This is just a quick post to share a project that’s going on at the Voynich ninja forum. Since this is a work in progress, this post can serve as a quick way to see its current status.
It is surprisingly difficult to say something about the origin of the VM with absolute certainty, but luckily there are a handful of clear cultural indicators. One example is the clothing style worn by the Zodiac figures, which was the fashion from c. 1400 -1430, overlapping nicely with the carbon-dating of the vellum to 1404–1438.
Another such indicator is the presence of swallowtail merlons on the Rosettes foldout. These are also known as Ghibelline merlons, since they were a symbol of this political faction in Italy in the 12th-14th centuries. (It seems that throughout the 15th century, swallowtail merlons lost most of their political meaning and became purely decorative). Because of this cultural context, battlements with this shape are typical of certain regions. Since “northern Italy” is a bit vague, I wanted to get a better image of these regions.
However, there are some difficulties. It is important to keep in mind what exactly we are trying to find out. If an artist from Milan imagines a besieged Jerusalem with swallowtail merlons, the datapoint of interest is Milan, not Jerusalem. We know for certain that the VM artist drew swallowtail merlons, so what we want to find out is where artists lived who did the same. So our research question is: where were images of swallowtail merlons produced before 1450?
A second reason for our focus on imagery is that surviving buildings themselves are often unreliable. Battlements are among the first parts of ruins to crumble, and therefore they are often changed or added in restoration efforts. And many of those restorations were undertaken by the romantics of the 19th century, who were quite fond of swallowtail merlons. In other words, just because a building has them now, does not mean it had them in the 15th century.
In this thread over at Voynich.ninja we started collecting examples. A big shout out to Marco Ponzi, Aga Tentakulus and other forum members who put their shoulders behind this project. After a while, we decided to also add a “Castle layer” of actual buildings, making sure to only include those of which we are reasonably certain that they already had swallowtail merlons before 1450.
The map can be viewed below. I tried embedding it, but this requires an API, which is too much for me to handle right now 🙂 Remember that this is a work in progress:
Some more details are tracked in this thread.
The neat thing about this map is that we know for sure that the VM belongs on it as a data point among the blue markers. For all we know, it may be an outlier, but it is still interesting to see a “heat map” of known examples.
I’d add the meeting of Joachim and Anne at the Golden Gate by Giotto, inside the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.
However this is a difficult task, because many ghibelline merlons were destroyed after the victory of the guelphs, many were destroyed by earthquakes or neglect, and many others built or rebuilt when the fight between ghibellines and guelphs became a thing of the past. So the best examples are those that were swallowed by newer buildings, like some merlons of Avio, which are now part of a wall. Like these ones: https://d13gisi6iet4nc.cloudfront.net/odm-prev/p,fc,2018,meldola,rocca_di_meldola,c,30317,diego_baglieri.jpg
Another Giotto, excellent 🙂 It’s been added.
Yeah, I would never attempt to collect a comprehensive list of where swallowtail merlons occurred. This is impossible and also not really necessary. But I liked to have a better idea of the general area where they tend to occur.
This is probably a controversial opinion, but for me the blue dots (where swallowtail merlons were depicted) are even more relevant than the actual castles. After all, we don’t know whether the VM buildings represent something in the real world, but we do know that the VM artist depicted swallowtail merlons.
You can add the castle of Vignola too (Rocca di Vignola). There is a fresco depicting the old garden of the castle, which was circled by a wall with Ghibelline merlons. Moreover, even if the castle has no merlons today, you can still see them “embedded” in the windows at the top of the towers.
There is another interesting point, though. Swallowtail merlons come in two main styles: rounded or straight. The merlons of the Voynich appear to be straight. I do not know if it is for their diminutive size, for a stylization made by the author, for simplicity, or for an explicit choice by the illustrator. If it is the latter, it may add some complexity to the search, but, to say the truth, I do not think that the VA is that subtle and competent.
I wondered about the different types of merlons as well. My overall impression is that the straight type may be a bit less common than the various curved types. The VM merlons most definitely *look* like the straight type, and I do believe that they would have looked different if the curved type were intended. Looking at other details on the rosettes foldout, it seems like they were able to produce curves at this scale. I agree that it’s hard to say whether it was deliberate though.
Regardless, it would be interesting to know if preference for the straight type corresponds to certain circumstances, whatever those may be.
Battlements became more elaborated with time, when they gained an aesthetic value without losing the original military value, i.e. during the Renaissance or maybe shortly before. Then gunpowder changed that again.
You can add:
* a crude sketch from the Castello Inferiore (lower castle) of Marostica (early XIV century?, straight shape)
* the (ruins of the) castle of Drena (XII century, straight shape)
* the fresco of the miracle of Narni from the Portinari Chapel in S. Eustorgio, Milan (1464-1468, rounded shape)
I just spent some time looking through the entire collection so far and came to a weird conclusion: the straight shape hardly exists in actual buildings, though it can appear as an optical illusion. For example, the castle of Drena definitely has curves on the inside of the V. See here for a slideshow: https://www.destimap.com/index.php?act=attraction&a=Castel-Drena%2C-Drena%2C-Italy
I don’t know if I can link to their pictures directly, but for example here you can see the curve very well: https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/p/AF1QipPsYI5YCgRyqk0ru2BpSb7euEbPw0qkQRaE8Sc
So this leads me to wonder if maybe most swallowtail merlons are curved, and the straight style is more of a convention in art?
Here is the new map, with yellow as straight and black as curved (it likely contains mistakes or interpretations that are disputable):
According to the sources I read, crenellations became more complex and ornate with time.
However I think that the Palazzo del Rivellino, in Tuscania, Latium, shows some good straight Ghibelline merlons. It was built in the XIII century, it was already dilapidated by the end of the XV century, and it was fully abandoned by the XVI century. Only the southern wall survives to these days: https://www.fondoambiente.it/luoghi/palazzo-del-rivellino?ldc
I found an old site about castles in Italian with a lot of (low resolution) photos: http://www.icastelli.org/tecnici/complementi_difensivi/merli/merli.htm
Maybe you can find something useful there.
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Those are some straight merlons indeed 🙂 Yesterday I also found a clear example in Malcesine castle, lake Garda. So they do exist. I think it may be correct that they were sometimes made more fancy by adding a curve on top, possibly made in a more decorative material.
Nice to see this topic being revisited. It has been done before, of course, but not as a ‘team project’.
A couple of points – first, you have not distinguished between examples still extant, and ones attested from historical or archaeological evidence.
You haven’t considered a topic treated earlier in depth elsewhere that in graphic art, the form was employed as a motif as decorative element and, also, as a sign, whose significance was quite apart from any literal use.
I’d also suggest being a little slower to presume that the style originated in Latin Europe and that its use in the Voynich map is to read literally in all cases.
It seems a little sad to me that the weeks of work I put into researching these various aspects of the question before explaining it in detail with illustrations during exposition of this map should have to be done all over again, but Nick Pelling (who was the first to look into what the ‘merlons’ might mean) was also the person who coined the term ‘Voynich groundhog day’.
I do, however, offer my warmest congratulations and thanks for bringing those forum conversations to help inform the work of independent external scholars.. Very thoughtful, and very generous of you.
I’m not sure the “castle” (for lack of a better name) should be read literally. We don’t know for sure, do we? But that is the beauty of simply collecting other examples in visual arts – the blue dots on the map, which I consider more informative than the actual surviving castles.
We know the VM is familiar with swallowtail merlons: it depicts them. Regardless of the meaning, we can say the VM has something in common with all these blue dots on the map: they also depict swallowtail merlons. It’s nothing more than that, and I would in fact discourage anyone from drawing overly strong conclusions from this map.
But with all uncertainties about the VM and VM research, it is nice to know something for certain, even if it is a small thing: all blue dots on this map have something extremely specific in common with the VM.
First – it’s nice to see that the traditionalists appear to be moving towards accepting that the Voynich map is a map. I’m not sure in what sense you mean that the detail called ‘the castle’ may not be read literally. Do you mean it shouldn’t be identified with a physical location on earth, or that the picture isn’t necessarily a literal ‘portrait’? If the latter, then I think it must follow that the sense in which the ‘swallowtails’ (as Nick described them) may not be meant literally either, so then surely the issue is the contexts in which we find – before 1440 – that they appear in non-literal uses, whether in European or in other regions. Then, when all the evidence for iconological uses is in, it might be easier to feel sure about the intention of the persons who had employed it to inform details in the map.
As you may, or may not know, I did that sort of investigation over quite a period of time, and I might mention that during the course ot those studies I noted (and mentioned) that we find a ‘line of dots’ – not unlike ants’ footsteps – used to indicate the travellers’ paths.
Not a custom originating among the Latins, but one which some adopted. Doesn’t prove the Voynich map originated in Europe, of course, but I think it had reached the west by the early fourteenth century and had some influence on the direction taken by the early makers of cartes marine in the Majorca-Genoa-then Venetian tradition (as I’ve said elsewhere).
While in one way I think it’s a pity that Voyncheros are prevented, by failure to acknowledge precedents, from simply building on and advancing earlier work done on this manuscript, the repetition does serve as defacto ‘double blind’ test and I wish you and your team-mates the best of luck.
P.S. As you might recall, I finally managed to identify the ‘Castle’ as a token for Constantinople.
PPS – Your list of extant examples of ‘swallowtail’ omits Caffa, which I think unfortunate. Important point that the Genoese in the Aegean and Black Sea, as well as Crusaders in the eastern Med. or ‘ghibbelines’ in Europe were in the habit of declaring their primary allegiance in this way. For the Genoese it signified independence, of a sort, from the duties affecting other peoples resident in a region.
I don’t think the foldout is a map, when I said “map” I was talking about the Google maps thing I made 🙂 https://www.google.com/maps/d/embed?mid=1y1hxOfGDFhqo97deJVvFNi7ASspTlp9v
Caffa would be a great location to add to the map. But do we have some indication (other than assumption by political affiliation) that it has/had swallowtail merlons? All additions to the list are based on either pre-1450 depictions or surviving pre-1450 battlements. In all pictures of Caffa I find, there only appear flat topped merlons, but I may have missed them.
I agree that it is of interest to find out what swallowtail merlons would have *meant* c. 1430. From what I understand, we are then already in the late stages of its political meaning, and chances are that it was seen as merely architectural. This probably depends on who made the image, since in certain areas the Ghibelline/Guelph conflict was still relevant. But in other areas, swallowtail merlons were already centuries old, and must have lost there purely political meaning under ever-shifting allegiances and the gradual waning of the relevant parties by the 15th century.
So did they have a political meaning? Possibly, but it is also possible that for the artist, this is just what battlements looked like.
Yes there’s an extant example at Caffa. If I might make a suggestion – it’s better to draw conclusions after consulting the historical records than relying as much as you appear to be doing on what seems to you a ‘logical inference’. Given that these ‘imperial’ merlons are used in e.g. the Venetian ‘Zibaldone da Canal’ about the same time the Voynich manuscript was being made, it makes sense to first discover whether e.g. significance and employment of the form was comparable within Italy as beyond it.
Why not ask one of the old-timers about earlier ‘maps’ – or lists – made by Voyncheros for extant physical examples, or consider consulting non-Voynich-related studies of medieval architecture, or specialist papers … there’s a lot of time-saving material out there and if you don’t waste time guessing and re-inventing the same old wheels, there’s so much as yet unexplored to reward people such as you who are gifted with formal training (in linguistics in your case) plus intellectual curiosity and integrity. You don’t have to start every history with Adam. 🙂
The forum thread includes previous mentions I found, including Nick’s. If you know of any previous effort to construct a map that shows where swallowtail merlons were depicted and used before 1450, please refer me to it and I will gladly take it into account. If something like it doesn’t exist, please remove your slanderous blog post.
I still can’t find the swallowtail merlons at Caffa, it must be in a less often photographed corner. If you can link to the image I will gladly include it.