The Voynich “albarello” – deconstructing a phantom. Pt 2

As we’ve seen, the albarello’s form is not found in the Voynich manuscript, and since nothing in the corpus of Latin Europe’s pharmaceutical literature and imagery offers, to my knowledge, containers like those pictured in folio 89r-1 and 89r-2, so whether or not meant for glass objects, they do not accord with what is known of pharmaceutical practice, nor of pharmaceutical containers made in Europe by 1438 – or by 1500. Neither do they resemble containers of the sort which came from the kilns of Murano, even as late as 1500.

Murano 15thC cup

an example of enamelled glassware from Murano’s kilns. Late 15thC. The technique of enamelling glass was known in Alexandria and Begram during the 1st-2ndC AD, is found in medieval Syria and Egypt (10th-11thC), first introduced to Europe in the 13thC but became popular among Renaissance Italians from the 15th. Note the classic ‘chalice’ foot.

Arguments which are being seen of late, aimed at convincing us that we should imagine the manuscript made in the last quarter of the fifteenth century – rather than about the first – appear to have their sense of urgency not by what the manuscript contains, but because to accept the date range of 1405-1438 would mean having to abandon the ‘all European’ theory.

Even if one were to posit the later date,  there would still be noticeable problems for that hypothesis, ones which would require still further adjustments and reinterpretations of the primary evidence to maintain.

As example, consider the vessel from folio 89 which is shown (below, left).

folio 89-1 detailIf it were meant for red glass, it  could not have been made in fifteenth century mainland Europe, and thus certainly not on Murano.

Blown or moulded deep red glass, called ‘Ruby glass’ or  ‘Cranberry’ glass, is coloured by a technique that was known in the early centuries AD but forgotten soon afterwards, until –  as the wiki article ‘Cranberry glass’ rightly says – the secret was rediscovered..

“ the 17th century Bohemian-period by either Johann Kunckel in Potsdam or by the Florentine glassmaker Antonio Neri in Italy”.

So we have various options.  We might argue that the glass was clear, but was painted, or enamelled, or something of that sort. We might argue that the container was of clear glass, but filled with a red liquid. We may argue that the painter made a mistake, or any other idea which might be compatible with a preferred theory.  Or we might accept that a red-glass vessel of this sort remained unknown to Europe – and that therefore the picture is not a picture of a fifteenth-century European glass.  There is no evidence, either, that vessels having this form were made in fifteenth century Europe.

If any ‘fifteenth century European Latin author’ theory is to survive, then, and even more if the theory of this section’s relating to pharmacy is to survive, then some fairly nifty footwork is clearly needed.

Blaming the draughtman or painter has always been one excuse which lay handy.  Or, one might argue that the section refers to some other chemistry but not pharmacy.  (One might even make use of my research into perfumes and dyes, the eastern Mediterranean’s sandalani, the various classes of dispensatories, and to avoid any reference to these posts, even go straight to my references to Ibn Qutaiba’s  Adab al qatib  and Oliver Kahl, for example).

Another way might be to add as much as three generations to the published range for the radiocarbon dating, to suggest that matter in the manuscript is not earlier than European comparisons, but contemporary with them.  It looks as if it was about 75 years later that vessels of any remotely similar complexity appeared there.

Such manipulations are not required to explain the manuscript’s imagery but only to avoid having to abandon a theory to which the primary evidence fails to conform.

As obvious opposition to the old notion that the manuscript’s roots-and-leaves section contains images of ‘pharma’ glass, we see that the depicts no albarelli, and that in Latin Europe pharmacies used ewers, forms of urn and, from the fifteenth century, albarelli.  (see image at end).

Another important objection is that the supposed “Pharma glass” here has very curious feet – quite unlike the ‘chalice’ foot of most Latin wares to the end of the fifteenth century.  On two of those from folio 89, ( see details below, right) there is another detail which opposes those theories: a ring of glass added by laying on a separate white cane.

containers feet folio 89r-1 and r-2

Just as any reference to ruby glass in Europe would demand an original date in the early centuries AD or else a date in the seventeenth century – and the second is impossible – so this even more surely refers to the Mediterranean’s Roman era.

When I wrote about it first, in 2010,  I had yet to read Pelling’s book, and while I thought then and still think that the ‘red glass’ might be explained reasonably in other ways, this type of additional ring pointed again, and still more obviously, to the eastern Mediterranean, and to the forms of an earlier period.  It is quite different from having molten glass, trailed as ornament.

The comparative example, below, is a strainer-vase recovered from Karanais in Egypt and is dated to the period of Roman rule. This illustration was included in my original post.

glass Karanais Roman period

white cane f89r detailWhen that vessel was made, blown glass was still a fairly recent discovery;  addition of that separately laid ring to the slender parts of a vessel (neck or stem) served to conceal a join, to strengthen that weaker part, and in many cases also to evoke the wreaths of flowers and vine conventional as decoration for a wine jar.

However, when it was made, glassmaking was the preserve of particular communities and the secret of this new technique of blown glass even more so.  Around the Mediterranean world both were considered the skill of the Phoenicians alone, though the craft of glassmaking would pass soon to the eastern Jews.



Only by importing into the Italian peninsula groups of those subjected peoples – settling them in fact around the head of the Adriatic, near Venice – were the Romans themselves able finally to acquire those skills.   It is by convention therefore that we speak of ‘Roman’ glass: it refers to the political and historical period, not to the culture of a given craft or craftsman.

centres where Rome settled Jewish and possibly Phoenician glass-makers in the 1st-2ndC AD

centres where Rome settled Jewish and possibly Phoenician glass-makers in the 1st-2ndC AD. Notes see post of June 22nd., 2013

the beaker’s glass foot is not original

Interestingly, and perhaps just as incidentally, some of the earliest small bottles attributed to  glassmakers working on the island of Murano resemble closely in both form and style artefacts  of moulded glass whose attribution to the earlier Phoenicians is beyond dispute.

Techniques for gilding and enamelling glass which would not be seen again until they re-emerged in medieval Syria are seen in works from the 1st-3rdC recovered from Begram, which was then part of the eastern Hellenistic (Greco-Indian) world. The colour-range used in the example shown (left) is remarkably close to that in the botanical section and the ‘leaves and roots’ section.

As I frowned over these details from the imagery in MS Beinecke 408,  back in 2009-10, I noticed yet another item which indicated first origins from the Syrian-Egyptian culture of the older Phoenicians.

Here it is: a flaming ‘leonine’ sun with an artificial beard.  This information was ignored by a majority and positively derided by those convinced that everything in the manuscript must be wholly of central European Latin Christian character.  Knowing how common a habit it has become to search within the limits of a theory for something to explain the anomalies in this imagery, I half expect it to be said that the figure represents Santa Claus, but so far that hasn’t happened.  It has just been ignored. Like the glass.


Next,  to thirteenth century Murano, an island near Venice….

fake beard sun



containers Apothecary shop 15thC

I have the image and caption from Karen Chance’s blog (Jan 2014).



Pt 2b … “Murano..” .


5 thoughts on “The Voynich “albarello” – deconstructing a phantom. Pt 2

      • I don’t know exactly why: but I am reasonably sure that it was added a century or more after the first paint layer was added, which would seem to rule out the original author’s having added it.


      • Can you tell me the reason – I mean the evidence – for your dating the red pigment to the mid-sixteenth century?

        I expect you are guessing that the under-pigment must have needed a century in order to fade – but is that true? Is exposure to light needed to fade it, or just age? What is the paler pigment – do we know?

        There might be any number of reasons for over-painting. e.g. (i) painterly: If a vessel were of complex form, part metal part glass (say) then a pale wash might be used, and the parts not metal then painted with colour. (ii) commercial. Suppose the same form of container had been available/standard before our manuscript was made as a copy, but by the early fifteenth century, the preferred type was now of red glass. So the copyist’s version was the older sort, and the painter ‘corrected’ it to the current preference. After all, it was you who first pointed out cases where one painter appeared to correct the work of the copyist/scribe/draughtsman. Perhaps the multi-spectral scans will show the layers, but you’d need some hard evidence – say a recipe for the red paint – to support ideas of a gap of a century or more. If some turns up – seriously – do let me know. I see no purpose in not accepting facts.


  1. Nick
    Your post has made me consider another possibility, which of course won’t be in this series of posts but might be worth a thought. In later ‘episodes’ there’s mention of the fact that in order to make ‘stained’ window glass appear yellow, silver is added, but gold to make it appear red. So what if – just if – the persons who made the manuscript, being unable or unwilling to use metal leaf, instead coded the precious metals as yellow and as red?


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