Ring o’ roses: Pera and Genoa (Introduction)

Series’ summary so far: The Voynich map (which is bound with its East to the left) includes just one reference to Europe: the late-added minimap in its north roundel (above) includes a site in western Europe (left), though  its  interest is focused on a north-south itinerary passing through the eastern side of the greater Mediterranean to Egypt, the half-way point   marked by that ‘castle’ (right) which we read as token of Constantinople and/or Pera.

earlier posts in the “The Ring o’ Roses (Voynich map)…” series:

and see PAGE ‘The Voynich Map folio 86v (Beinecke foliation 85v-and-86r)

Though the whole of the Voynich map shows apparent indifference to Latin Europe,  it does include  points in common with a type of rhumb-gridded chart (better called carte marine or sea-chart than ‘portolan’ chart) whose earliest fully-developed form appears in works by one family of Genoese cartographers (c.1311)  and then as an established tradition among the cartographers of the Jewish Mallorcan cartographic school (or atelier).

This reminds us, of course, that Irwin Panofsky’s opinion of the Voynich manuscript was that the work was Jewish ‘from Spain or somewhere southern.’

Among the various points I find  in common  between such charts and the Voynich map are their inclusion of regularly spaced ‘roses’.

The Voynich map – N-E roundel  ‘rose’

Voynich map – S-W roundel  ‘rose’









(below) map dated to 1321.  By the Genoese, Pietro Vesconte.

analysis of Vesconte’s grid..

.. compared to the design of the Voynich map. [1]

We do have an  eleventh-century rose of similar form, a wind rose contained in a two-volume work written in Arabic and known as the  Book of Curiosities and Marvels.[2]   I referred to it in 2015, then mentioning  the video of Emile Savage-Smith’s introductory talk.  The BibliOdyssey weblog includes this diagram among others from the same work here..

“The main aim was to map areas of sea” – Emile Savage-Smith, speaking of the maps in this manuscript’s two volumes.

What distinguishes the Latin charts from the Arabic diagram is an overt association between points of the rose and angelic figures. The example below is by the sixteenth century Genoese cartographer,  Battista Agnese (c.1524 – 1564). Most of his working life was actually spent in Venice;  Pietro Vesconte too had moved from the one republic to the other.  The Venetians’ knowledge of this new cartography was thus gained from its longest and most bitter commercial rival.

We had reason to mention the Latin habit of associating angels and winds when treating a diagram found on the back of the Voynich map.

The example I used then  was the Sawley  map, a mappamundi dated to c.1190.[3] For those posts search ‘Sawley’ in the side bar.

The diagram under discussion was that including an ‘orator’ figure in Mongol dress.

In fact,  depicting four winged figures, one to each quarter, was a  pre-Christian custom older than the rise of Rome, but medieval Latin imagery envisaged the four as archangels of the Christian tradition – not as Agnese’s cherubim  nor as the fiery Seraphim  we’ll later see in some 12thC Byzantine depictions, and still less the form given them in Assyrian-Egyptian art.

The last type has already mentioned in earlier posts (e.g. here),  and we know it was present in the north of France by the early centuries AD, thanks to an ivory tabula recovered at Grand in the High Vosges.

ivory tabula found at a temple site at Grand, in the High Vosges. Its destruction is attributed to fanatical Christians in about the second century AD.

The ‘orator’ diagram is, like the Voynich map,  bound with East to the reader’s left, but its “beginning-and-end” mark – included in all the Voynich manuscript’s  astronomical diagrams –  shows its primary orientation is towards the East – unlike the Voynich map, but in keeping with the customs of the Latins’  mappaemundi , and with the earliest-known chart by Pietro Vesconte (1311 AD).

I therefore date that diagram to the ‘Mongol century’ (c.1294-1361) and thus to the manuscript’s late chronological stratum.

It has no winged angels, but the four corners show the  ‘gates of the winds’ and a similar significance may be intended for the arched border given the Voynich map’s  south-west rose.

The next question – obviously –  is what opportunities existed for technical information to be exchanged between Jews and Genoese before the second decade of the fourteenth century.

In the next post, I’ll look briefly at Constantinople and at Byzantine Trebizond.

Constantinople because it is shown so prominently in the Voynich ‘minimap’ and because before 1204, a large Jewish centre existed for at least seven hundred years in Pera, where the Genoese were later  granted land.

Trebizond for many reasons, not least its permitting Arab traders, where Constantinople did not.

However, the history of cooperation between Jews and Genoese  in ventures to bring eastern goods to the western Mediterranean begins in Genoa itself during the second half of the twelfth century, as the earlier Jewish prominence in that trade seems suddenly to collapse across its whole network. The Genoese then emerge in much the same role, across the same routes and carrying much the same inventory.

About Venice we will not have much to say as yet – partly because Genoa was   so successful in  its earlier attempts to exclude Venetian traders from the Black Sea  – through which the bulk of that trade was conducted during the fourteenth century – but more  because ‘rose-gridded’ charts were first made by Jews and by Genoese – even in Venice.



[1] I am indebted for the diagram to an online site called ‘Cartography unchained’.

[2] translated and edited by Emilie Savage-Smith (ed. and trans.), An Eleventh-Century Egyptian Guide to the Universe,The Book of Curiosities, (2002). First mentioned here in in the post ‘An eleventh-century Egyptian “Guide to the Universe” – Book of Curiosities’. (December 30, 2015). The wind-rose diagram and one or two more from the Arabic work have since proven popular among some  Voynicheros.

[3] Sawley map.  Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 66 Part 1.


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