Aldrovandi’s bowl – Voynichero style.

Musaeum Metallicum Pl.26

IN writing an earlier post, ‘The Great Aldrovandi.. had a Ming bowl’, I’d hoped to get a point across without too much fuss: namely, that there is a difference between the sort of provenancing which traces chains of ownership, and that concerned only with assigning an artefact or image to its time and place.  Personalities have no necessary role in the latter;  what matters is not that Aldrovandi once owned the bowl, only that it is a Chinese ceramic of the Ming dynasty period.

That’s the type of provenancing which I consider appropriate for a work such as the Voynich manuscript, about whose imagery so much as been presumed, but which has been more often the subject of speculation than of focussed study.

I don’t know why so few Voynich writers have difficulty appreciating the difference in approaches. I am constantly asked, or told, I have some ‘theory’ but all I have are opinions for which I can cite the informing evidence. I cannot see the task as one of creating a ‘history’ for the manuscript, only of correctly provenancing the content.

In fact, I’ve become fairly anti-theory since it seems to me that this field of study has been losing its earlier tone of dispassionate enquiry in direct proportion to the rise of theory-driven narratives after the demise of the first mailing-list.

At that time  the three most prominent theories were  Pelling’s ‘Averlino story’; Zandbergen’s ‘Germanic-Holy-Roman-Imperial-the-Jesuits-probably-stole-it’ story; and  Santacoloma’s “Wilfrid’s fake manuscript” story.

Within less than fifteen years, what had been a topic of civil discussion and enquiry devolved into what the chief theorists call without blush: a ‘theory-war’.  Prosecuting the ‘theory-war’ has apparently justified another unhappily anti-intellectual practice: that of attempting to force ‘victory’ by mere elimination of dissent – or more exactly, deliberate marginalisation and efforts to discourage those holding a different point of view from the favoured theory.

If the mere elimination of dissenters guaranteed historical validity, then medieval studies would be no more than a form of nationalistic propaganda or commercial advertising.  Some modern historians might even argue such a case, but there is one important difference: where propaganda and advertising employ  logic as an instrument to inculcate belief –  scholarship has traditionally aimed at offering a balanced assessment of the available information – information verifiable and thus falsifiable – and accords readers sufficient respect to allow them to weigh evidence for and against.

At the moment we are seeing the apogee of a very peculiar form of anti-intellectualism in service to theory-promotion: a practice of responding to information opposing a given theory by first asserting the dissenting scholar is an ‘inferior’, and then pretending ignorance of them – or more exactly of the body of evidence which they have presented from their own study of the subject.

But an historian must incline to the longer view, and in the longer  term an opinion suppressed – when it is the better opinion – may survive to  re-emerge in better weather.

E pur si muove

For my loyal readers’ amusement, then, and as caution for newcomers, I thought I’d explain what it’s like to be a non-theorist  stranded in the middle of a ‘theory-war’.  It’s not fun to be in that position –  exactly –  but taking Aldrovandi’s bowl as metaphor, it goes something like this..

Imagine…  that on coming to consider Aldrovandi’s bowl, I find a ‘theory’ being promoted that the bowl was made by Aldrovandi himself; that he intended it as a present for the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, but that Aldrovandi’s trial for heresy, shortly before Charles’ death, prevented its  delivery.

I say, ‘That’s certainly a finely crafted story, held together with little golden pins of ‘probably’ and ‘possibly’.  I can even agree that the bowl was found in mainland Europe and belonged to Aldrovandi, but I have to tell you that the bowl itself, and the imagery on it are clearly of Asian origin, and no invention by an Italian naturalist’.

Do we then hear .. ‘Oh, that’s interesting. Thanks’ ?

In the real world, yes.  In Voynich-theory-war-land… No, we certainly do not.

We get first a stunned silence, a riffling sound as proponents of the ‘history’ try to work out whether this information might still fit their story and personal biases, and next some devotee of – say – the ‘Holy Roman Emperor’ story  will announce to all about them  that no attention should be paid this information. Why? ” She’s just trying to make a name for herself”. (note that the effort is only partly to offend and discourage the researcher: the primary aim is to prevent attention wandering, or belief lessening in the theory promoted). Belief is everything. But the fact is that the chief proponent of the ‘Holy-Roman-Imperial-the-Jesuits-probably-stole-it’ story has NEVER presented his argument formally, or permitted its discussion and debate, nor permitted serious critical questions to be asked about it.   Only now, almost twenty years after the ‘theory’ was first urged upon us, are attempts are being made (by supporters of the idea) to discover some solid evidence in support.  It is a nonsense which has succeeded almost entirely by personal networks, constant positive promotion and determined efforts to suppress alternative views.

But since not even advice that one should ‘pay no attention’ can guarantee continuing loyalty to a wholly hypothetical tale, so now some member of the faithful will appear in his sensible bovver-boots and beanie and make a very public appeal to ‘commonsense’ along the lines of  … ” You don’t know what you’re talking about. Aldrovandi was Italian and never even went to Asia. Asian! pfft.  Read your history books!”

Now, in the normal world (non-Voynich-online) this is the point at which a certain question would normally arise: Is it true?

Is it true that Aldrovandi would have had to go to Asia to obtain an Asian artefact? Is it true that the ceramic and/or its ornament is of Asian origin and character?  Not all that hard to check – you’d think.

But this is another of those curious phenomena in Voynich studies (online).  That most fundamental question of scholarship, the well-spring of any historical study:  “Is it true?” – is one resoundingly absent from online discussions of this manuscript.

What tends to happen, instead,  is that an assertion is made, or some ‘like-ness’ insinuated, to which responses are most often quasi-religious: belief or disbelief, often based on nothing more than that the reader knows too little to form any opinion, and effectively votes along the lines of  ‘seems ok to me’.

True. Pelling’s assertion that the manuscript’s imagery can be ‘dated’ by what he termed Renaissance style hatching did not pass unchallenged but he ignored such comments, without or without adding remarks personally insulting to the would-be helper. Zandbergen’s adducing various inappropriate details as ‘proof’ of Germanic character had  almost passed into ‘Voynich gospel’ though all were patently wrong: the archer isn’t a German hunter; the cloud-band pattern isn’t a German motif; plaited hair isn’t unique to medieval central Europe… and so on.

Corrections of error, in relation to assertions aimed at supporting a theory, are not well or gratefully received, I assure you.

So back to our metaphor, provenancing Aldrovandi’s bowl.

Realising that even so obvious an observation as that the bowl is Asian must be ignored by the theorists because it runs counter to the dominant theory, I now produce other examples of the same figure as that drawn on the bowl, and explain in more detail, with historical and other contextual matter, explaining that no, it is not an Italian rooster but an Asian ‘Phoenix’ and further that Aldrovandi certainly didn’t invent the image from his ‘creative imagination’.

I admit that we also find it in Persian art, but stress that on Aldrovandi’s bowl the form is pure Chinese. I even explain that because it is part of the Asian cultural heritage, the same creature continues to be depicted in Asian art to this day.

Enough to get the point across?

Yes in the real world; No in Voynich theory-land.. not just ‘no’ but ‘not on your life’ sort of ‘No’.


Well, at the moment, as those  attached to a narrative which they may have been stitching together for decades feel they are on the brink of having that theoretical narrative reified as  ‘official history’,  information casting the theory in doubt is not reacted to positively – as better insight into the manuscript itself –  but more as if it were a ‘threat’ against the theory and all who sail in it.

Threats must then be countered or neutralised in what has come, so bizarrely, to be called a ‘theory-war’, and so what we see among the inner circle of adherents is a fairly frantic hunt through theory-compatible sources (only), for something that can be represented as  better-informed.  The aim, as ever, is to reduce the risk of waning devotion in the audience.

And since the major theories fail to explain what is in the imagery, or in the written text, we are now seeing an  ultimate absurdity: an assertion that there is nothing wrong with the theory, and the reason it explains nothing in the manuscript, is that the manuscript contains nothing to be understood! (I’m not kidding – that’s the latest version of one of the less well-founded ‘theories’).

So now, in terms of our ‘Aldrovandi’s bowl’ metaphor, it becomes necessary for the theorists to maintain their ideas by eradicating this unacceptable suggestion of ‘Asian’ character.

Yet another believer steps up, dips his lid towards the chief proponent of the  ‘Aldrovandi-made-it-for-the-emperor’ tale, and happily expectant of a pat on the head,  produces the following image from Aldrovandi’s Monstrorum Historia...  Aldrovandi labelled this an ‘Indian chicken’.

Aldrovandi’s “Indian chicken” (1641)

IN a masterful exercise of logic sans reasoning, the devotee will then assert with immense self-confidence that since there is no such creature as  ‘Indian chicken’ known to science, so the similar image on Aldrovandi’s bowl must be the original invention of Aldrovandi himself – as supposely a ‘creative artist’.  This notion being taken as proof that Aldrovandi invented the type, so then we are told it was ‘probably painted on his bowl to impress the emperor with his scientific knowledge and artistic skill’.

As you may have sensed, the aim isn’t to correctly provenance the bowl or its image: it’s to push a ‘kings and things’ storyline, and because the storylines really haven’t much basis in fact, the word you will most often see used in the mythico-theoretical histories is ‘probably‘.. Actually in 2017, I should say  ‘mythical history’ in the singular since  no other opinion or narrative has been permitted to survive save one.

At this stage, and as you might imagine,  the  present writer is at one with Alice: feeling the same mix of incredulity, bemusement, amusement and frustration as Alice  did in that closed, almost claustrophobic world beyond the glass. Because, you see, it is a Ming bowl and the image is of an Asian Phoenix and anyone with the slightest background in Asian art could tell you so in a moment. In the world ‘out there’.

But theorists don’t ask; they don’t really hope to understand the manuscript or the bowl.  What they’re doing is trying to build an affirmative case so that they can be on the winning side in this senseless ‘theory-war’.

Unlike Galileo one does not recant under such pressures, but when the times are wrong, one may also be reduced to saying simply:

E pur si muove .

One explains the image, element by element. One explains stylistics. One adduces the historical, archaeological and comparative evidence. One hopes that reason and the individual mind of a scholar will respond; that evidence and reason will override inclinations to ‘team-loyalty’ and puffery. Perhaps not today, but some time.

Reason, explanation and evidence….  enough to persuade a theory-believer to set aside the ‘Aldrovandi-Emperor’ romance?  Nope, not in Voynich land.

Efforts to bolster the fantasy-tale are more usual.   An almost allergic reaction to any suggestion of ‘Asiatic’ influence is quite noticeable. So now it isn’t enough to suggest that Aldrovandi, an Italian, invented the creature.  Now it must be argued a uniquely ‘central European’ image.

Some flicker-through-medieval-manuscripts makes the assertion, adducing (so predictably) a German manuscript as supposed proof that the creature is uniquely Germanic.

(detail) Brit. Lib., MS Egerton 1146  f. 233. Manuscript made in southern Germany between 1475 and 1485 AD.

It’s a very neat story, now.  A ‘uniquely Germanic’ bird, painted in a German manuscript a century before, and so imagined painted upon a bowl by the Italian naturalist as compliment and gift for the the Holy Roman emperor before being pictured again – now as a supposed Indian fowl – in Aldrovandi’s own book.

So very textual; so perfectly ‘plausible’; such a neat (if confused) account of cause and effect.  And it agrees entirely with the Imperial theory… So easy. How dare any doubt it? It all ties together… doesn’t it?

So here, for now, the story ends: with  a triumphant reversion to the original theory-narrative; popular acclaim for the ‘Aldrovandi-made-it’ fantasy; the systematic discomfiture of any dissenting scholar; and the semblance presented in public of a single ‘authoriative’ version of the ‘Aldrovandi bowl’ story.  Belief; it is all about belief.

So then, voted ‘true’ by the blank absence of acknowledged alternatives, the hypothetical history as ‘theory’ passes into pop.history, is parotted in a wiki article and endlessly recycled in articles by people too busy to look at the original artefact.

Despite all this …  the bowl really is a Ming bowl; the creature really is the Asian phoenix, and the bowl was made, and painted, by anonymous Chinese artisans. It has no ‘author’; no connection to any emperor. It’s just a bowl which Aldrovandi happened to acquire.

Technical assessments.

Those disinclined to learn about formal techniques in iconographic analysis, art history, or the provenancing of artefacts, often claim to rely on ‘scientific facts’.

But here again, there is a basic flaw in the informing logic, for no image can have its origin or cultural significance explained by such method: any more than you can determine a man’s preferred language by giving him a chest X-ray.

It is true that submitting Aldrovandi’s bowl to scientific texts would prove the artefact made in China, but that alone provides no proof of origins for its ornament, any more than the  Voynich manuscript’s being proven made in Europe (something which has not yet happened), could prove its imagery expressive of medieval Latin ideas and practice.

As example of the reverse: here’s a plate made in China, of Chinese materials, but whose imagery is only rightly understood when its European origins are recognised.

Theoretical narratives about the Voynich manuscript are just that: theoretical. At present the theory most widely advertised is a ‘history’ constructed from a severely limited range of sources and ideas, limited with the aim of representing a flawed theory as beyond reasonable doubt.

In pursuit of that aim, balance, reason, dispassion and fair-dealing have all fallen by the way over recent years, together a notable lessening of basic scholarly standards and integrity.

Such things do happen from time to time  in academe, and the result is always to  temporarily stultify or ‘poison’ a field of study, until the oppressive influence or era finally passes.   It was impossible, for example, to say much about the Phoenicians between the nineteenth century and the late twentieth.  But  there is surely something badly wrong in current studies when a theoretical narrative can only be maintained by acts of active bias, rampant plagiarism, and  by playing  ‘no see, no speak’ about alternative opinions while pretending that fairly substantial bodies of research exist only to be plundered for ‘ideas’.

Whatever a ‘theory war’ is supposed to be, it isn’t scholarship worth the name.


11 thoughts on “Aldrovandi’s bowl – Voynichero style.

  1. It’s a good metaphor, though I think we’d be okay if the VM was the equivalent of a Chinese bowl. The problem is of course that the MS does have the appearance of having been fashioned in Europe, and some evidence exists that it was inscribed by European hands.

    Additionally, the VM imagery is much more heterogenic. You have described influences from all across Alexander’s empire and beyond, added on various times. And then there’s the script as well.

    Basically, explaining Voynich imagery is like teaching complex algebra to someone who doesn’t even know how to read numbers.


    • Koen, I’ve assigned maintenance of the botanical imagery to the maritime ‘spice route’ for most of its history and – without giving too much away – the folios with the ‘nymphs’ to the overland ‘silk’ routes. Most of the content in the Ms divides fairly neatly into three sections: the botanical section, the ‘nymphs’ section and the map. Over that you have chronological strata, dating which was a fairly technical business. The diagrams are fairly late in the main, though one tidal diagram and the ‘bearded sun’ are quite early.

      I don’t agree that there’s any great difference in nature between provenancing the imagery on a bowl, and that in a manuscript. The difference is chiefly one of degree: amount of work needed, depth of enquiry and so forth. I understand that many find it too much hard going, and prefer the more restful way – relying on personal imagination, guesswork and maybe some easy textbook. We’re not in gaol; people can amuse themselves any way they wish.


  2. That image on the platter looks to me like a dragon, rather than a phoenix. A phoenix has wings. The image on the platter has a fin on the back and two legs on the bottom (one has to look hard to see them, as the image is blurred).
    Certainly it is Asian style, and both dragons and phoenixes are drawn in this style, one that some say was inherited by China and Persia from the Mongols.

    But I am confused by your post. Androvandi was a collector of curiosities and received many as gifts from friends, items they found on their travels and donated to his collection, and he was some time after the VMS. Your wording makes it sound like it was a Voynichero who attributed the bowl to Androvandi himself but I couldn’t find any evidence of that or any connection between the platter and the VMS.

    I realize you are trying to make a point about certain styles belonging to certain cultures but the various references to Voynicheros and Voynich theories, mixed in with discussion of the Aldrovani artifact, gave me the impression you were responding to something specific that had been written (at least somewhat recently) about the VMS. If so, a link or reference would be appreciated because I couldn’t find it on my own (I did try) and I can’t quite make sense of the connections.


      • I don’t see a beak, I see a nose. I don’t see skinny legs, I see a fin on the back and two thicker legs to the right. I don’t see any wings. Dragons sometimes had elaborate “flame” tails, phoenix tails usually had individual feathers (not always but usually). Maybe it’s because it’s a fuzzy image (I tried to make it larger, so I could see it better but that of course didn’t work), but in its current form, it looks more like a dragon than a phoenix to me.


      • -JKP- I can see that the metaphorical use of Aldrovandi’s bowl is something you have difficulty with. On the purely literal level, then, if asked to write a commentary on that bowl, I wouldn’t rely on impressions taken from a low res. digital reproduction of a reproduction. At the very least, I would go to the original publication, and then if the thing is extant, I’d contact the holding museum for their catalogue description and a high res. print. (Not all library catalogues are reliable, btw. Some objects’ descriptions may have been written as much as a century ago, and need updating.) If the matter were important: say for a client thinking of buying the thing, then first hand observation would be essential, and a fair bit of back-ground study to provide analytical and historical notes.
        This depth of enquiry, and serious treatment, is routine in the real world, and its absence from accounts of the Voynich manuscript’s imagery is precisely the point of my post. People rely to an extraordinary extent on their personal impressions, and continually debate at a merely theoretical level things which could be objectively determined if more people would treat the manuscript with decent gravity – and other scholars, too, to whom we owe a duty in my opinion, since if our work is unreliable, their time is wasted, and to do that for the sake of indulging personal theories is a fairly substantial insult, imo.
        btw – here’s an zoomable image.

        Full bibliographic details:
        Ulyssis Aldrouandi, patricii Bononiensis, Musaeum metallicum in libros IIII distributum.
        The image is shown in Book II, p.231, labelled ‘Vas Porcellanicum’. The text is in Latin. Cheers.


  3. Thank you, much better image, but what a strange bowl! What I thought were “strings” as often flow out from Asian dragons and phoenixes are indeed very long skinny bird legs with three-toed feet and I have no idea what the blobs are. Even in higher resolution, they don’t look like wings. In fact, the whole thing looks like a dragon with crane legs, a strange medley-pastiche.

    The similar image that you posted (in shades of yellow) appears to be an interpretation of something similar to the Aldrovandi bowl, but since it’s a contemporary Japanese knock-off with wings added, it’s hard to know exactly what they used as a model.

    It would be difficult to know where Aldrovandi got his version, unless he kept records, since many of his friends donated to his collection. Too bad there’s no picture of the back. The style of craftsmanship on the bottom often betrays the origin.


    • -JKP- There is no ‘official’ version of the Phoenix. The aim of imagery wasn’t to make a tin-type replica of some official form but to provide the viewer with enough to make the right connection between signifier and signified. Local style and variants are an aid to provenancing, of course and that embroidered version I chose as a superb example of traditional art … I don’t quite get your idea of its being a ‘knock off’ – ‘knocking off’ what? I’m also surprised you should think it Japanese. Care to explain?


  4. I didn’t mean to imply the stylistic origin was Japanese. To me it looks more Chinese than Japanese (Chinese tails are generally more flame-like, the Japanese more often had a succession of layered or feathery curves, and the colors are an obvious reference to China). I referred to it as a Japanese knock-off because it’s a contemporary product which Tenjiki claims is based on zen Buddhist imagery (perhaps a reference to the Buddist temple phoenix in a similar pose found in the Kita Kamakura area). As a commercial product, it’s hard to tell if it’s imported from China for the Japanese market, made in Japan for a Chinese market, or made in China by a Japanese company.

    As you probably know, the Japanese inherited the phoenix as an imperial symbol around the 6th century—all of the imagery ultimately traces back to China and, as might be expected, in the 13th and 14th centuries, the distinction between Japanese and Chinese dragons/phoenixes was less. These dualing dragons look Chinese, but they are from a c. 1420 Japanese Buddhist-themed silk painting:

    It’s harder to find phoenix imagery from early time periods, as the crane was more common in the 11th and 12th centuries (the phoenix was reserved as an imperial symbol), but apparently they were extant by the time Aldrovandi acquired his bowl. I’ll try to find time to read the text that goes with it. Unfortunately, it’s tax week, less free time than ever.


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