The Voynich Manuscript
In 1912, Polish book collector Wilfrid Voynich bought thirty volumes from the Jesuit Collegio Mondragone in Italy. They were Church property and so the College didn’t really have the right to sell them, but it was hard up for funds, and besides, nobody had looked at the books for at least a century. Still, when he wrote about the books nine years later, Voynich was careful to say that he “found them in an ancient castle in Southern Europe”.
Voynich concluded that the books had belonged to Italy’s noble families, as they were lavishly-decorated with the insignia of the dukes of Parma, Ferrara and Modena. One smaller and much plainer volume, however, caught his eye. “It was such an ugly duckling compared with the other manuscripts, with their rich decorations in gold and colors, that my interest was aroused at once” he wrote.
Opening the odd little book, Voynich found that it was two hundred and forty pages long, written entirely in an unknown script, and full of strange illustrations of real or fanciful plants and animals and little figures of women. For all his experience with rare and antique books, he could make neither head nor tail of it, although he assumed it must be some sort of encyclopedia of natural philosophy based on the pictures.
Voynich found a letter attached to the book, dated 19 August 1665 (or 1666). It was written by Bohemian physician and scientist Johannes Marcus Marci in Prague and addressed to German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher in Rome. Marci wrote:
This book, bequeathed to me by an intimate friend, I destined for you, my very dear Athanasius, as soon as it came into my possession, for I was convinced that it could be read by no one except yourself. The former owner of this book asked your opinion by letter, copying and sending you a portion of the book from which he believed you would be able to read the remainder, but he at that time refused to send the book itself. To its deciphering he devoted unflagging toil, as is apparent from attempts of his which I send you herewith, and he relinquished hope only with his life. But his toil was in vain, for such Sphinxes as these obey no one but their master, Kircher. Accept now this token, such as it is and long overdue though it be, of my affection for…