Voynich Manuscript vs Codex Seraphinianus

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POSTED: October 23, 2017

Sometime in the early fifteenth century somebody, probably in North Italy, wrote and illustrated a manuscript in a language that nobody since has managed to decipher. Not all of it still exists, and nobody knows who wrote it or why they wrote it. Many people assess it as some sort of guide to medieval medicine, although some detect alchemic influences.

According to Wikipedia, in 2009 researchers from the University of Arizona performed radiocarbon dating on the manuscript’s vellum and dated it between 1404 and 1438. Wikipedia describes its subsequent history thus:

The first confirmed owner was Georg Baresch (1585–1662), an obscure alchemist from Prague. Baresch was apparently just as puzzled as modern scientists about this “Sphynx” that had been “taking up space uselessly in his library” for many years. He learned that Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) from the Collegio Romano had published a Coptic (Egyptian) dictionary and claimed to have deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphs; Baresch twice sent a sample copy of the script to Kircher in Rome, asking for clues. His 1639 letter to Kircher is the earliest confirmed mention of the manuscript that has been found to date.

It is not known whether Kircher answered the request, but he was apparently interested enough to try to acquire the book, which Baresch refused to yield. Upon Baresch’s death, the manuscript passed to his friend Jan Marek Marci (1595–1667; also known as Johannes Marcus Marci), then rector of Charles University in Prague. A few years later, Marci sent the book to Kircher, his longtime friend and correspondent…

In 1903, the Society of Jesus (Collegio Romano) was short of money and decided to sell some of its holdings discreetly to the Vatican Library. Ruysschaert 1959 published a list of those books, which were for sale. The sale then took place in 1912, however books listed for the sale were missing. Wilfrid Voynich acquired 30 of these manuscripts, among them the one which now bears his name. He spent the next seven years attempting to interest scholars in deciphering the script, while he worked to determine the origins of the manuscript.

Hence, for lack of any historically accurate title, people refer to it as the Voynich manuscript.

Meanwhile in modern Italy

Recently I looked up something while reading and reminded myself of the existence of the Codex Seraphinianus, published in 1981 by the Italian artist, architect, and industrial designer Luigi Serafini. I looked it up and, according to Wikipedia, he wrote it “in a cipher alphabet in a constructed language”.

A week later, as though by a spooky magic (or not), I came across an article about this, dating from October 2013, in Dangerous Minds.

It included some illustrations and explanations, and raised the question of whether we should regard this as mysterious in the same way as the Voynich Manuscript, or whether we should regard it as a modern attempt to be “weird”, in a self-conscious and ultimately not very interesting way. Nobody has yet deciphered the text but it remains unclear why anyone except an avid puzzle enthusiast would bother, since Serafini could presumably provide the key at any moment he decided to.

According to Dangerous Minds

Over the years a whole cult has grown up on the Internet devoted to the Codex Seraphinianus. For instance, this group discovered that the numbering system is base 21, and this guy discovered certain grammatical rules governing the script, and even created a sort of transliterator you can use. This lady claims to have hallucinated herself into the world of the Codex, even prior to having heard of it. No one, however, has yet cracked the Codex and translated it.

As for the author, he is very much alive (and apparently real, as you will read below) but continues to deny that the script has any meaning. (His website doesn’t, unfortunately, doesn’t have a heck of a lot of info.) In the forthcoming edition, however, Serafini now states that a stray white cat that joined him while he created the Codex in Rome in the 1970s was actually the real author, telepathically guiding Serafini as he drew and “wrote.”

For my part, I have no opinion about how “interesting” I should regard the Codex Seraphinianus. I do like the illustrations that I have seen though.

If offered a copy at an affordable price I would probably buy it, but only if I wanted to at the time.