Q: Who first said that? A: Wilfrid Voynich (Pt 2)

As far as we know the “collection” which included the Voynich manuscript in 1912 had been a group of manuscripts kept a trunk nominally accorded one Fr. Petrus Beckx.  I say ‘nominally’ because this appearance of personal ownership was appearance only. It provided the only legal loophole by which members of the Jesuit Order in Frascati could prevent complete disintegration of a library preserved there (and presumably added to) over several centuries. The Jesuits themselves readily said that they had done this, and considered themselves caretakers of these manuscripts. It was as communal property that they were offered so quietly to Voynich in 1912, when the Order was much in need of ready money.

As late as 1921, Wilfrid still hoped to acquire more from the same source, as he says clearly in this lecture to the Physicians of Philadelphia:

“As I hope some day to be able to acquire the remaining manuscripts in the collection, I refrain from giving details about the locality of the castle. (footnote, p.419)

On the Villa Mondragone as ‘castle’, a glance at the old complex and even the wiki article is enough:

Villa Mondragone is … in an area called, from its many castles and villas, Castelli Romani.  Construction [of the complex] began in 1573 by Cardinal Mark Sittich von Hohenems Altemps, who commissioned the design for it and for the Palazzo Altemps in central Rome from Martino Longhi the Elder, on the site of the remains of a Roman villa of the consular family of the Quintilii. It was at the Villa (by when it had come to be known as Mondragone) that Pope Gregory in 1582 promulgated the document … which initiated the reform … known as the Gregorian calendar.

In 1620, the owners of the villa bequeathed the Mondragone library to the Vatican library [but] from about 1626, the Pope increasingly preferred to reside at [another papal residence] Castelgandolfo.

… In 1865 the Jesuits established a college in the Villa. It continued in operation until 1953, having served as a centre to shelter refugees during the second world war.

 It remains a seat of learning to this day, having been sold to the University of Rome in 1981.

Voynich purchased 30 manuscripts from this ‘Castle’, including the Voynich manuscript.

Note that the building having earlier become a papal seat, its library had to be formally made property of the Vatican library. This doesn’t necessarily imply physical removal of the books to the Vatican. All it means is that the Pope could cart away any books he liked and leave them at any of what were, in effect, ‘branch libraries’.

About the place where he found his supposed ‘Bacon manuscript, Voynich was extremely reticent to the day of his death, and certainly in the 1920s.  His habit seems less to have indulged in untruths, as to have employed diplomatic silence, ‘encoded’ truths or to have permitted his hearers to persist in mistaken association of this work with a group gained earlier from a castle in Austria.

Of the Austrian visit, which appears from a letter written in 1917 to have occurred in 1910-11, Voynich was much more open, but obfuscation was certainly easier given the frequency of his continental visits.  His first sentence addressed to the Physicians speaks of coming across the ‘ugly duckling’ in 1912, during

” one of my periodic visits to the Continent of Europe to acquire rare manuscripts”

Unless his counting was very much out, Voynich makes clear in a letter to Prof. Wilkins dated 27 February 1917* that a certain manuscript of Boccaccio had come from large collection of manuscripts acquired the year before: between (say) late 1910 and early-ish 1911, because he speaks of that set of manuscripts being found six years previously.

Six. Rounding off  is usual when counting years, so we may say late in 1910 to early 1911, but I doubt he’d be out by a full 365 days.

So, let’s posit that Wilfrid gained the highly ornate Italian manuscripts from that castle in Austria in 1910-11, and in the following year, in southern Europe (as he explained to the Physicians of Philadelphia in 1921), he found among other manuscripts, the ‘cipher manuscript’ which he instantly attributed to Roger Bacon.

For what I shall term the ‘Austrian’ group, Wilfrid felt less need for discretion, but even as late as 1921, his discretion about the source of the ‘Roger Bacon’ manuscript was plainly still in effect.

So, it is reasonable to suppose that the highly detailed and ornate provenance offered for most of the manuscripts which Voynich took with him to America in 1915 were from the earlier, Austrian, collection.  His aim was to raise money, and interest – for which it was eminently practical to emphasise the reflected glory of former foreign Dukes and Princes.   As the newspaper reports show, Voynich expanded on these things, and on everything save his own history and the place where the ‘cipher manuscript’ had been acquired.  His business profited by a combination of snob-value and dollar value, and the reports published by American newspapers obliged by emphasising both.


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