The Voynich ‘albarello’ – deconstructing a phantom Pt2b

Header picture shows a piece made in fifteenth century Murano.


The  Museo Correr’s short history of Venetian glass tells us that the glassblowers of Venice were not ordered to shift their kilns to the island of Murano until the close of the thirteenth century – the same period to which the manuscript was assigned on the basis of its appearance and imagery by the first appraisers,  and a few decades short of a century after the rise of Opus Francigenum with its brilliantly coloured glass.

In those days the glassmakers of Venice were known as  ‘bottlemakers’  because bottles were their chief product.  Drinking glasses were another stock in trade, and circular panes for windows.

No documentary evidence that I’ve seen so far – though the Venetian archives are extensive – has suggested that European pharmacists of the fourteenth or of the fifteenth century wished Venetian glassblowers to provide them with alternatives to the usual containers of wood or earthenware.

It was not until the fifteenth century that European pharmacies used containers even as decorative as albarelli, so we may suppose they had none of Murano glass made earlier.

While one might argue this as a reason why no albarelli appear in the Voynich manuscript’s “leaves-and-roots’ section,  the same argument prohibits assignment of its ornate glass vessels – such as those on folio 89r – to Murano.

Again, according to the Museo Correo, it is only in the sixteenth that products from Murano first tend..

” …to  abandon their previous simplicity and practicality, aiming towards more complex compositions, adding sculptural elements in various ways by working with pincers, which were to be used even more in the following (17th) century.”

And something of that sort would have been needed to form some of the more complex feet shown on folios  f.89r-1 and f.89r-2, if the containers are intended to be read as made of glass.

beaker prunted with rings 13thC
beaker prunted, trailed ornament 13thC (?)

For some few design elements only we have parallels in medieval European glass.  There are bottles and beakers with feet made of prunted glass, these attached more-or-less equally around the base, and made small, so as to carry as little weight on each as possible.  Some also have decorations on the body, formed by prunted and by trailed glass.

The example shown (right), for example, has these features.  It is dated* to the thirteenth century, but like others of its place and time it has these ornaments on a very simple profile.  Not even vessels of this sort seem to have been of interest to European pharmacies. Prunted decoration became especially popular in Germany, from c.1401-1600, and its form was so consistent that in some cases no narrower date range can be offered.

*  a little problematically, in my opinion, given the clarity and thinness of the glass.

If the images on folio 89r are intended to represent glass containers, then, they cannot be European glass, and thus not Murano glass .. If they were Murano glass, they could not be fifteenth century.. and so on and so forth. If they are pharmacy vessels, they cannot be fifteenth century pharmacy vessels of Europe … and so on and so forth.

Just as there are no albarelli pictured in the Voynich manuscript, so the notion that its more ornate containers were made for pharmacies by European Latin glassmakers before the end of the fifteenth century (or even before the end of the sixteenth century) is a phantom, one born of hypothesis, and maintained by a strange idealism, curiously hostile to the idea that the manuscript’s content might have a history even older than its manufacture. fol 89r detail 2

However, on the grounds of content and stylistics, of competent and independent appraisals, and even by reference to the forms and structures of the written text, a different history is indicated.

To imagine that appraisers as expert and as experienced as Panofsky, Goldschmidt, Steele, the keeper of manuscripts at the British Museum, and even Wilfrid Voynich himself would have “missed” noticing a humanist hand, or a renaissance style of drawing, or the forms of medieval Murano glass, or any other such telling detail, is an idea which simply beggars belief and which could be maintained only by persons with relatively little knowledge of the field.  All agreed that the manuscript presented as a work of the late thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. And so it does; the radiocarbon date-range does not oppose that assessment but complements it.  What we have is plainly an early fifteenth century copy made as near-facsimile from exemplars of that earlier date.  And, as we have seen, manuscripts of the late thirteenth century and of the Avignon period, offer both close paralells for some of its distinctive imagery and explanations for many of its otherwise inexplicable details.

The purpose in provenancing imagery, one hopes, is less to have some theory triumph in order for the individual’s ego to be satisfied by the number of nodding heads.  Surely, it is rather to assign the work’s content correctly – not simply to announce a date and place of manufacture.  In the present case, properly describing and provenancing this imagery should also assist those wrestling with the written part of the text.

I cannot see that these aims will be well-served by selectively ignoring elements in the primary source which fail to suit a theory, or by attempting to obscure clear opposition to a theory by inventing “alternative” explanations for anything which seems to oppose a theory, simply because it seems to oppose a theory, or because an individual writer wants to imagine the content representative of some ‘pure’ national culture as subset of the Latin European.  To imagine that such a sub-culture existed at all in the medieval period is inherently a-historical.

The internal evidence suggests not only that the matter in the manuscript had reached its final form, save a few marginalia and other minor additions,  not later than the end of the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries, and that it had been maintained for much of its existence by the Jews, and so wherever the present object was made during the first decades of the fifteenth century, its content did not first arise in the imagination of any fifteenth-century Latin European.

For those working on the text, this raises the possibility that if the imagery demonstrates connection to the world beyond fifteenth century Latin Europe then its language might do the same.  It is true, of course, that unexpected languages are found even there.  Aramaic lived on among Jewish communities of Europe, and we known that Armenian was taught in fourteenth century Avignon, while preaching orders were attempting to establish schools to teach Arabic and Greek, Cuman and other pre- and non-Christian languages. …..  but the script and language are not the concern of these posts.

Glass in the east.

As the Metropolitan Museum of Art rightly says:

At the time of the Islamic conquest in the seventh century AD, glass making had flourished in Egypt and western Asia for more than two millennia… The three most prolific excavated sites that have yielded glass in the Islamic world are Fustat in Egypt, Samarra’ in Iraq, and Nishapur in north eastern Iran.”

on which see e.g. Jens Kröger, Nishapur: Glass of the Early Islamic Period, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995.   Kröger comments on the near-identical forms of glass from Samarra’ and Nishapur and expresses a regret that the finds from Rayy made in 1934 remain unpublished. (ibid. p.9). It is a regret we share.



Pt.3 – Red Glass and the white ring in Beth Shean.








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