The “Voynich albarello” – deconstructing a phantom Pt 1

The idea that any of the containers pictured in MS Beinecke 408 is a European-made pharmacy jar has been about so long, and repeated by so many, that the name of the first person to have conceived the idea may be lost to history.

As a recent instance of the habit, and one expressed more cautiously than most, Nick Pelling’s post may serve as example.

In one instance he says …:

* The dot pattern on some of the ‘pharma’ glassware (i.e. fol 89r-1 and f89r-2) ……

[see Beinecke Image ID: 1006233] …

Though he puts the ‘pharma’ in quotation marks no one hears them as “air quotes”: the term is taken literally by the greater proportion of those interested in the manuscript, few if any pausing to ask if the idea is based in fact.

If the section were described instead as e.g. “the roots-and-leaves” section, it might avoid begging the question of purpose for these images, but as I say the other habit is now ingrained and with it come equally ingrained and unquestioned assumptions about medical use, botanical folios’ being supposedly “a herbal” and so on.

The folios which Pelling mentions show pictures among the most ornate in the section, and resemble not in the least any items which were made for, or used by, pharmacies in Europe to 1438 – to judge from the documentary and archaeological evidence I’ve seen. There appears to be no more support, either, for the idea that the disposition of the page, or any habit of drawing roots and leaves in horizontal registers reflects the practices of  Latin European texts about herbal medicines or pharmacy.

In particular, and while I would agree that glass containers appear in folios 89r-1 and 89r-2, none were made in Europe for use by pharmacies during the fifteenth century, and there is no hard evidence to show that European pharmacies of the time had any desire to keep their goods in ornate glass containers of local make rather than those of cheaper earthenware with which our galleries and museums are so familiar. Certainly nothing of the type occurs there within the radiocarbon date range published by the University of Arizona (1405-1438 AD).

Unlike many, Pelling appears to have realised this awkward fact, but since his theory has it that the containers shown on f.89r-1 and 89r-2 were made by glassmakers on the island of Murano,  during the fifteenth century, his recent post argues that the radiocarbon dates of 1405-1438 should be stretched another two or three generations, to about 1500.ivory detail V&A

That’s equivalent to the difference between saying an object was made in 1905 and that it was made in 2000.  To argue such an amount of leeway on the basis that a ‘dot pattern’ on some reminds him of Murano glass made after 1500 1475 (thanks, K.T) is scarcely enough.  One might as well say it reminds one of patterns conventional for metal and ivory.

And even if his argument were allowed, it would hardly improve the case.

It was not until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that objects made on Murano reached such a level of complexity as those in the folio Pelling references. I’ll come back to this point later in the series.

Basic questions:

The essential questions which should have been asked many years ago are these: Did Europeans use locally-produced glass containers in their pharmacies before 1438, or again (separately) by 1450? by 1500? And in the case of an Italian hypothesis: If so, were the containers obtained from Murano? and if obtained from Murano, do they closely resemble what we see in fols. 89r-1 and 89r-2?

On all counts, the answers would appear to be in the negative.

I can find nothing to suggest that any type of glass pharmacy container was produced in Europe, and particularly the island of Murano, even by 1450, nor that any containers formed like those in folios 89r-1 and 89r-2 were made in Europe for use of pharmacies by 1500.

As for the myth that the Voynich manuscript pictures albarelli: it is baseless.  And thus, need one say, the manuscript depicts no  ‘glass albarello’ or ‘glass pharmacy jar’ either.

The  nearest we have to a European-made glass object alluding to the albarello was not made in Italy but in Austria, and after 1437. It was certainly not made to stand on a pharmacy bench or shelf.

Its form unites those of the chalice and monstrance but its ‘cup’ is shaped like the earthenware albarelli.  The glass is neither clear, nor strongly coloured, but a monochrome grey with impurities.  It wasn’t made on Murano.  And the Voynich manuscript contains nothing formed as this object is, either.

glass albarello 15th-16thC

As the curatorial description emphasises, that object is formed like an albarello, but provided with a cover and type of foot that albarelli were not given.

They were either flat bottomed, or raised on a single extra ring (no stem) and they were not provided lids, but were sealed with parchment tied with a piece of leather or string, as home-made  pots of jam may be, even now.

The way in which it was covered is why fritware Persia 13thCEuropean albarelli had a necks formed as they were – more or less true to the form we see here in a thirteenth century example from Persia (right).  European albarelli, however, didn’t use such a fine rolled rim.

In some cases it is clear that pharmacists in Europe might import some rare and exotic ingredient in its original container, and then display the container on their shelves as advertisement and (not always genuine) mark of authenticity. A jar might serve as a sort of brand.

That is why the archaeological and documentary evidence on the one hand show nothing to suggest ornate pharmacy vessels being made in Europe – and certainly not in Murano – in the fifteenth century, yet from the fourteenth we sometimes see in manuscript art a greater variety of jars and containers.

In some cases – such as copies of the Tacuinum sanitatis – the containers appear to have been copied when the original text (by a physician trained in Nisibis or Jundishapur) was translated and copied.  In other cases, such as paintings of the Magi, the painter tried to find a suitably ‘oriental’ object to include in the painting.

Such things cannot be used to assert that similar objects were being made and regularly used in European pharmacy shops  – not without archaeological or physical evidence in support.

But from all this it follows that no person who lived in fifteenth century Europe could have first drawn the containers which we see in folios 89r-1 and 89r-2  if their intention was to refer to glass pharmacy vessels, or such vessels being made in Murano, for  no such model of “Murano pharmacy ware’ existed either  for the draughtsman or for his readers, and by which such an intention could be conveyed.

From about the thirteenth century there were just two types of ornamented pharmacy jars common in Latin Europe, both imitating Asian ceramics.

To imitate the look of Chinese porcelain, a tin-glaze had been laid over earthenware and decorated with more-or-less similar colours and motifs – first in Persia.   Some eastern ceramics of this sort came to be made in Europe by way of Islamic imitations, but others appear to have been gained more directly through Europeans’ presence in the eastern Mediterranean, and their trade networks which connected with major entrepots of the eastern Mediterranean, north African coast, and Black Sea.

One type was known as an  Orciuolo and the other as albarello. Nothing like them appears in the Voynich manuscript. None of its containers have handles, and none have the  albarello’s defining concave waist, nor even the simple, collared form of the ‘caddy’ – of which a fifteenth century Florentine version is shown below, right.

This does not mean that MS Beinecke 408 was not made in earlier fifteenth century Europe, but does strongly suggest that the leaves-and-roots section is not talking about pharmacy jars nor Latin herbal medicines.  Because the ‘leaf-and-root’ section is plainly interconnected with the botanical section,  the same caveat must apply to  assertions about the latter as ‘a typically Latin herbal’, despite the herculean efforts which have worked to support that assertion once made.

container Orciuolo 1431maybe Florence phps Giunta di Tugio died ca 1466 Maiolica

Orciuolo. Tin-glazed earthenware. 1431. Perhaps made in Florence.

container Albarello early 15thC Florence fish

‘Albarello’ –  imitation of an Asian caddy jar without its cap-lid. Florence. early 15thC


It is interesting to note how well the fifteenth-century Florentine jar (above, right) works to imitate the style of Yuan (Mongol period) ceramics.  The fish is given the carp’s characteristic bristles, though when it came to the same, which adorn the chin of the Ki-lin (Qilin), the Florentine artist was plainly bewildered, and the result becomes a fox-faced deer with a spiky chin.

Yuan pair for Florence

Yuan period ceramics. Typical motifs. Qilin (left) and fish (right) in dense floral patterns in blue and white.

container albarello 15thC Florence

‘caddy’ style jar. Florence. early 15thC. The term ‘albarello’ is too loosely applied in this case.


While the usual type of pharmacy container, by the middle of the fifteenth century, appears to have been a wooden canister, or an earthenware orciuolo or the soon ubiquitous albarello, the last-named has four standard characteristics: a concave waist; a flat base or a single ring of additional earthenware to serve as ‘foot’; lid-less; made of tin-glazed earthenware.

Nothing of that description is to be seen in MS Beinceke 408, and certainly not in f.89r-1 and 89r-2.

The conclusion must be that there are no albarelli, and certainly no glass albarelli, pictured in the Voynich manuscript.


For reasons best known to the writer of the wiki article entitled ‘Albarello’, the illustration chosen shows none of the characteristics which define the type. It is not only made without a waist, but of faience etc. and is from Spain where the term ‘albarelo’ was certainly used, but not necessarily of objects such as the one illustrated.

Because I expect there will be some discomfort for those who believed that the Voynich ‘albarelli’ were one of the few certainties, and who may then feel impatient that it should be contested after all this time, let me offer the form’s definition by (i) standard curatorial descriptions, (ii) a physical example, and (iii) an archaeological drawing – the last to show its characteristic profile, and as important difference from the Voynich images – the form for the albarello’s foot.


  1. … a type of waisted, cylindrical vessel used as a drug jar, commonly made of majolica.
  2. Based on Persian designs said to emulate bamboo (the traditional manufacturing material), the jars are usually cylindrical with a slightly concave waist. Variations in size and style can be seen from region to region, ranging from 10 cm to 40 cm in height. Such jars served both functional and decorative purposes in traditional apothecaries and pharmacies, and represented status and wealth. The jars were generally sealed with a piece of parchment or leather tied with a piece of cord.

Note that the last phrase. Albarelli, of the sort obtained by European pharmacies before the fifteenth century, and thereafter made there, were provided without lids.  Manufacture of that traditional form continued thereafter, in Europe, until after the middle of the sixteenth century. The example below was made then, in Venice. (Picture courtesy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica).

Albarello Venice c1560

Albarello, Venice c.1560

The albarello was tin-glazed, which means its basic glaze was white, often overpainted using little more than techniques of pen-drawing and brush-painting – and not rarely in just one or two colours. It had a waist – not a belly, but not straight up-and-down either.

Although it is an over-simplification, general histories commonly say that the form of the albarello was brought by ‘Moorish’ traders from Spain to Mallorca, and thence to Italy, European manufacture only beginning about the beginning of the fifteenth century.  Below, we have a fourteenth century Spanish tin-glazed earthenware albarelo which again expresses the usual defining characteristics: waisted, unlidded, with a simple ring below and tin-glazed.  And this example is well within the radiocarbon date range of 1405-1438.

But still, nothing like this appears in the supposed ‘pharma’ section of MS Beinecke 408…. why not?

container Albarello 14thC

The design was so constant, that we can even move back another century, that is to the thirteenth century and the period to which most of the early appraisals assigned the manuscript by its appearance and imagery, and we can move into the Aegean, to the Morea under Frankish rule, but again the albarello appears in its typical and immediately identifiable form. Unlidded, waisted with a simple base.  These too were of tin-glazed earthenware.


The type, as you see, is quite consistent. And just as a matter of interest, the first to have reached mainland Europe might not have been brought by ‘Moorish traders’ but by Europeans living in the Morea, or Venetian or Genoese traders who brought them direct from Syria and Egypt.  We certainly have record of Venetian traders having purchased and stored for sale and on-trade at home ceramic containers purchased in Syria.

The point is only of general interest, of course,  since there are no albarelli pictured in the Voynich manuscript.

Part 2 ..  The phantom “glass albarello”


Anyone interested in studying the history of European pharmacy vessels, how their form evolved and what materials were used in a given place at a given period, the following were recommended in 1992 by George Griffenhagen of Vienna,Virginia in his review of Ramon Jordi González’ El albarelo Tapa blanda. see Pharmacy in History, Vol. 34, No. 1 (1992), p. 56.

  1. Rudolf Drey, Apothecary Jars (London, 1978) This was reprinted as Les Pots de Pharmacie du Monde Entier (Paris, 1984) and in Lydia Mez-Mangold’s Apotheken-Keramik-Sammlung Roche (Basel, 1990).
  2. D.A. Wittop Koning,  Delft Drug Jars (Deventer, 1954).
  3. J.K . Crellin, Medical Ceramics (London, 1969).









  1. Hi Diane: your post doesn’t seem to match anything of what I’ve written about the “albarelli” over the last 15 years.

    The things I tentatively called “albarelli” were specifically the decorated “barrel”-like objects in the first few zodiac pages. My contention since about 2004 or so is that their sparse, geometric decoration style would seem to be consistent with the Florentine fashion for Islamic-inspired decorative art in the third quarter of the 15th century, a relatively short-term fad that is well-attested in the maiolica literature.

    Whether these are barrels or albarelli or whatever may not actually make much difference in the big scheme of things: the similarity I pointed out was with the decorative style as used by numerous different artisans in that period, not just maiolica makers.

    Quite separately, the pharma “containers” (of which only a few could reasonably be interpreted as being glassware) are something else entirely – and also far more problematic, square pegs that resist being fitted into the round pigeonholes into which people try to squeeze them, whether monstrances, ointment jars, SantaColoma’s “telescopes” / “microscopes”, or whatever.

    Hence my reference to “pharma ‘glassware'” is specifically to those containers in the pharma section whose decoration appears – e.g. from rows of dots, of which you can see plenty if you visit the Murano glass museum – to be entirely typical of the decorative style used for Murano glassware circa 1450-1500.

    Your post therefore seems to have conflated these two very different categories into a single straw man uber-category. Your whole “phantom albarello” notion would therefore seem to built upon a misconception rather than a research challenge.


    • Nick, if you just want to have a grump, that’s ok. But I hope you’d also like to consider another angle on this, so I’ll explain my reasons for writing these posts.

      First of all, my post isn’t about a quibble about your post. It’s about fallacies and fact, and how fallacies take root in the absence of evidence and, in fact, the absence of research.

      Fact is, there are no albarelli pictured in the manuscript, and the manuscript shows no container anything like the sort of pharmacy bottles and ewers which are seen in pharmacies to the end of the fifteenth century.

      Why has it taken until now for people to do such basic checking of theory against fact?

      There is nothing like the tin-glazed ware we call majolica, either, and that includes the ‘barils’ whose form is clearly shown to be a cylinder of the type we’d call a drum, and which the latins called a sitella – nice medieval homophony-etymology might be lurking there.

      I’ve done that sort of basic spadework, and a little more besides. I see no reason to date the manuscript later than c.1437, nor any reason to doubt what it contains settled any later than the fourteenth century – as last recension – bar a few twiddly bits, marginalia and so on.

      But you and I see the manuscript as presenting different problems. You see it as an historical problem; I see it as one of provenancing. That is, not assigning its manufacture to a time and place, but setting out the imagery’s origin, development through time, significance for those who first enunciated it, and probable interpretation by its last copyists.

      It’s taken a while, hasn’t it? 🙂


      • Whoo boy! Both of my favorite people conversing,! Even if neither of you can read my contributions/translations of the dialogues which appear with every pictorial element of B-408.
        One of Nick’s ‘regulars’ recently corrected my spelling of B-408’s museum (?) Library (?) Every morning, with ‘cuppa’ in hand, I sign on to the WWW — and proceed to read everything y’all write. “Brain Food? “Food for Thought”?
        Still beady-eyed as ever. It seems that the cataracts in both eyes may have stopped developing.
        So, keep on keeping on!

        PS: Those red and blue cylinders ARE pharmaceutical mixing jars. Portions are indicated by the width of the red and blue bands (hot and cold). Folios 99 through 103 (?) are portraying/indicating which part of any botanical specimen (previously discussed in the ‘bulleted’ paragraphs) to become mixed into the heated liquid in the pharmaceutical mixing jar.

        Much too long a ‘journey’ for my cataracted eyes, and my deteriorating (spelling?) memory/recall……..
        Keep on keeping on !
        beady-eyed wonder


  2. Whoo boy! Both of my favorite people conversing,! Even if neither of you can read my contributions/translations of the dialogues which appear with every pictorial element of B-408.
    One of Nick’s ‘regulars’ recently corrected my spelling of B-408’s museum (?) Library (?) Every morning, with ‘cuppa’ in hand, I sign on to the WWW — and proceed to read everything y’all write. “Brain Food? “Food for Thought”?
    Still beady-eyed as ever. It seems that the cataracts in both eyes may have stopped developing.
    So, keep on keeping on!

    PS: Those red and blue cylinders ARE pharmaceutical mixing jars. Portions are indicated by the width of the red and blue bands (hot and cold). Folios 99 through 103 (?) are portraying/indicating which part of any botanical specimen (previously discussed in the ‘bulleted’ paragraphs) to become mixed into the heated liquid in the pharmaceutical mixing jar.

    Much too long a ‘journey’ for my cataracted eyes, and my deteriorating (spelling?) memory/recall……..
    Keep on keeping on !
    beady-eyed wonder


    • Hi Bede-y,

      Great to hear from you. I have a couple of nice posts (picture posts?) scheduled for the 12th and 14th. Thanks for the comment. Btw – I always thought your spelling was meant to ensure that people pronounced the word correctly, rather than BUY-neck-e, as English speakers naturally tend to do.


  3. A reader has sent an email asking clarification about this post. On the assumption that if one reader is left with questions, so will others, I’ll answer here.

    First query – no, this post wasn’t a reply to Nick Pelling’s.

    The issue was that, over time, what had initially been a term of mere convenience – ‘pharma section’ – came to be set by repetition into a description supposed valid by newcomers, and finally one presumed an accurate and official description: as if the point had been investigated, the evidence pro and contra argued and weighed and the conclusion uttered as incontrovertible. Such was the impression which newcomers gained, but it was baseless.

    However, with everyone speaking about the ‘leaf-and-root’ folios as the ‘pharma’ section, so the containers pictured in it came to be called ‘pharma vessels’ or something of that sort. Someone – and it may have been Pelling for all I know – then dropped the word ‘albarello’ – and since the albarello was a container used in pharmacies, so everyone (except, as he says above, Pelling) started calling the containers in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section ‘albarellos’.

    Since this now looked to be another of those myriad unresearched, untested, undocumented and never-formally-argued notions which harden into ‘what everyone knows’ I thought it time to show just how inappropriate the term was … even granted that the ms was made early in the fifteenth century and (in my opinion and Pelling’s) in northern Italy. Others have since begin repeating the same opinion … as ever, without proper acknowledgements, explanations etc.

    Second: The posts are about the inappropriateness of supposing (a) that any containers in the Vms resemble albarelli (b) the inappropriateness of supposing those in the ‘leaf and root’ resemble albarelli (c) the inappropriateness of presuming pharmaceutical uses the purpose of the plant-pictures, and then on that basis using terms such as ‘albarello’ and finally using the fantasied albaelli as evidence-in-proof that the purpose of the plant-pictures (and even more tenuously, the calendar) is directly linked to medicine.

    Third: I don’t know who first brought in the word ‘albarello’. It is perfectly possible Pelling did, but I’ve never seen anyone credit their source on this point. You might ask Nick himself.

    Fourth (a): yes he does see the posts as irrelevant, but he supposed himself and his ideas the chief stimulus for my writing the posts, which was not the case. It just happened that before mine were scheduled to appear, he put up a post mentioning ‘albarellos’again – so I altered the draft to take that into account.

    As Pelling says, he sees albarelli in the calendar-tiers. Perhaps he first mentioned albarellos in that context, but this has little bearing on what others did with the word later.

    Fourth (b): after I posted the ‘Phantom albarello’ series, the number of people using the word as if it defined the ‘leaf and root’ section’s containers dried up fairly quickly. To find examples of prior habit, check the second mailing list, and comments to blog-posts and that sort of thing.

    Fifth question. Pass. Should be addressed to the person mentioned, not me.

    Sixth: the point of my the series of ‘Phantom albarello’ posts was that it is inappropriate to use to term of ANY containers seen in the Vms. Albarelli don’t look like any of them and the inappropriateness is not only technical but promotes a circular argument about purpose, and in other ways is plain anachronism.

    btw – compliments on the last remark. I’d not thought of it that way but on reflection you’re right: most of what are termed ‘Voynich theories’ are more accurately described as ‘Voynich allegories’.

    Finally – am I going to add more of the in-depth stuff to this blog? No, not in the foreseeable future.


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