Avignon, Maps, Diagrams, big men and mind-sets

I’ve fallen across this picture online, and cannot for the life of me find a note of which manuscript it’s from. If anyone happens to know, do leave the reference. (ignore arrows on the picture; they’re not original)

Opicinus worthies

The diagram was made by Opicinus de Canistris (1296–c. 1353), born in in Lomello, near Pavia. Lomello is 84 kilometers from Piacenza by the Po, and about the same distance across country to Bobbio – if that means anything.  Anti-Ghibbeline, gifted draughtsman and very deeply affected by the general belief of his time that his world was one where all natural objects and all events were intentional and rational expressions of a divine mind.

His cast of mind is not one which is easily appreciated today.  But it may be that the text of MS Beinecke 408 is devised by reference to correspondences then perceived, but which now can be appreciated only with effort.


As a short guide to entering the worldview of educated Latins about that time, I usually recommend Chapters 7-10 of Veronika Sekules, Medieval Art (Oxford History of…). as a first, easy introduction.

Nothing beats Barbara Carruthers‘ works for insight, information and culture-shock value.  Start with her The Book of Memory.

And if you have Latin and really want to get into the feel of the thing, see how you enjoy Jane Stevenson‘s work, beginning with her article Altus Prosator’, Celtica 23 (1999). 

This sort of mindset can’t be intuited. If you have trouble understanding your grandparent’s minset, and they had equal difficulty understanding theirs’, then what hope of you really of imagining how someone who lived 24 generations ago might have gone about creating a cipher for their own purposes?  If it is enciphered.

I bet it would never occur to you to link the points of the compass with notable personages of the church, to which letters of your own name are found to correspond, and then this crossing to the musical scale?

But people ‘perceived’ such connections in the world back then, and set them down as insight into the world which, as they firmly believed, was a rationally ordered universe created specifically to ‘speak’ to human kind through words and phenomena.

Oh – almost forgot.  Isidore‘s Etymologiae is essential reading, I should say. People read pictures in terms of words, and in the Latin world, the word itself informed the viewer of the deeper meaning in the picture.  That’s one way I know that our ‘sheep’ are not sheep, but goats in MS Beinecke 408.

Opicinus had the ‘correlation’ bug very badly, though, even for someone of his time  – to the point where Richard Salomon thought him deranged. I just think that Opicinus was an extreme case; I’ve read worse in medieval exegetical texts and sermons.

This post about Opicinus is not only to find the reference for that picture.  It’s also to note his connection to fourteenth century Avignon and his allegorised maps, but mainly because one of the first western writers to write about Opicinus by that name is a man whom Irwin Panofsky shows he had read: Richard Salomon. He doesn’t say exactly which of Salomon’s articles he had read, but in answering Friedman’s questions, Irwin was brief and non-committal in the extreme. (I’ve already written a post explaining that).

Opicinus’ name was mentioned in 2002 on the old Voynich mailing list too. The first in the thread appears to be a post from Petr Kazil on April 14th., 2002. (here).

At the time, as you’ll see there, Nick Pelling was inclined to think the writer of the Voynich text deranged, too, but more study of the manuscript changed his mind about that, and his book, Curse of the Voynich (2006 and still in print)  suggests it the work of an Italian architect.

The early 2000s, in general, was a time when the atmosphere in Voynich studies was frosty if any suggestion was made of an other-than-modern mindset.  Italian humanism and the north post-Luther were ok, but there Europe’s earlier culture was very much *out* unless you wanted to be banished to the fringe.

It was still pretty much that way in 2011, but I’m glad to see that things have relaxed a lot, and more people are referring to people such as Franciscans etc., and even Rene has nodded in the direction of plants from the non-European corpus (not by reference to any of my hundred of pages of demonstration and argument for eastern influence in that section and the ‘pharma-‘ section, I think, but one short article in which Wiart and Mazar referred to two folios.  Voynich researchers have their habits; it’s just the vibe of the thing.)

Nothing  that I’ve seen in MS Beinecke 408 suggests that  Opicinus drew it, but he did live in Avignon, and was interested in mapping and diagrams at just the time that the style of older mappa mundi was passing in favour of the newer rhumb-gridded type, which informs his own work.

Mary d’Imperio‘s ‘Elegant Enigma‘ mentions Opicinus. (Her work is available online as a pdf, if you didn’t know).

Richard G. Salomon‘s articles are found in The Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes,

‘A Newly Discovered Manuscript of Opicinus de Canistris: A Preliminary Report’ (XVI, 1953, pp. 45-57)

‘Aftermath to Opicinus de Canistris’ (XXV, 1962, pp. 137-146).

More recently:

Catherine Harding, ‘Opening to God: The Cosmographical Diagrams of Opicinus de Canistris’, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 61. Bd., H. 1 (1998), pp. 18-39.

articles by Salomon and Harding are available through JSTOR.


  1. Diane: Please try to get past D’Imperio’s nonsensical publication. I’m not sure if she published before Friedman’s nervous breakdown (and Tiltman returning to England) or after those events.
    This note is my third attempt to contact this day.


    • Yes, thanks for reminding me to come back to the post and add those details.

      The diagram should be cited as Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 1993 folio 1v or, alternatively, if you want to go direct to the online version (exactly the same as that which Marco cites), it’s

      Marco, I hope you enjoy Opicinus’works now that you’ve been introduced to them. I do think that much of the secondary literature should be read with reservation; that his motivation has been misread by moderns, and as a result his character, too. Perhaps one day I should produce an essay about it; it’s another of those back-of-the-stove things which simmer quietly for years.


  2. Yes, Diane, Mary D’ did her best. But as far as I could determine, the guys basically just dumped the whole shebang on her — and left her to take the brunt of the resulting disappointment and outrage of many ‘codiologists’ who found no sense nor code anywhere in her publication.
    The V(ery) M(ysterious) S(cript) is only mysterious because it is nonsensible and impossible to decode. BUT it is very easy to TRANSLATE

    You are very much on the same path to discovery of the base language of B-408. I reiterate that it is handwritten, phonetically correct Latin — as taught to his students who translated every word into the Nahuatl spelling of each word. Spoken Nahuatl does have an alpha character for the sound of er (as in water). Nor does Nahuatl have a “W’, but uses ‘oa-tl’ for the word water. Or o-qua-tl-e-ce-a-xeus. for the scientific word for something watery.


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