events of the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and evolution of an emblem in MS Beinecke 408 – II

[update – readers who access the blog by phone have asked that I include copies of the diagrams referenced, rather than linking to the very large scans. I have added a copy of the diagram in f.68r-1]

In provenancing the Voynich manuscript’s  ‘Angel of the Rose’ we are assisted by the intense conservatism of western cartographers during this earlier period.

Pujades is absolutely correct where he says:

“…the important point should now be made that the faithful and meticulous imitations made repetitively from the workshop models (patterns) ensured that, while the charts did not ‘improve’, they crucially did not deteriorate. Had there not been an almost total respect for the authority of the inherited outlines the charts would have corrupted beyond practical use in a short time. …. Pujades

As I’ve said before, the copyists who produced  the basic drawings, and copied the script in MS Beinecke 408 also show an unusual level of respect for their alien-looking source works. Very little of the imagery has been ‘translated’ to suit Latin eyes and (as Steele noted, long ago) the result is quite devoid of Renaissance character or even of medieval Latin style.

For that reason I have described the present manuscript as generally a “near facsimile” in respect to its draughtmanship and initial colouring.  That it was disrupted in some folios is due to some person who was, I expect,   both the ‘heavy painter’ (as Pelling identifies him) and theological arbiter.  Nowhere in the imagery have I seen any evidence for the work’s being the original invention of a fifteenth-century Latin ‘artist’ or indeed a medieval ‘invention’ in any sense, not even in the sense of a novel form ‘inspired’ by some near-contemporary Latin manuscript.

I believe its drawings a faithful copy from the near exemplars,  they containing  additions upon a basic stratum which may fairly be considered ancient – but the nature of the fifteenth century copy is one reason, I believe, for the manuscript’s having been consistently attributed to the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century by the earliest and most objective appraisers.

That it might have been made in a fifteenth-century chart-maker’s workshop,with its innate conservatism and habit of copying precisely the forms and lines of an essentially abstract genre, is certainly not impossible.

The detail on which I want to concentrate is that now occupying the north-west roundel, in which the figure I describe as the ‘angel of the rose’  is so placed that its ‘Rose of the winds’  lies precisely in the centre of that sea – just as the fold-line suggests.

Angel of the Rose and roundel part

I’ll describe the origin and development of that image for the ‘angel’ in a subsequent post, but I’d like to begin by noting that having spent some time in comparing the details of this sea to various older charts, maps, descriptions and itineraries, I concluded that it was meant for the Black Sea, known to the Greeks as the  Euxine, and  (for other reasons) concluded further that its content originally filled the north roundel.

Other possibilities considered for the ‘sea’ included the Caspian and one of the greater lakes in Asia minor (Anatolia), especially those of Pisidia whose mountains hold a ‘rose’ in some of the earliest remaining  cartes marine.  It was the present orientation of the Voynich figure’s axis, and a concentration of similar themes and motifs in the older cities of the Black sea which finally led me to conclude that the Euxine was most probable site, and thus that the ‘Angel’ had originally occupied the map’s North, later shifted (at the expense of a wind- or star-wheel) to enable   inclusion of that inset map of the Mediterranean Sea, drawn in rather different style.

We may usefully compare the position of the Voynich figure,  relative to the shorelines, with other charts that similarly set a major ‘compass Rose’ in that position.

That conservatism already mentioned allows us certainty that the positioning of such  Roses on the western cartes marine will not be the result of  personal choice by any particular cartographer,  and that  ‘artistic license’ will play no part: that similar placement implies access to similar template models.

One example was shown earlier – here.  The next two are chosen to demonstrate the irrelevance of “nationality” as  limiting factor in transmission of technical information.

The first (below) is from the text by a Turkish admiral (Piri Re’is).  The second was produced about ten years later by a Genoese-Mallorcan cartographer, Battista Agnese.  Agenese’s winds are angels.

Both were made in the sixteenth century, and it is much to the point, I think, that their model is not that informing some of the  earliest ‘portolan’ charts, even if (as I’ll show in the next post) those sometimes show an awareness of the same informing ideas and iconographic elements as those informing the axis and angel in folio 86v. This suggests to me, at least, that while matter now in MS Beinecke 408 was known earlier to the chart-makers, it was considered a resource rather than a cartographic source as such: that is, a reference rather than a template.

Both sixteenth-century charts (below) place the  Compass rose very precisely in the centre of the Euxine: and mid-way along a line drawn between a small island off the coast of Cherson, and a southern point to the west of Sinope. It is obvious that at some stage, sightings and distances were taken along that line, the southern sightings using one of the peaks in a mountain range that rings the curve of the Euxine’s south-western shore.

1525_Pirii Reis_Black_Sea 1525

The Black Sea – Piri Re’is (1525)

portolan-chart angels Battista Agnese

The Black Sea, Battista Agnese (f. 1535-1564)

The northern point would appear to be to have been the same island where Willem van Ruysbroeck – a Flemish Franciscan – noted in the thirteenth century an ancient temple reputed to have been ‘made by the hands of angels’.  In Greek, of course – and the Black Sea was predominantly still culturally Greek –   angelos meant not only an ‘angel’ but a messenger. And everyone knew that the  ‘angelos’ travelled on the wings of the winds.

If we turn closer to the period of interest, we find that while some earlier charts do have a minor ‘rose’ in that spot – off the southern coast of the Black Sea –  none sets any Rose in its centre. Despite this, some of the fourteenth-century charts illuminate different folios from MS Beinecke 408.  The probability increases that the manuscript’s present content was gained from matter previously known to the makers of cartes marine.

An important example dated between 1380 and 1385 AD was made in Mallorca. It is now  held by the   Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The maker was  Guillem Soler (Guillelmus Soleri, Guglielmo Soleri), and this chart resembles those made two generations earlier in Genoa by Pietro Vesconte – in that it is made on a skin that was not trimmed square, and so retains a ‘nose’ at one end.  ( Solers’s map can  be opened and/or downloaded from here). He places the “nose” to the west/left, and a minor ‘rose’ of 24 radii slightly west of Sinope, but not the full rose of 32 points.   Soler’s inscriptions are difficult to read, but the nearest town appears to be  ‘Gromaye’ [ Gromnia?].   He has set a major (32-radii) ‘rose’  in southern Asia Minor, which  is interesting  in itself, but for us the more important point is that his chart sheds light on a different fold-out and its diagram from MS Beinecke 408.

map carte marine portolan Soller c1300

(detail) Black Sea. From the carte marine by  Guillaume Soller (1380-1385).

Soler indicates the termini of his chart’s north-south axis by a great North star and a “hooded moon”.  Plainly, this is not by reference to anything in folio 86v, but is exactly the usage  in folio 86r-1 68r-1 (thanks, Paul) the substrate here returning a raw radiocarbon date of 1400 AD.  (fol.68r can be seen and/or downloaded here as Beinecke New Scan Image ID: 1006196).

Solers axis and centre in Metapontum

fol 68r-1 diagram

Because the diagram on folio 68r-1 represents the whole sky, the North appears at the centre as ‘ zenith’, so its being an ‘axis’ is less obvious, but both using the emblems for the top and bottom of a ‘north-south’ line, and this would indicate again that the matter was known to cartographers – less as ‘template’ source than as informing reference.

Soler axis and fol 68r-1

Soler makes his north star a  great, golden, eight-pointed emblem where  folio 68r-1 uses a star of seven-points. The first echoes the basic number of points on the Mediterranean compass, and the latter has both customary usage and deeper significance for certain cultures.   Plainly the Voynich diagram is not Soler’s ‘template’ model, any more than folio 86v was the template for his map, but it is surely of interest that this other fold-out has been dated to fifteen or twenty years after Soler made his chart.

Because I consider the diagrams on folio 68r among the latest matter in MS Beinecke 408, and yet its vellum suggests this sheet may be the oldest in our present manuscript, so it opens the interesting question of whether folio 68 was simply taken into the compilation, rather than having been re-copied in c.1427.  The basic palette of MS Beinecke 408 is also that of the cartographer: brown, green and red.

Soler was working in Mallorca  as little as five years after the completion there of Cresques’ great map for the court of France, part of what is known somewhat inappropriately as  the ‘Catalan Atlas’, completed in 1375, before the co-option by the King of Spain of a remarkable library in Mallorca, the collection of Judah Leon Mosconi, “Leo Grech” who died in Tunis in 1377. His library had remained in Mallorca and was of such importance (as I described in other posts) that the king would not allow it to be sold, as the heirs wished, to fellow Jews and physicians of the region. Soler’s chart was made just a couple of years later (1380 and 1385 AD), and Roth mentions that among the texts listed in a catalogue of Mosconi’s books was a copy  of  Hipparchus’ corrections to Ptolemy’s Tables, now believed entirely lost. Any reader who has the necessary access and languages might like to find and share the contents of those catalogues made in 1377-9.

In my opinion, then, the diagram on folio 68r suggests enunciation within the European environment  if not in a specifically Latin context.

One also  regrets that none of Idrisi’s workbooks remain which were compiled over fifteen years in Norman Sicily, and from which his  world maps and silver table were produced in 1154.  Those works remained unknown to the Latins of mainland Europe,  Sicily’s kings having lain under interdiction for much of the Norman-Sicilian period.

Polaris or a star in Ursa Major will be meant by the great star on Soler’s chart.  For f.68r-1 the identity is probably the same, though (for reasons explained below) there is a remote possibility that it might have been meant for  alpha Draconis. In the fifteenth century, the use of that star to signify North would be purely symbolic, though it was once the North Pole star, and was long remembered as having been so.

A most remarkable feature in Soler’s map deserves comment here.  The chart’s centre,   ‘centre of the little world’ is located deep in the ‘arch’ of the Gulf of Tarento, where no town existed in medieval times, nor had from the third century BC. (see detail shown earlier).

This point does not lie at the latitude  of  Rhodes, from which Ptolemy’s Tables took their mark, as did other Majorcan charts including that by Abraham Cresques.

Nor can it be considered mid-way between the Mediterranean’s eastern and western shores, as the following map  shows. One has to ask why this should be his ‘centre of the world’, and what model has informed it. The place had once held a large town or city named Mesapontum, undoubtedly famous in its time, but deserted since 207 BC.

map Mediterranean_Relief

(click to enlarge)


Called Metaponton by the Greeks, and by the Romans Metapontum, the city was famous by reason of its wealth, grain and connection to Pythagoras, whose doctrines were welcomed there, and which became a refuge for the ‘new’ Pythagoreans expelled from other sites in the peninsula.  Pythagoras spent his last years in Mesapontum, dying there in 500-490BC – whereupon his home became the site of a temple to that deity whom the Romans knew as Ceres, the goddess of the grain.

coin Metapontum Metaponton Lucania Magna Graecia 3rdC BC

The temple was still there in the 1stC AD, when Pliny saw it, but then the town had lain empty for two hundred years.

Metapontum’s inhabitants had been staunch allies of  Carthage in its struggle against Rome, and they invited Hannibal to use the city as a storage depot and supply point.  When he decided to withdraw, being well aware of the Romans’ reputation for vindictiveness, Hannibal first oversaw an evacuation of the whole population in 207 BC.

Thereafter,  Metapontum scarcely appears in the historical record – which makes its being Soler’s  ‘centre of the world’ very interesting indeed.

One might posit a practical reason – such as that the Gulf  here served as a ‘rest point’ for ships commissioned to gather the cartographic data, [1] but in fact that part of the Gulf is an almost unbroken line of rocky cliffs and dangerous shoreline.

We might also mention that neo-Pythagorean beliefs may have continued in some fashion in Italy’s southern heel. Marsilio Ficino asked to be assigned to a parish there in the mid-fifteenth century, with the aim (as he said) of studying the  ‘ancient Greek dialect’ still spoken by the natives; whether the ‘natives’ also retained or had discovered older books we do not know, but Ficino’s time there was largely spent translating the principal NeoPythagorean texts, while at the same time fobbing off the high-handed son of Cosimo de’ Medici, Lorenzo, who kept demanding a full translation for himself.  In reporting how he had provided no more than summaries and commentaries (no doubt ones appropriate to the ideas of the contemporary Church) Ficino said he considered Lorenzo ill-suited to study of this ‘pristine’  philosophy. It has sometimes occurred to me that Newbold had also entertained the view that some of the imagery in MS Beinecke 408 derives from a neo-Pythagorean philosophy, but the point is academic.

For Mesapontum, see also the entry (here) from Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography.

An echo of Soler’s Anatoian ‘rose’ occurs earlier, in the oldest ‘portolan chart’ held by the library of the American Congress [2]. It is given a date-range of 1290 and 1350 AD –  surprisingly early for such charts since if it were made in 1290, it could predate by five years Chioniades’ revision of Ptolemy’s Tables, completed in Trebizond in 1295.  [2]

Nevertheless, it is said “probably drawn in Genoa” and unusually for any  Latin chart of the time, includes a bar scale ‘with unidentified divisions’ –  reminding one of the eleventh twelfth-century ‘Book of Curiosities‘ now in the Bodleian .

Because of their mutual emphasis on southern Anatolia, one must consider the possibility that one or other (or both) of these earlier charts were gained from sources brought to Avignon in 1321 by Armenians offered to teach their language there by the King of Cilician Armenia.  The evidence is too meagre for a conclusion on the point, but it is clear that the older chart shows no connection to the map on folio 86v (Beinecke 85v and 86r), whereas Soler’s does reflect the same conventions as those used in folio 68r-1, on vellum dated to c.1400.

In considering Mallorca, then, and the closest environment of the Avignon court, we are at least in the near vicinity of that location which produced the exemplars for our fifteenth century manuscript.


.. continued in Pt III.



[1] that such efforts were made is shown by that small parchment roll described by Marston, though none of its ‘trig’ points would appear to be referenced by Soler’s chart. Thomas E. Marston, ‘An aid to Medieval Portolan-chart making?’, The Yale University Library Gazette , Vol. 46, No. 4 (April 1972), pp. 244-246. I mentioned this matter earlier, in a post entitled ‘fol.86v: of Portolan charts and Trabizond’, (August 15, 2012).

[2] A wonderful central site for works on the history of astronomy and mathematics, including translations of primary source texts is

One very helpful doctoral thesis listed there is by Joseph Leichter,The Zij as-Sanjari of Gregory Chioniades (supervised by Pingree, no less!) published in 2009 and available to read or download via the internet archive  (here). It includes the Greek text and a comprehensive Greek-Arabic-English Glossary, including phrases as well as individual terms.




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