Wilfrid was a regular visitor to the Continent, especially Italy where he became friends with the librarian Achille Ratti who eventually became Pope Pius XI. Voynich was able to buy many old books & manuscripts, brought in religious houses. In 1912 he visited Villa Mondragone Frascati, invited by the Jesuits who were selling some of their books in order to raise funds. In particular he was invited to inspect a trunk that came from the estate of Athanasius Kircher, a famous C17th scholar. There he discovered a manuscript apparently written in an unknown alphabet and décorated with 200+ illustrations, half of which showed unknown plants, figures and symbols.
Ladies bathing in tubs connected by an elaborate network of pipes.
The manuscript was written by an unknown author and composed in an unknown language(s). It had been dated to the early C15th, possibly from northern Italy. Some pages were missing, but the surviving version comprised c240 vellum pages. The 113 plant illustrations resembled herbal manuscripts of the era that presented information about plants and their possible uses for medical purposes. But the document’s 113 plant illustrations did not seem to depict flora found on Earth. Plus throughout its vellum pages were visuals of the cosmos, groups of naked women cavorting through pools.
Voynich had found an interesting and large map that showed 4 islands of the Mediterranean Sea, the conjoined islands of Vulcanello and Vulcano, Lipari, Ischia & Castello Aragonese. An eruption in 1440 prompted a rescue mission from Naples, at the time ruled by Alfonso the Magnanimous, husband of Maria. So the map was interpreted as showing the erupting volcano in the lower left corner, with lava flows & pumice rafts in the stylised drawing. If true, this would be one of the earliest drawings of a volcano ever found in medieval literature. As the rescue mission was sent from the islet of Castello Aragonese, they passed the islands of Ischia and Lipari. The navigation routes between the islands were marked with two compass roses to help navigation. Geological and historical evidence also suggested further (late C16th) volcanic eruptions.
The 1444 map ? showing a rescue mission from the islet of Castello Aragonese (C)
to the volcanic island of Vulcanello (A), passing the island of Ischia (B) and Lipari (D)
Voynich went to the U.S in 1914 on the Lusitania, settling there and crossing the Atlantic as needed, maintaining his London shop as well as establishing an American base. For the rest of his life, Voynich studied the manuscript about the natural world, but wasn't able to crack the code. He died in the USA in 1930.
The manuscript was eventually studied by many professional cryptographers, including secret American and British code breakers from WWI & WW2. They too failed. Modern forensic analysis, including carbon dating, revealed the materials used were probably produced in northern Italy from 1404-38, or even more recently. But the flowing script and arcane alphabet were not recognised
In 2014, research claimed that the Voynich manuscript was a botanical encyclopaedia about medicinal plants growing in America. In 2017, a statistical analysis of the alphabet claimed the code was written in an odd mix of Italian, Spanish, Latin, English & German. Bedfordshire Uni linguists proposed sounds to match the symbols, declaring he had decoded 14 of them. Delaware State Uni researchers argued the manuscript may have had its origins in central Mexico, based on analysing the strange plant illustrations. Some authors recognised plant species found in Europe, while some authors recognised plants found only in Central Asia; it impossible to match names with the unknown alphabet.
Researchers from University of Alberta used artificial intelligence to decode sections of the document, using the algorithmic decipherment technique on the underlying, encrypted language. The AI indicated Hebrew was the most likely source, edging out other potential matches that weren't commonly used for writing during the Middle Ages. The researchers hypothesised the cipher acting on the Hebrew language could be an example of alphabetically ordered alphagrams, rearranging the order of letters in words, while dropping vowels.
Despite all the research, no one has ever been able to prove the meaning of the text, and some have speculated that the manuscript might be just a historic fake. What did the strange symbols mean?
New high-resolution scans of the manuscript were recently posted at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library site. The new scanning equipment made the colour more accurate.
The nymphs bathing
ConclusionIn 1912, the manuscript started to make its way into popular imagination, the basis for both imaginary theories and novels. It arrived at Yale’s Manuscript Library in 1969 well intact, housed now among a collection of rare texts. Its curvy writing in brown-black ink and strange sprouting flowers still attract code breakers.
In 2019 a British academic claimed the manuscript was a therapeutic reference book composed by nuns for Maria of Castile, queen of Aragon, in a lost language known as proto-Romance. In the Journal of Romance Studies, Uni of Bristol researcher Dr Gerard Cheshire argued the manuscript was a compendium of information on herbal remedies, therapeutic bathing and astrological readings. It focused on female physical and mental health, reproduction and parenting. Rather than being written in code, he believed its language and writing system were commonplace back then, and he claimed the document was the sole surviving text written in proto-Romance. Academic disagreements have continued.
Photo credits: Science Alert