Avignon manuscripts – bottega vs scriptorium. Introduction Pt2

[formatting errors corrected 5/10/2016]

For more recent readers…

Part of our interest in Avignon, in relation to MS Beinecke 408,  has to do with its architecture – which evolved over several stages as the Papal complex expanded.[3]

Tower of Avignon.

As Pope John XXII, Jacques  Duèze remained in the older manor of the Avignon archbishops, but to accommodate the inevitable raft of secretaries, visitors,  pilgrims and additional staff, he had new buildings erected around it.

Benedict XII, his successor, and another recognised Pope,  had constructed the great fortress of Avignon,  this so sited that the visitor approaching along the Rhône saw it – and still sees it – as if the great tower were attached to triangular court.  It was Benedict XII who received in Avignon an embassy from the Great Khan in 1337-8, and who then sent to China from Avignon a Franciscan friar named John de’ Marignolli. John returned by the southern sea route some years later, to arrive in Avignon and deliver letters to the next pope in 1353.

avignon Tower 1905

After Benedict,  Clement VI (1342–52)  is said to have replaced the old archbishops’ manor house with what Fleck describes as “an elegant chateau” – and such a chateau was certainly built, though I have doubts as to whether the older building’s being replaced necessarily involved its demolition. An eighteenth-century woodcut by van Loon shows, behind the fortress and  great house, another structure having a tower with a conical roof.. again attached to a court which is shown angular and irregular in a way which seems more pronounced than required by the projection. Its tower is of the older French type, but I’ve not been able so far to identify its use or time of construction.

Papal complex Avignon in the 18thC

The point here is that tower of that same form, with a conical roof and attached to a triangular court, is pictured in MS Beinecke 408, on folio 86v. 

That folio’s north roundel contains what I’ve called a “minimap”; it appears to describe the Mediterranean, but includes only one clear allusion to any place in western Christendom – this tower and court.   In reproducing this detail (below), I have turned the building upright. Because folio 86v has been bound with its East to the viewer’s left –  though North is “up” –   the simplest way to make it easily read by our own habit, was to flip the image across its north-south line.. though this ‘reverses’ the text, too.

fol 86v minimap western tower lgrThe tower might be taken for somewhere a little further south than Avignon because it is shown right on the water’s edge. However, that ‘triangular’ court with attached tower does seem to have been taken as characteristic of Avignon, and one sees the same idea maintained even when the court is shown after Benedict’s fortifications were quite finished.  The image below was painted in the early fifteenth century by a French or Flemish illuminator whose name we do not know, but who is known as the ‘Boucicaut Master’. He was  active between 1400-1430 – exactly when the Voynich manuscript is now believed to have been made.  Here you see Benedict’s fortress with its heavier towers, the ‘triangular’ court and with the older, slender towers still present, with their conical roofs.

detail of Avignon tower early 15thC

 Most of the towers are gone now, but the ‘triangular’ appearance is still that which first presents to the new arrival.

avignon postcard early 20thC

The tower would be especially a destination for anyone bringing rare documents or books for the Papal library-in-progress; remnants of the early inventories speak of “magna libraria turris“.[4]

Marignolli and the East

An embassy from the Mongol Khan had come to Avignon in 1338, asking that the Pope send to China another religious to take the place of John of Montecorvino, another Franciscan. One of those sent was the Florentine John de Marignolli with a number of companions. The journey from Avignon to Peking took him three and a half years.  He was en route home to Avignon by Easter of 1438, in southern India and Sri Lanka. He reached the Papal court in 1353, there to present a letter from the great Khan to the new Pope, Innocent VI.  I have often had reason to mention Marignolli, his companions and his predecessor, John of Montecorvino, but I have not thought that the evidence warrants argument for any direct attribution to these Franciscans. For details of earlier mentions, search Marignolli’s name and that of Montecorvino in this blog.


detail of a stamp issued in 2010 commemorating Francesco Datini

detail of a stamp issued in 2010, commemorating Francesco Datini

Fleck’s account of the Avignon papal libraries mentions another person who has already been the subject of a couple of my posts – the merchant Francesco de Marco Datini from Prato (c. 1335–1410). 

Fleck tells us that Datini’s inventories (he had three shops in Avignon) reveal, together with other legal documents and letters [5], that in Avignon Datini had,

a well-established trade in staple and luxury goods ..from about 1363 to 1410. Though not necessarily a major merchant in the city, … he provided the popes and their court with [goods including] chalices, crosses, miters, paintings, plates, buttons, rings, linens, leather saddles, cups, forks, belts, and goblets. Armor and metal for arms-making was a part of his import business.[6

He also dealt in gems and precious textiles, as well as in nails and hammers. As Luciana Frangioni discusses, a large number of items in his shop were “prodotti di successo internazionale,” [which] had a specific place of origin, method of production, brand, or producer…. Francesco Datini was [also] a textile merchant. Anne Wardwell examines papal inventories to find numerous silks, the luxury cloth par excellence, imported from the East. By the 14th century, Italian and new Spanish workshops also provided silk cloths to western Europe. [Silks imported] to Europe from central Asia and beyond offered [artistic] inspiration.

On Datini’s return to Prato from Avignon, where he had managed over a number of years to parlay a few florins into a fortune, Datini had constructed the largest mansion and business-house in his native city.   Its interior decoration, and especially its hunt scenes, closely echo those remaining from the earlier period of the Avignon papal court, when Matteo Giovannetti had served as court painter.  We know so much about Datini’s commercial activities and about his times, because his records [7] were walled up in an old stairwell of his house where they remained until the end of the nineteenth century.  They tell us that the idea for his palazzo germinated while he was still in Avignon; that the work continued over many years, and that one pair of artists lived in-house for three months working (as their own lists of work completed tell us) in mosaic, fresco and metalwork.  The image below shows part of the ceiling within Datini’s private office.

Datini shields

illustration from: Bruce Cole, ‘The Interior Decoration of the Palazzo Datini in Prato’, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, Vol.13, No. 1/2 (Dec., 1967), pp. 61-82.

(Notice how the “starry” ground is represented by small crosses. The Datini shield had red stripes on white/silver. It is seen in Fra Lippo Lippi’s “Feast of Herod” ).

In front of Datini’s palazzo there was also planted a botanical garden, one which was evidently extensive and regarded as being “among the first in Italy”. Frescos in the domestic apartments include the popular image of a ‘cat and mouse’ theme. In this case the cat ignores the bird, more particular than his target about what he will prey upon. Or perhaps Datini had learned something of the role believed played by rats, as well as by foetid air,  in dissemination of Plague.

Palazzo Datini cat bird mouse

The reason that Datini’s name cropped up in regard to MS Beinecke 408 is that his house in Prato (with its walled-up documents) was bequeathed to the Franciscan order, to be used as a home for the poor of the city,  particularly its orphaned children.  Four centuries later, there was appointed as administrator for the “ecclesiastical patrimony of Prato” (which included Datini’s house) a man who was  an accomplished mathematician and a kleptomaniac book-collector, who was to become notorious for the many valuable old church manuscripts which he improperly acquired.[8]

His name was  Guglielmo Libri Carucci dalla Sommaja, and near the end of his life he went up to Fiesole, dying there in 1869 after having given all his remaining books to a friend to sell or maintain as part of Libri’s legacy.   When Libri arrived in Fiesole, it was already home to the current head of the Jesuit order,  Fr. Beckx  having come up from Rome after a general expulsion of Jesuits in 1860.[9]  In 1883, Beckx was able to return to Rome where he died four years later.  There had been no additional expulsion, and Fr.Beckx had not travelled again. Thus, it would appear that the manuscript we know as MS Beinecke 408 is most likely to have been packed into the trunk (from which Wilfrid Voynich would later take it) at the time when Beckx prepared to leave Fiesole and return to Rome.

Whether Beckx had carried it from the Jesuit house to Fiesole, or whether he gained (or regained) it while in Fiesole is something we simply do not know and will probably never know. But it is possible that the “Palazzo” from which Wilfrid sometimes said the manuscript came was the Villa San Girolamo in Fiesole, recently acquired by the Jesuits when Beckx lived there, but an ancient monastery serving the Hermits of St. Jerome in the fourteenth century before passing, in the fifteenth, to the Augustinians, for whom Cosimo the Elder commissioned extensions. Cosimo’s own Villa lay directly below.[10]

It is also from a monastery of the Hermits of St.Jerome (this one in 12thC Piacenza, Parma) that we have a document in which there are letters similar to some of the Voynich glyphs. WE owe to Jim Reeds’ the notice of this document, which he found illustrated in Capelli’s Dictionary.. and introduced to Voynich studies through the old Voynich mailing list. (if re-using either the image or the information, please remember to credit Jim, won’t you?). The earlier post in which I referred to it is here.

script 12thC gallows Parma Capelli Dictionary

With regard to Datini, there are certain details on folio 86v of MS Beinecke 408 which refer to matters of which very few Latin Europeans were aware in the fourteenth and earlier fifteenth century – though Datini may have been one among those few.  I won’t be discussing the particulars online.

The Avignon Papal period formally ended in 1377, but a series of so-called “anti-Popes” continued to occupy the palace until the issue of legitimacy was resolved. This occurred by the end of the Council of Constance in 1418, before which time there had come to be three Popes of the western church, and by 1418 the ‘Avignon’ candidate was resident in a fortress at Peñiscola, “the city in the sea”, an old Phoenician site on the coast of Spain!


1. Cathleen A. Fleck, ‘Seeking Legitimacy: Art and Manuscripts for the Pope in Avignon’, Ch.IX in  Joëlle Rollo-Koster, Thomas M. Izbicki (eds.),  A Companion to the Great Western Schism (1378-1417) Brill, 2014.  The passage cited is on p.290.  Fleck’s article is also available through academia.edu.

3.  and see ‘Reprising the Avignon identification‘ (blogpost) voynichimagery.wordpress.com ( June 23, 2015).

4. Fleck, op.cit., quoting a fragmentary inventory of 1379–80, Collectoriae (hereafter Coll.) 469, fols. 177–185, as “Inventarium librorum qui solebant esse in camera cervi volantis nunc vero sunt in magna libraria turris”, within the “Inventarium bonorum mobilium palatii apostolici” (1371–83). Fleck refers to Faucon, La librairie des papes, 1:57–58;and2:27–42; and to Jullien de Pommerol and Monfrin, La bibliothèque pontificale,
1:25–26, 65–66.

5.  Datini’s correspondence has also provided evidence that the Tuscanisation of Italian vernacular forms occurs a century earlier than the time of the “three crowns of Florence” i.e. the works of Boccaccio, Petrarch and Dante. See Joshua Brown, ‘ Evidence for Early Tuscanisation in the commercial letters of the Milanese Merchant Giovannino Da Dugnano (?—1398) in the Datini Archive in Prato’,  Italica, Vol. 89, No. 4 (Winter 2012), pp. 464-488.

6.In his paper,’From Venice to the Tuat: Trans-Saharan Copper trade and Francesco di Marco Datini of Prato’, Martin Malcolm Elbl writes, “From Honein, in particular, the metal then moved south to the oasis of Tuat, en route to the Western Sudan. Pending further discoveries in the Datini archive, Tuat seems to have been the southernmost point in the Sahara with which Datini agents in Majorca were explicitly albeit indirectly familiar. Their indirect knowledge was mediated through contact with Majorcan Jewish merchants involved in the caravan trade, several of whom resided in or originated from Honein… the Majorca branch took its first serious plunge in the copper trade in 1398. The involvement gradually escalated to a complex set of transactions, undertaken in 1407-1408 partly on behalf of the mother firm and its contacts and partly in conjunction with a diversified group of Balearic merchants, Christian, Jewish, and converso.” Elbl’s paper was originally published in Lawrin Armstrong et.al. (eds.), Money, Markets and Trade in Late Medieval Europe: Essays in Honour of John H.A. Munro. Leiden: Brill. 2007. pp.411-460 but is also now available through academia.edu

7. “124,549 business letters and 573 account books”.

8. Thus the Ashburnum Collection purchased by the Italian government in 1878  is described ‘as a collection of 2,000 manuscripts acquired by Lord Ashburnum from Guglielmo Libri in 1847,  [Libri] having stolen a number of them from Italian and French libraries’. An alternative English translation of that information can be read online, in a pdf published by the LIBER Manuscript Librarians Group. http //libereurope.eu/wp-content/uploads/National%20Backgrounds_Italy_7 pdf

8.  I have this information from a History of the Order, but different accounts offer different dates.  Albert Chan, for example, speaks of the General of the Order taking refuge in Fiesole only from 1873. A. Chan, Chinese Materials in the Jesuit Archives in Rome, 14th-20th Centuries: A descriptive catalogue, Japonica-Sinica, IV, Routledge (2015). First published by M.E. Sharpe (2002).  p. xiv.

9. The Hermits’ original centre was in Spain, in the Pyrenees. 

See also Daniel Williman’s review of the very substantial studies by Pommerol and Monfrin, La Bibliothèque Pontificale à Avignon et à Peñiscola Pendant le grand Schisme d’Occident et sa Dispersion: Inventaires et Concordances.2 vols.Rome: Ecole Francaise de Rome, 1991. [ Collection de l’Ecole Francaise de Rome No. 141.]