Voynich as Provenancer

Before turning to those interest did not wane after Newbold’s death, the matter of Wilfrid’s skill in researching and establishing provenance for a manuscript deserves more attention. If he was hopeless, then we can discard his ideas about the VMS and Bacon – in England or in France.  But if he wasn’t so bad – well… there might be sense in some of the more elaborate descriptions he gave interviewers during the twenties.

When he began as a dealer in rare books and manuscripts is uncertain.  His being mislead before 1905 about a piece which he sold to the British Library must have been alarming; any whiff of scandal or shonky dealing would have ended his career, and may have done – in London – after 1912, although he was the victim, not the fraudster.  To refresh your memory about the first instance: Backhouse commented on Voynich’s explanation of his having the ‘Columbus-or-Cortes’ picture:

Voynich wrote again to say that it had come to England from a dealer in the south of France. He [Voynich or the dealer?] seemed to have had it either from a Basque or from a ‘Polish Count’…. This provenance, particularly the reference to a Polish count, is not very convincing.”

Janet Backhouse, ‘The “Spanish Forger”‘, The British Museum Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 1/2 (Autumn, 1968), pp. 65-71

But it is a convincing provenance.Which is not to say it’s true, but if that’s what Wilfrid had been told, it wasn’t unreasonable.

Having ‘south of France’ with ‘Basque’ indicates a region in or near the Pyrenees –  with its numerous châteaux, and a western end at the Basque country,  which then extends to the sea.  What is more, and while I have not the leisure (or frankly the interest) to check which particular Polish nobility might have once resided there, it’s a simple fact that thousands  – not less than thirty thousand by 1871 – Polish emigres were resident in France.

The Polish migrations had begun from the Autumn of 1831 and from all accounts were conducted with a near-military order. A majority are noted to have been of the Polish nobility.

Those who arrived in that first contingent were initially directed, as the records show, to provincial centres south of the Loire, so that their numbers were concentrated “in Avignon, Besançon, Bourges, Chateauroux, then in Lunel, Le Puy, and Bergerac”. Names of their descendents who are still resident in France are provided in  Les Polonais au Sud de la Loire – so for anyone having easy access to phone books etc., a cross-check to determine if any of the original emigrees stayed in the region should not be impossible. [one of the names there is
 Woyniez].The abstract to Les Polonais… reads in part:

Pourtant de nombreux Polonais ont pris, depuis le Moyen Âge, le chemin des régions du sud de la France : des pèlerins dans le Gard, mais aussi des étudiants dans les universités de Montpellier, Toulouse…, des lycéens à Villard-de-Lans, des réfugiés des diverses révolutions polonaises, des aristocrates et des ouvriers agricoles en Indre-et-Loire, des métayers dans le Sud-Ouest (Haute-Garonne, Dordogne, Lot…), des travailleurs agricoles dans l’Aveyron, des ouvriers dans l’industrie, des mineurs dans le Gard, le Tarn, l’Aveyron, la Loire, la Bourgogne, l’Auvergne…

By 1860, therefore, when the Jesuits were suddenly ordered to leave Italy, [others suggest a later date] there were already thousands of Poles – the majority Catholic – settled in France. The Jesuits were not expelled from France and the French colonies until 1880, later than the expulsions from Spain (1868) or from Germany (1873).


The English dealer who was a serious thief may have been the same, for all we know. This chap’s name was John Tinkler, and as the thefts were discovered – and later his arrest reported – the news was cabled around the world.  I should have liked to read the full account in the old Times of London, but restrictions on long-distance access meant I had to take clippings instead from one regional paper in England and two from New Zealand.  In the end, it proved interesting to see that not only was the alarm sent but it is printed verbatim from the cable.  The same is found in other external countries.  These days, the only other mention of the Tinkler-and-Voynich connection is the  ‘History Files‘ biography of Wilfrid. Tinkler, as you see, was the son of a clergyman.

Lincoln thefts

According to the ‘History File’ biography, Tinkler was caught and imprisoned in 1912 but it was only in 1916 that Voynich became aware that one of his own purchases had been part of Tinkler’s loot.

“In 1916 he was involved in the return of a book, which he had acquired in good faith …. Generously Voynich returned the book, despite its cost.”

Still, that sort of thing isn’t good for business and about this time he decided to settle in America. Dates given in the sources vary between 1914 and 1916.

By 1928, his standing and professional reputation were much improved, and deservedly so, but the disdain felt by some of the bourgeoisie against foreigners, and foreigners engaged in ‘trade’ sometimes made proper acknowledgements difficult. The following comes from the ‘Short notices’ of the Modern Language Review in that year:

…..  I should single out two points as having particular interest [in the book under review]: the corroboration of the view expressed by Mr Voynich that this manuscript was penned for, and owned by Coluccio Salutati, and the very probable suggestion that the foliated initials are due to the school of Don Simone of Siena or to the master himself. The manuscript appears to have been written between 1377 and 1395; its history is obscure; it was purchased in 1911 by Mr Voynich who had bought up a mysterious, if possibly identifiable dump of manuscripts, which had been removed from some Italian library in order to protect them against the predatory habits of the French revolutionary armies at the end of the eighteenth century. C. F. (pp.390-391.)

‘Short Notices’, The Modern Language Review, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Jul., 1928), pp. 387-394.


The next example really proves the point: Wilfrid was, by the mid-late twenties, not just a fair, but an excellent provenancer.

Wilfrid had sold to a Mr. Garrett of Baltimore a manuscript which the latter donated to Princeton University. In an article published by the ‘Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome’ A man whose name doesn’t end in “thuppence” but as “the Third” set out to investigate independently the matter of that manuscript’s origin, antecedents and history of transmission.

The primary actor in this decision was evidently a Professor Morey of Princeton, to whom that author expresses gratitude for having suggested the study be done (p.113 n.1). The article begins,

IN the summer of 1924 Mr. Robert Garrett, of Baltimore, Maryland, bought from Mr.Voynich, the well-known New York dealer, a fine manuscript of Marcanova’s «Antiquities». The purpose of the present paper is, as far as possible, to trace the history of this manuscript, to fix its position in the text tradition of Marcanova’s works, and to point out a number of other matters of interest in regard to it.

Holmes Van Mater Dennis, 3d, ‘The Garrett Manuscript of Marcanova’, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 6 (1927), pp. 113-126.

There follows a meticulous investigation, certain to expose any hint of fraud or forgery, and one which I think could hardly be improved upon today. Mr. van Marter Dennis [the Third] wisely left discussion of the manuscript’s imagery to someone better qualified but the companion article appears in the same volume.

His own concludes its thirteen-page analysis (‘dissection’ might be the better term) by a confirmation of what is plainly the original provenance provided at the time of sale, though Voynich is given no second mention:

To sum up the conclusion reached in this paper: the Garrett Ms of Marcanova is a fine fifteenth century copy of Parisinus 5825F , which is in turn a copy of the famous Modena Codex. Its history is unknown until it came into the possession of Muretus who left it to his nephew. He, in turn, left it to the Collegio Romano where it remained until about1870.* It then disappeared, and, after wanderings of which I have not been able to find any trace, was bought by Mr. Voynich in Europe. From him it was purchased in 1924 by Mr. Garrett who deposited it in the Library of Princeton University where it now rests. (op.cit., p.126)


How this timeline connects with that of books said found in Fr. Beckx trunk will never be clear I think, because there appears to be a thirteen-year period of uncertainty in the record.

Before his appointment in 1853 as head (Vicar General) of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Beckx latest appointment had been in Austria. As the newly-elected head of a world-wide religious Order, I should think he went to reside in Rome from just before the election, or immediately after.

Just eight years later, the order of expulsion was issued, so we know he had to leave, presumably with his trunks, but there is no record I know which tells where he went – and nothing then until 1873 when, in anticipation of a new Vicar General’s election, he went temporarily to  nearby Fiesole (1873).

Soon after, as we are told, he ‘returned’ to Rome – he was now in his eighty-ninth year. This is all according to the entry in the Catholic Encyclopaedia, which says Beckx then remained in Rome until his death in 1887.

One might suppose he had earlier run back to Austria, the most recent of his appointments before his elevation. But what is said of his character, combined with the responsibilities attending his position, make it equally likely that he began instead to travel between his intact, or his dispersed communities, trying to assist those left homeless, perhaps, and one might reasonably expect, to preserve what he could of intellectual and religious property. I would rather rely on records than guess between possible and probable events – perhaps readers know of some relevant records?

In the same edition of the Memoirs of the American Academy, Elizabeth Lawrence* considered the imagery in the Garrett manuscript. As far as MS Beinecke 408 is concerned her study only demonstrates a total lack of common attitude, subject-matter or style.

*Elizabeth Baily Lawrence, ‘Illustrations of the Garrett and Modena manuscripts of Marcanova’, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 6 (1927).

For the record though, if one were desperate enough, there are four small items which might be stretched by imagination to argue similarity.  These are:

(i) a rendering of certain ornamental detail around the base of one roof in one sketch as ” fish-scale ornament with a dot in each scale”. That detail, Lawrence relates (in the context of its manuscript’s clearly Italian character) to the style of Padua.

(ii) the rendering of female forms, in some couple of instances, with very high, but not firm breasts. (These occur in the Garrett manuscript where Lawrence shows them to derive from an earlier work.)

(iii) One sketch of ancient Roman ruins having a figure of Concordia whose cornucopia might (if you squint) be argued to resemble a flower on a long string.


and (iiii) also in the illustration above, a repeated motif of squared-off columns placed so that the viewer sees the cut ends; if one were really inclined to stretch things, it might be possible to persuade some readers that these are just a squared-off version of the round-column motifs seen in some parts of the Voynich manuscript. That is not to say I should encourage anyone to try that argument!

In short: neither the Garrett manuscript nor the Italian renaissance sketchbooks to which Lawrence compares its pictures bear any direct – or even indirect – connection to the imagery in MS Beinecke 408.

Their only link is historical; both manuscripts are believed to have been, at some stage, in the library of the Collegio Romano.  Voynich fully realised that the Vms was not Italian in character or style, and never attributed it to Italian or ‘renaissance’ authorship, nor did he describe it as “central European”.

At the same time, Voynich remained vague about where his  ‘Great Cypher Codex of Roger Bacon of the XIII century” came from, and two early comments refer on his authority or for other reasons to “southern France” (with or without the “castle”) while in  1931 Panofsky was to offer his opinion that the work’s provenance is Jewish in origin with elements of Arabic and of Kabbala,  from  ‘Spain or somewhere southern’. That was seeing the black-and-white photostats.  On seeing the pigments he attributed its making to a slightly later time, as is right.

England? Spain? South of France?  All possible.   Italy – perhaps the Venetto at a specific point in history.  Central Europe.. hmmn. Doesn’t look good. Voynich could provenance like the dickens, it seems.



One Reply to “Voynich as Provenancer”

  1. A more detailed account of Fr.Beckx, one which has him go directly to Fiesole after the Order had to leave Rome, is contained in Thomas J. Campbell, The Jesuits, 1534-1921: A History of the Society of Jesus …”.
    This appears to me to contradict the sense of the article in the Catholic Encyclopaedia, which is specific about the date of Fr. Beckx’ arriving in Fiesole, and places it more than a decade later. To resolve the point, one would have to see the original records, but these are not cited. (op.cit. pp.857-8)/


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