Michelle Smith – what a find!

A few months ago now Michelle Smith recognised a correspondence between the style of the Voynich ‘bathy-‘ folios and a  schoolbook which had been made by the (-later) famous humanist-and-copyist, Sozomeno.  Smith chose not to talk about this publicly, but delivered the find to the forum ‘voynich.ninja’ via a well known Voynichero, Rene Zandbergen.


For one reason or another, Zandbergen was unable to share it there for some weeks, but finally did and by sheer good luck I happened on that post yesterday.


Well known to Italian historians, Sozomeno’s school-book had been until then unknown to Voynich researchers, I think.  I noticed that the bibliographic details had been omitted in the announcement-post (though may have come up in later comments),   Anyway, the manuscript is  Pistoia Biblioteca Forteguerriana Manoscritti A 33.


Its  dimensions are given as   222mm x 148mm, and  though the quires may have been trimmed later, we still see prick-marks down the right-hand side, so we can suppose that what has been lost won’t be more than  5cm at most.


The prick-marks also us that, unlike the pages of Beinecke MS 408, these had been ruled out in the usual way that Latin manuscripts were, and always had been.  Notice the  quality of the substrate.


Folio 38r  carries an inscription:


Scriptum per me Zominum ser Bonifatii morantem in scolis venerabilis doctoris magistri Antonii ser Salvi de Sancto Geminiano in anno millesimo quadrigentesimo secundo, in mense iunii.


“This was written by me, Bonifati Zominum … in 1402, in June”  when  Boniface was 15 years of age.


The important issue, then, is not what circles Bonifati later moved in, but what circles his teacher had been trained in.  A schoolboy’s texts of those times were set out as the teacher instructed; just as they were ruled out as the student was taught to do that, and inks made to the teacher’s recipe and so on.  The teacher, not the student, is the key to the manuscript’s appearance.


The school where Bonifati gained his education to the age of 15 was the commune-school of  Pistoia, under Maestro Antonio di Ser Salvi Vannini and at a time when Florence was exercising increasing control over the town.

  • Robert Black, Education and Society in Florentine Tuscany: Teachers, Pupils and Schools, c.1250-1500, Volume 1  (2007)


Vannini’s selected texts – those he thought suited to older lads – were not so unusual:


Black’s comment suggests (to me, anyway) that Vannini’s style of education placed some particular emphasis on memory and mnemonics – and this too is of interest in connection with the Vms, turning us back to the French tradition and Hugh of St. Victor   (c. 1096 – 11 February 1141).  I’ll add a few references at the end of this post for those interested.


There’s no mistaking the Latin character of Sozomeno’s ideas and art, just as there’s no mistaking their absence from the Voynich  ‘bathy-‘ section, but one is still left with a compelling sense of similarity between the two manuscripts, especially in their attitude to the page and to disposition and narrative arrangement.  The basin-motif surely can’t be co-incidental even if here its looks more like an architectural detail.

The following images courtesy of the  Sozomeno Foundation.


A couple of cautions.

Readers thinking to join the forum to read more about the imagery or about Sozomeno’s teacher may be disappointed unless the conversation has changed course very recently. When Michelle’s find was introduced, it was described as proving something about the Voynich manuscript’s script being ‘humanist’ hand though one may question whether such an inference is warranted.  We have extant a fair number of manuscripts copied by Sozomeno, many dated to before 1425, by which time he had entirely discarded the older, ornate style of manuscripts in Gothic style, and was producing the sort of minimalist page which is the hallmark of the ‘humanist’ copyists.   In other words, a humanist hand is exactly what we should NOT expect to find with imagery like that in the bathy- section.


This manuscript is dated to the first quarter of the fifteenth century, and by 1425, Zomino was certainly ‘Sozomenos Pistorensis’.  Whether or not the text is written in Greek, this is ‘humanist’ style. (Note again, though, the parchment’s finish) .


folio dimensions 150 x 106 (110 x 70) mm


Works  ‘scribed by Sozomeno’ are in libraries from one end of Europe to the other.  A nicely-presented list of those which are digitised, courtesy (once again) of the Foundation (Sozomeno Fondazione).


Brit.Lib. Harley MS   folio 2v has – according to the catalogue, an inscription  ‘Mess[er] Zomino’  but for reasons not explained the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts begins its scans from folio 3r.

( I’d also recommend reading Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalion, if you can.   For those with access, the university of Michigan has put it all online (here).

Florence and Pistoia

During the process of building its territorial domain, Florence faced the peculiar character of each subject city by implementing different strategic choices. In the case of Pistoia, the Florentine authorities knew  that incremental and specific interventions had to be made in order to manage and govern that territory. Initially (1329-1376) a sort of politico-military ‘protection’ was exercised over the community, but it soon transformed into the progressive erosion of political sovereignty for the city.  From 1376, the bipartisan character of the city was formally institutionalised, and contributed to freeze factional confict – thus allowing Florence a smoother access to control of the city’s political life, until after 1458, the ruling Florentine family gained – during the Laurentian period – effectual monopoly over patronage.  This third phase in the relations between Florence and Pistoia, collapsing with the fall of the Medici regime in 1494, left such a vaccum of power in Pistoia that the factional struggles could only explode by the end of the century.



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