’s list of Questions more than twenty years later, Panofsky mis-remembered the year in which he’d seen the manuscript – writing ‘1931’ when it can only have been in 1932, as explained in an earlier post.

  • Solomon Gandz, ‘The Origin of the Ghubār Numerals, or the Arabian Abacus and the Articuli’, Isis, Nov., 1931, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Nov., 1931), pp. 393-424.

Panofsky was never so vapid as to mistake for an ‘idea’ the conclusions of genuine research, nor was he obliged to parrot others’ assertions for want of ability to form balanced and well-informed opinions of his own – but he may well have read one or more of those articles for the same reason that G.F. Hill wrote his monograph (see previous post) that is – to assist in accurately provenancing artefacts and quickly identifying fakes.

I think Panofsky could have known those precedents- not that he would say anything of the sort unless it were suggested to him by aspects of the materials, pigments, imagery and vellum which he observed during the two hours he spent studying the manuscript itself. But now to that list of things observed we may add (with a query) the form of one or more of the Voynich glyphs – perhaps even the ‘4’. We don’t know. All we do know is what some long-term readers of my blogs probably know by heart now, but for newcomers..

Panofsky’ freely-given opinion was given to Mrs. Voynich and Anne Nill, the latter soon reporting it in a letter to her friend, Herbert Garland. She wrote*

“he is convinced that the MS. is Spanish (or something southern near Spain) and shows strong Arabic and Jewish influences. He thinks there is some influence of the Kabbala in it.!!!!!

**for details of Nill’s letter, see the transcription made by Rich Santacoloma which I believe was the first published transcription. See his post. ‘Anne Nill speaks‘.  For my earlier comments, in this blog, about the letter and about Rich’s thoughts see here. 

To the question,  ‘What exactly had Panofsky seen in the manuscript which led him to mention Kabbalah’? I never did find a clear answer, and ran into unexpected difficulties, such as the lack of modern scholarly articles about the medieval commentaries or even modern translations of those commentaries that I could quote in an English-language blog.

As with many other research questions, one sometimes has to leave a problem aside for a time, until new information or pure serendipity offers a way forward.  Very recently, a single article in n online journal has explained the apparent barriers and, quite incidentally, offered a line to another and quite different question that I’d laid aside pending better information. I’ll try to get to that journal article in the next post.

For a short comment and an initial bibliography for the question of any influence from Kabbalah in Beinecke MS 408 see  (Post #15). 

With this question, as with the history of European forms for its numerals and most other fields of historical research, the public’s idea of a positivistic ‘forward march’ is deceptive.

Very often a study moves over time more like a pretty complicated sort of quickstep, involving  not a few trodden toes, losses of direction and ‘excuse-me’ interruptions, backwards moving which takes one forwards and some few straight-forward passages.  In the history of European numerals, for example, there was a period in the 1950s and in America, where the story was badly misdirected by an ideological fixation on the Babylonians and a transmission-theory gone berzerk.  As example, here’s one such paper, though if you don’t feel like reading it all, here’s a taste of that author’s ‘commonsense amateur theory’ approach.

… a casual inspection of the Arabic numerals suggested that these symbols might have evolved from forms such as are shown in Fig. 10, hereafter termed Ancestral Arabic numerals. It is evident that they are a variation of the Prototype numerals which the writer later derived from hand-signs, and still later discovered had been widely employed..

from: W. Clyde Richey, ‘On the Origin and Development of the Arabic Numerals’,  Proceedings of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science , Vol. 26 (1952), pp. 134-146. [quote shortened .. 5th Dec. 2021]

Not ‘handsigns’ but methods of finger-calculation may, in fact, prove relevant to our efforts to read Voynichese.

But I digress.

When quite early insights are overlooked or shrugged away in favour of worse ones, as happens more often than laymen suppose, it is also true that they may be recovered or re- discovered again later thanks to properly documented work in the meantime, or because the sum of historical evidence requires it.  

As example, here’s Charles Burnett, writing in 2006, and after years of close study of the question…  and evidently arriving at a view held by at least one person in 1891, in Scotland. 

One can observe, too, that, during the course of the twelfth century, alternative forms of the Indian numerals dropped out of use, especially the ‘eastern forms’ which were briefly shared by Arabic scholars in the Eastern Mediterranean, Greek scholars, and Latin scholars in Italy. The forms which drove out their competitors (in my view) were developed by scholars in Toledo, and quickly spread to northern Italy, where they were used by Fibonacci. (p.21)

  • Charles Burnett, ‘The Semantic …’ op.cit

except for that form of ‘4’, which Fibonacci did not use….

(detail and enlargement) Brit.Lib. Burney MS 275 f. 334

MS Burney 275 is described as

Scholastic miscellany, Central France (Paris), 1309-1316. Priscian, Cicero, and Pseudo-Cicero, Boethius, Aristotle, Euclid, Adelard of Bath, Ptolemy, translated [nominally – D.] by Gerard of Cremona.

Note – after some thought, I’ve altered the spelling of the Genoese cartographer’s name from ‘Vesconti’ to ‘Vesconte‘ as less likely to create confusion with the Milanese Visconti family, though researchers hunting secondary sources should search both versions of Pietro’s name.

“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.  

Glass?

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
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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).