Ring of roses: Earth’s Fabric in Byzantium Pt1.


IN Chora church or in its monastery library, in 1291   (some say, 1295),  a monk born in Nicomedia – but resident there – began hunting for a copy of Claudius Ptolemy’s Geography. Why he believed he’d find the long-neglected work in his local monastery church, we are not told – yet there it was.

Manuel (later Maximus) Planudes then set about re-introducing Ptolemy’s Geography to the Byzantine world,  reconstructing maps from Ptolemy’s projections.

During  the earlier part of the nineteenth century, a manuscript was noticed in the monastery of Vatopedi, in Mt Athos. [1] It was a compilation of classical texts relating to geography; sections from Ptolemy’s Geography are included, and a number of maps – and it is dated to the first quarter of the fourteenth century – so some have associated it with Planudes.  The maps use a simple square grid.

leaves extracted from the early fourteenth-century Codex Vatopedinus 655 and catalogued in the British Library as MS Add. 19391 19v-20.

Claudius Ptolemy was born c.100 AD and died c.170 AD. That type of grid, derived from measurements (or estimates) of Latitude and Longitude is seen already in a roughly-cut  globe found on a wall in Herculaneum. It is dated 50AD.  We also have evidence of a differently-laid grid on globe apparently iconic of Sinope, and on a coin made seventy-five years before that globe  – so as much as three hundred years before Ptolemy’s Geography.

(left to right) (i) detail from fresco found at Herculaneum dated c.50AD; (ii) detail from Codex Vatopedinus (British Library); (iii) detail from Pietro Vesconti’s map (1321); (iiii) detail of a coin made for Sinope 25-24 BC.         I suggest the coin represents that  ‘globe of Billarus’ which was taken from Sinope fifty years earlier by  the Roman, ‘Leucullus’ [L. Licinius Lucullus]  as Stabo reports . I do not think Lucullus took it far, and the coin may even celebrate its return, unremarked by the historians.
Of the medieval  rhumb-gridded cartes marine, again, we have examples  made before the Codex Vatopedinus – and even in the Italian peninsula, Pietro Vesconte’s earliest known chart  dates to 1311, more than eight decades before the Geography came to northern Italy, so far as we know. Nor do they relate to the more elaborate Ptolemaic grid.

This is a very large image -( just so you know if accessing through your phone).

So from the look of things, and on a number of levels, Ptolemy would appear to be just  just too late.


Ptolemy’s Geography came to Italy first (so far as we know) in the form of some maps made by Planudes that were given to the Florentine, Palla Strozzi,  in 1379, by Manuel Chrysoloras, a member of the Constantinopolitan elite.

Palla Stozzi as saint. Painted by Fra Angelico for the Strozzi chapel in Florence 1434.

Those wanting more background on Byzantine Greeks in late medieval Italy should find Johnathan Harris’ paper helpful. It is  online at ORB (here).

There is one point which needs to be mentioned.  Earlier writers simply assumed that the strongly caste-based character of medieval and renaissance Europe was natural, since most were European and their own society was not greatly different in its assumptions and organisation, even as late as the middle of the twentieth century. History was still largely about  kings and ‘things;.  To them it did not seem odd that the history of the ‘renaissance’ should be the history of a relatively small clique, all consciously and determinedly of a particular stratum of society.


Since the second world war, but more especially since the 1970s, economic history, social history, feminist and technical histories have demonstrated the fallacies inherent in the older definition of what constituted ‘importance’ on the historical stage.

However, those older perspectives are the ones which moulded the ideas of Wilfrid Voynich and William Friedman about the Voynich manuscript, and which still inform some of the more traditionalist writers to this day.  The belief of the nineteenth and earlier twentieth century was that to be considered an ‘important’ work of literature or of art, an item must have a history that linked it to some one or more ‘important’ individuals named in historical records.

In the post WWII world, modern historians have worked to balance the picture and redress those narrow and more jingoistic writings on every subject, including science and history.  For one example of how embarrassing the older style can be for a modern mind, let me quote from the still-valuable paper by Loomis, describing what was then (in 1908) the style of a majority:

‘The first modern man’ –  1879

“.. writers of reputation have occasionally ventured the opinion that the revival of the study of the classical literatures, in particular of the Greek language and the Greek writers, which marked the opening of the century, supplied the needed stimulus to the Italian intellect and set it free forever from the bondage of medieval ignorance and superstition; in short, that out of the revival of Greek grew the Italian Renaissance. The revival itself, they tell us, was due largely to the influence of Petrarch, “the first modern man“..[2]

Louise Ropes Loomis, ‘The Greek Renaissance in Italy’, The American Historical Review Vol. 13, No. 2 (Jan., 1908), pp. 246-258

So, today we have such writers as Harris, who has been at pains to study the Greek emigres and expatriates resident in fifteenth-century Venice:

” they provided rowers for Venetian galleys, and carpenters for the Arsenal or shipyard. Between 1400 and 1442 a dynasty of Greek shipwrights dominated the Arsenal, designing galleys for both trade and war. Others, however, worked as tailors and gold wire drawers, or joined the Stradioti, a regiment in Venetian service recruited entirely from Greeks. ..”

Genoese map – from the Red Sea to Japan.  Dated variously 1427 or 1457.


“The Greek presence in Italy was not restricted to Venice. That in southern Italy had existed long before the fifteenth century. The area had been colonised by the Greeks in the eighth century BC, and an influx of refugees from the Arab and Slav invasions in the seventh century AD had reinforced the Greek-speaking element. The Byzantine empire had ruled parts of Southern Italy until 1071. The successes of the Turks in the Balkans, led many Greeks and Albanians to cross the Adriatic in search of safety. Many settled in the countryside but a recognisable Greek community had established itself in Naples by the end of the century.”

and further

the scribes who patiently copied manuscripts of the Greek texts, and later those who assisted in preparing those texts for printing… The obscure individuals known only from the signatures or colophons which they appended to the manuscripts they copied… . Many of these scribes may have originally come to Italy as destitute refugees, and copied manuscripts to earn their living … Many moved from Italy in search of employment elsewhere…. to Basel, … to Paristo Reading in England, where they earned their living by teaching Greek and copying manuscripts for wealthy patrons.”

More comprehensive surveys of that type are invaluable for an accurate idea of what it was like to walk through the streets of fifteenth century Venice… but they can also tend to obscure the fact that in Renaissance northern Italy the people who employed those Greeks and the people who commissioned copies of manuscripts were very much of the ‘kings and things’ mentality themselves.  Cosimo de’Medici wouldn’t have invited a destitute Greek refugee to attend his private ‘Greek academy’ and Strozzi wouldn’t dream of having a galley rower as his Greek tutor.

Altogether it is right to say that the  ‘humanists’ were not socially humane.  They turned to classical texts and to the nobles of Constantinople for their Greek, and soon after began appointing agents (including Poggio Bracciolini) to hunt  the libraries of Latin monasteries and then of  Greek monasteries under Latin control to bring – or as last resort first copy – whatever ancient or classical works could be ‘discovered’- that is, to put it politely, co-opted.

Speaking of Cosimo de’ Medici, Gibbon once said that “he corresponded at once with Cairo and London; and a cargo of Indian spices and Greek books were often imported in the same vessel.”

These aspects of early humanism and of those who indulged their taste for things Greek add to our reasons for doubting that the Voynich text was written by a humanist, whether as copyist or as ‘author’.

Steele and Panofsky both rightly  observed that there is nothing in the Voynich manuscript of Renaissance style, and others have since noted that the texts in which we find a  humanist hand before 1440 are works of literature: classical texts, personal compositions and letters. I wouldn’t claim that no botanical text or herbal was ever written in a humanist hand, even before 1440, but I have yet to see one. (readers may care to enlighten).

from a Karaite manuscript dated to 1010 AD

Of the Greek-speaking Karaite Jews who lived in France, in Occitania, in Constantinople, the Aegean and Crimea, we’ll hear more in the next post.


So until the Aldine Press began issuing Greek classics in print,  the ‘renaissance’ was an aesthetic, social and literary fad among the few, intimately bound up with a fantasy that ‘anyone who was anyone’ had a lineage originating with the  Trojan heroes – a pervasive legend which, ironically enough, had begun rather earlier as a decidedly and consciously anti-Greek polemic.[2]

Sixteenth century Aldine printed edition of a classical Roman text – original binding. see  https://blogs.lib.unc.edu/rbc/index.php/2014/06/29/moving-from-manuscript-to-print/

With relation to Ptolemy’s Geography and its reception: it is a significant factor, when trying to explain why Planudes  separated Ptolemy’s geographic work from that of Strabo -with which it had usually been combined  in the Byzantine tradition –  that while Ptolemy was correctly regarded by them as being not Roman but  a Hellenised Egyptian, he was also believed – wrongly – to have been a king in the dynastic line from Alexander’s general, Ptolemy Lagides, which dynasty ruled in Alexandria from Alexander’s death to that of Cleopatra. By comparison, in the view of that Constantinopolitan elite,  Strabo was  a ‘nobody’.

‘King Ptolemy’

When medieval Latins began trying to picture ‘King Ptolemy’,  they had no idea what an Egyptian-Hellenistic crown might have looked like. Most settled for a version of that crown which they used for images of King David.

It seems to me to be a combination of the Sassanids’ stepped high points united with the fleur-de-lys motif first added to their own crowns by the so-called ‘baptised Saracens’ of Sicily – Roger and Frederick.   A crown of similar sort -it seems to me – also informs a detail on  folio 67v of the Voynich manuscript.

By the late sixteenth century, the type had changed in the Italians’ imagination.





An exception to the general rule that humanists were determined elitists  was given by Marsilio Ficino who, after his ordination in 1473*, asked for an appointment in the heel of Italy so that (as he said) he might study an ‘ancient Greek dialect’ still spoken there by the common people.

Palla Strozzi is believed to have read some Greek,  but the first Latin translation of Ptolemy’s Geography would wait for almost a decade after Chrysoloros brought those maps to Florence.  Jacobus Angelus worked on it or two years:  1406-1407.

PADUA – Place of exiles.

The Strozzi family were prominent opponents of the Medici,  instrumental in having  Cosimo exiled in 1433*. Cosimo went first to Padua.  He then went on to Venice – but the tide of fortune soon reversed (as so often it does) and by 1434 Cosimo was back, and Palla Strozzi  himself sent to exile.

corner of the botanical garden, University of Padua

He went to Padua.

Unlike Cosimo, Palla was never permitted to return to Florence and on his death in 1462, his collection of rare manuscripts was given to the library of St.Giustina, situated  (as we saw) adjacent to Padua’s University.

The University library  claims to be one of the few libraries in Europe never to have suffered from rapine… though one suspects that some losses occurred during  the German-Italian wars of the early sixteenth century (mentioned here).

(detail) coin made for Sinope  (on the Black Sea) 25-24 BC

Postscript: Speaking of Sinope, Strabo wrote : “. ..the city was captured; and though Leucullus kept intact the rest of the city’s adornments, he took away the globe of Billarus.”[3]



  • ‘1433’. The Encyclopaedia Britannia has 1493.
  • ‘1473’ – thus Encyc.Britannica; The Catholic Encyclopaedia has 1477, but it is clear from Ficino’s letters and other evidence that he determined to completed the final four years of his theological studies upon  Cosimo’s death in 1464. Allowing even that he may have delayed a year, for mourning, and had to wait another after completing the degree before defending his thesis,  1473 still seems a little late.

[1] Late in the nineteenth century, parts of that manuscript were offered for sale by a person notorious for selling what he did not pay to acquire, and the folios in question are now distributed between the  British- and the French national libraries.

[2] for a detailed guide see Timothy Arner, The Trojan War in the Middle Ages, Oxford Bibliographies)

[3]  A number of other scholars have posited an ancient (or at least pre-Ptolemac) system as origin for the sort of cartes marine gridded by the Rose.  In a recent talk, Joaquin Gaspar Alves overstated the matter when referring to “a number of historians… [who] have postulate[d] that the medieval portolan charts were… copies of lost prototypes made by some ancient civilization..”

In true that the Hellenistic and earlier world are now largely lost, but  among those who think a Hellenistic (or earlier) period likely for first use of that system are some among the more eminent scholars in the subject, some of whom have also  publicly deplored constant mis-use of’portolan’ to describe such charts. The division of opinion seems, unhappily, to be one of cultural Eurocentricity and nationalism versus objective interest in understanding.

Postscript (23rd June 2017). I’d like to offer a belated acknowledgement. Menno Knul made an earlier mention of St.Giustina and Padua, which seems to have been the first in connection with the VMS.  Writing to  Nick Pelling’s ciphermysteries site, under the page ‘Voynich Theories’,  Menno says he identifies two figures in the  calendar as ” the souls of St. Justina of Padua and St. Parasceva of Rome, both with a martyr’s crown”. Comment dated October 13, 2014 at 7:08 pm



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