The great Aldrovandi…

… owned a Ming bowl..

Musaeum Metallicum Pl.26

Musaeum Metallicum Pl.26

R. W. Lightbown, ‘Oriental Art and the Orient in Late Renaissance and Baroque Italy’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 32 (1969), p.229


Ulisse Aldrovandi, you may recall, first described a group of manuscripts in his collection not as herbals but as  ‘plants of the alchemists’.


Rene’s reference to these herbals took up a suggestion first offered by Philip Neal (as far as I know) and which had then been seconded and clarified by  Dennis Stallings – both communicating through the old Voynich mailing-list.


Rene then spent a considerable time adding detail to that initial idea, while consulting and collaborating with others less directly involved in Voynich studies. In this case, as so many others, Neal’s instinct was shown to be well-based. Some imagery in manuscripts of that type some did show stylistic similarities to one or more images in the Voynich botanical section.


I can’t offer links to Rene’s ideas or writing on the subject, since as far as I know he prefers not to share his views until after he has published them commercially.  Since the journals are not always in English, or easy to find,  I can’t offer a link to those either, but he does reference them on his own web-page – e.g. here under  ‘Voynich solvers’.


Philip Neal, in his own discussion neglects to mention that the first suggestion of that link was his (or I think so).


He notes that medieval European  herbals were edited, added to, and adjusted to suit the needs of an individual, and in the same way it is possible that locally-available plants might be substituted for ones listed in an older work, but not readily obtainable.


A reciprocal habit appears to me to inform the botanical imagery in the Voynich, eastern plants being classified by cross-reference to some plant of the Theophrastan corpus.


In relation to the alchemists’ plants, Neal refers to Vera Segre Rutz’ work in establishing a  ‘family tree’ for manuscripts of this type, some being traced more directly than others to a presumed  ‘ur-text’ in early fifteenth-century Italy.


Aldrovandi himself (1522-1607) owned four of these odd type which are characterised ~ to quote Neal ~ by  “their somewhat surreal illustrations… a common textual tradition based on a fixed list of 98 plants which is extended in some manuscripts but always appears in the same, non-alphabetical order…. The Voynich manuscript is certainly not a copy or translation of any of them, but .. they are a close analogue in various ways.”


Rene, as far as I know, came to form the same view.


So if the Voynich is not a book of alchemists’ plants, but has points in common, it can be reasonably supposed (as it generally is) to have some kind of connection to that region and time.


Aldrovandi donated his four manuscripts of that type to the Library of Bologna, where he taught.  In addition, Aldrovandi in later life was appointed Inspector of Pharmaceuticals, so it seems reasonable to suppose that he might know which plants were of interested to pharmacists, and which of greater interest to ‘alchemy’ – in whatever sense that should be taken.


In general, European and Islamic alchemy is said to consist of two pursuits: the search for an elixir of eternal youth, and a search for means to turn base metals into gold.


Baresch seems fairly plainly to have seen the manuscript as interested chiefly in the former, though it is not impossible that the manuscript was intended to serve both these purposes, in addition to any others.  In the month-roundels, the care with which the various observation-towers (or ‘barrels’) are provided with their independent patterns does suggest a correlation with the similarly systematic patterning of the shores in f.86v and so may represent stones. In both Theophrastus’ work and Indian compendia such as the Brht Samhita, stones, stars and weather are commonly discussed together with plants and their products.


Alrovandi was highly regarded by his associates and students, but not universally. His Antidotarii Bononiensis Epitome was published posthumously in 1615.


Martin Lister’s memoirs include a memorandum of opinions given him by  John [W]Ray, whom Lister respected but who had little faith in anything not published while Aldrovandi lived. He:


.. commended the descriptions [of plants] of John Bauhinus and Caspars Pinax, as alsoe those of Clusius. and questioned not the Authoritie of Prosper Alpinas upon the subject of Exotique plants and those of Egipt.


What he was not satisfied with any thing that was published \out/ of Aldrovandus save the Tome of Birds which he himself put out whilst in his life-times. In the rest of his Workes is great confusion

To the same misfortune befell J. Bauhinus, though he had brough[t] them to a greater perfection before \his/ death yet he had observed that when Authors put the last hand to their Workes and delivered them out sheet by sheet to the Presse they corrected many things mistakes.


Although none of these men had been born, and even the text of Dioscorides was yet to be translated when the Voynich manuscript was made, Ray’s reference to Alpini is of interest with regard to alchemy and exotic plants.


Alpini’s  De plantis Aegypti would be the first printed work in Europe to discuss the flora of Egypt. It would become routine to issue it together with his ‘Dialogue on Balsam’ though in fact the ‘dialogue’ is between three people all of whom seem to have been physicians: Abdella, an Egyptian; Abdachim A Jew whose country is not specified; and Alpinus who describes himself as an Italian rather than a man of one or another city.


In a later publication about Egypt there is an interesting illustration, one which associates the “Balsam”  plant with Ain Shams, and where Alpini speaks of the ‘Balsam of Egypt’ this is more precisely described.


Ain Shams is ancient Heliopolis where ~ as was noted earlier ~  medieval writers in Arabic centred the origin of ancient Egyptian alchemy, and indeed of their contemporary alchemy.  The balsam’s history is a paradoxical one to which I’ll return in this post or (if it grows too long) in the next.


(N.B.: I had originally described the illustration as from Alpini’s (1592) publication. I apologise for the error. It comes rather from when I should have captioned it as from B. Maillet, Description de l’Egypte contenant plusieurs remarques curieuses sur la géographie ancienne et moderne de ce païs (1735).

Balsam blog

Anna Roos edited an online edition of Lister’s Travel Journal and Memoirs for the Oxford site,  adding notes. Among them is the following  (f.315r):

“Alpini’s De plantis Aegypti … Accessit etiam liber de balsamo, alias editus (Venice, 1592), later edited by Johannes Vesling (Padua, 1638; 1640). This work was a pioneering study of Egyptian flora included in the writings of Linnaeus, who named the genus Alpinia (Zingiberaceae) in his honor. Among the plants previously undescribed by a European botanical text were the coffee bush (Coffea arabica L.), banana (Musa sp.), and baobab (Adansonia digitata L.). As the result of his studies of Egyptian flora, Alpini also published De balsamo dialogus (1591), a fictional dialogue involving the author, an Egyptian physician, and a Jew, who discuss the source of balsam. See Jerry Stannard, ‘Alpini, Prospero’, Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 2008.”

“Memoirs and  Travel Journal of Dr Martin Lister (1639-1712)” – Bodleian MS Lister 5, ff. 215-227.


Now if we may assume, as we must in the absence of  evidence to the contrary, that the Voynich manuscript was inscribed early in the fifteenth century, and further that Roos is not mistaken here, then representation of the banana in the Voynich manuscript not only predates by almost two centuries its first European depiction, but its first description among European botanists.


In Voynich studies, the ‘plants of the alchemists’ are constantly mentioned and often by reference to the text of Dioscorides, but in fact Dioscorides’ herbal was translated from the Greek half a century after the Voynich had been made. Its first translator into Latin was  Ermolao Barbaro (1453/4 – 1493), who took up the work in his later years: 1480s.


Subsequently, an index to Dioscorides was prepared by Amato Lusitano, a most learned physician and one who would usually be a fair candidate for authorship of the Voynich – except of course that he too was born a century too late (1511). He might still be regarded in my opinion a reasonable candidate for the author of some marginal inscriptions in the Voynich.


With all this, and the loss of Jewish tradition and expertise in medicine, Europe’s knowledge of both botany and chemistry still fell short of what had been known to the learned in the Mediterranean world of fifteen hundred years before.


Palmer said in a paper written quite twenty years ago that having a translation of Dioscorides did not make the plants in Dioscorides’ herbal available.


Through the sixteenth century ~  that is, the century after the Voynich manuscript was made ~  strenuous efforts were being made both to identify the absent plants and then to locate and acquire them. Apparently, cinnamon and balsam (of Egypt) were now among them. Palmer says:


“… in view of the difficulties which it faced, it is remarkable how far the Dioscorides project got in the sixteenth century. Its progress was charted in the successive editions of Mattioli’s commentary on Dioscorides: long lists of missing drugs in the 1540s – balsam, cinnamon, petroselinum, myrrh, amomum, calamus odoratus and so on – followed by continuous reporting of rediscoveries as ambassadors, travellers, doctors on Venetian ships, or in consulates and embassies in Cairo, Constantinople and elsewhere, were drawn into the search for classical plants.”


Richard Palmer, ‘Medical botany in northern Italy in the Renaissance’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Volume 78 February 1985,  pp.149-157                                  (available as a pdf – automatic download)


It will be seen that on chronological grounds, Aldrovandi’s designation of some botanical manuscripts as ‘alchemists plants’ is tangential to the business of researching the lineage for the Voynich manuscript, all the more so because similarities between it and the matter in the  ‘alchemical plants’ books are so few, the similarity between them consisting chiefly of stylistic similarities  so far as anyone has been able to determine up until now.


The  “alchemists’ de Plantis” (so to speak) are generally judged –  as Neal says –  ‘they are simply herbals’.


It does not appear to me that the Voynich manuscript’s plants constitute a herbal in the western style, and it includes plants apparently not known to western botany for a considerable time. So if the similar custom of including in the drawings such things as  “strange roots shaped like animals or contorted into geometrical patterns, and some of the leaves are drawn with eyes” then it is more likely that this peculiar custom was the norm elsewhere, coming from that source more or less directly but not implying a direct link between the Voynich manuscript and herbal books of that type.  It is also possible, of course, that the ‘alchemists’ plants’ chosen to make up the ’98’ n these books omitted others unavailable, such as the balsam or banana.


It is in Aldrovandi’s work on metals that a picture of his  Ming bowl appears (see header picture), the reason for its being there an illustration of the then-generally held view that Chinese porcelain was a half-baked version of the incubated ‘Murrhine glass’ known to imperial Rome.


Contemporary Rome was interested in porcelain too, and more generally in the far east.  The Jesuit superior in sixteenth-century Japan arranged in 1581 for two Samurai to be sent to visit Rome. What follows from Lightbown:


The samurai reached Leghorn in March 1585. Thence they went first to Pisa, the winter capital of the Medici, where they were received on the stairs of his palace by the Grand-Duke Francesco, the same who carried out experiments to discover the nature of porcelain. The samurai presented Francesco with

an inkwell of a black wood very shiny and very sweet-smelling, . .. two pieces of paper made from the bark of a tree, on one of which is written in their language the Most Holy Name of God and of the most glorious Virgin Mary, two other leaves of paper made from a cane, so thin it is impossible to conceive how it can be used for writing from its excessive thinness. . . a dress of their fashion

On 22 March the four reached Rome. A report sent to Venice describes their manners and costume in careful and lively detail and concludes:

As gifts to His Holiness and others they have brought various products of their country, such as cloth hangings and other most pleasing objects, caskets and inkwells of a sort of cane, which are prized more than if they were of silver. Together with other things they gave His Holiness a picture [about four feet high and eight or ten feet long] in which is painted the principal city of Japan, called Nobunanga.

From Rome the samurai proceeded by way of Loretto and Ferrara to Venice, which they reached on 26 June. At Venice they were given a state reception. They presented to the Doge a dress of white tabine in the form of long breeches joined together, with a dress of half patchwork decorated in various colours with birds, flowers and foliage; a half jerkin of brocade of blue and yellow silk woven with figures and foliage, an upper garment of taffeta, with half-length sleeves, lined with red sarsenet, interwoven and partly dyed with various colours; a scimitar with the ferrule and grip-cap of gold, and with a scabbard set with mother-of-pearl, and a dagger with a handle of gold and its peg all of gold, its cord of woven silk of divers colours and its tuft enveloped in a cover of silk and silver; a little dagger in the form of a knife with a black sheath like ebony painted with gold and with a little knife having a silver handle and two vire (bands?) of gold on the handle in a cover of laminated sarsenet.

Their gifts were kept in the armoury of the Council of Ten until the end of the eighteenth century, disappearing only with the fall of the republic. On 6 July the samurai left Venice for Mantua. On their way they passed through Verona, where two of them visited the cabinet of scientific specimens collected by Francesco Calceolari (Calzolari) a learned apothecary of the city and a distinguished naturalist.


But Sassetti later wrote in an aggrieved and somewhat unpleasant tone, complaining of the Japanese, and of the Jesuits because the minds of the former were too high, and the concerns and communications of the latter all about religion.


What the sixteenth and seventeenth century records suggest is that contemporary European botanists and alchemists alike produced pure vitriol more readily and constantly than knowledge, elixirs or gold.


Those fathers have now entered into the kingdom of China, but as their sole end is to make Christians, they spend no time on what does not relate to their purpose. And so you shall find that those letters De Rebus Japonicis are entirely directed to giving an account of such matters, with nothing more, or if there is something else in them, it is directed to [the same]  end.


R. W. Lightbown, ‘Oriental Art and the Orient in Late Renaissance and Baroque Italy’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 32 (1969), pp. 228-279.

techne inkwell 16thC

published April 4th., 2013


(.. looks as if Balsam will have to wait till next time. )

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