Category Archives: Voynich Nymphs

The Baths of Puteolanis

A Blast in the Past

In my previous blog, I mentioned that in 2008 I had studied Naples as a possible inspiration for the Voynich rosettes, but didn’t realize until years later that it was connected to the Baths of Puteolanis (or that this ancient spa had been suggested as a parallel to the balneological section of the Voynich manuscript).

I mostly explored the geography and topology of Naples through aerial photographs, looking for the features I felt sure were depicted in the VMS—volcanoes, steep cliffs, islands close to the mainland, jetties, canals, but because water was a prevalent theme in the VMS, I was also looking for spas that included waterfalls and grottoes and there were spas in other regions that appeared to have these features in greater abundance than Naples… or so I thought…

I have been to Naples. I stopped there briefly on my way to Greece, so I knew it was thermally active and that there were many bathing holes, but I did not know there were also caves and grottoes connected to the ancient baths, and thus missed a significant connection to the VMS.

How could I overlook such a prominent and famous feature of an ancient city? It turns out that the popular spa was destroyed by major volcanic activities in 1538. These eruptions forever changed the grottoes and thermal conduits, burying many of them under a newly formed 1,500-foot cinder-cone aptly named Monte Nuovo, and rearranging the coastline (one that may have included a fresh-water canal) so that much of it is now under water.

The Naples Baths

Court poet Petrus of Ebolo (c. 1196–1220 shown left) was the most significant author to document the baths prior to their destruction. He describes about three dozen baths situated between Naples and Baia (each of which had a name), and the diseases/body parts cured by each. According to Fikret Yegül, who extensively studied the history and architecture of the baths in the 1990s, only seven of the thirty-five baths appear in all of the ten illuminated copies that were known at the time the article was published, in 1996.

Based on extensive study and documentation of the ruins of Baia, Yegül paints a poignant picture of the bath complexes during their heyday that really caught my attention because he described aspects of the baths that no longer exist:

“The hot mineral water was brought by conduits directly into some of the chambers and filled the pools for private or public ablutions. Other units, particularly the small, domed ones, must have been intended for sweat bathing in hot, natural steam conducted into them through underground galleries and conduits… Some of the underground galleries and cavelike spaces might have been utilized even in their natural state for curative bathing and sweating…. The subterranean zone under the hillside complex is virtually riddled with caves, chambers and galleries.”







Pagan Influences

“The Apsidal Hall at Punta dell’Epitaffio appears to have been a particularly sumptuous example of the late Republican and early Imperial nymphaeum type in which aspects of a natural cave were imitated inside a vaulted architectural setting.”

The VMS has always struck me as very pagan in its presentation—almost devoid of Christian references and full of water and nymphs and an unselfconscious way of expressing nudity that was characteristic of pagan art of the Mediterranean. Yegül goes on to convey the pagan nature of the Naples-area baths:

“Originally, the apse had eight small niches instead of the three large ones seen now; these niches apparently contained fountains. Maiuri believed the complex served as a “nymphaeum” and was a part of the great rotunda… known as the “Temple of Venus”….

A nymphaeum thus conceived is not simply a fountain or source sacred to the water deities, the nymphs, but is also an architecturally integrated whole, shaped functionally and thematically around water….”

He then makes an interesting reference to Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli (the town where the Villa d’Este water gardens are located that I described here due to architectural similarities that strongly reminded me of the VMS rosettes folio):

“… the “Fountain Court” of Nero’s Domus Transitoria, the triclinium of the Flavian Palace on the Palatine, and the various dining pavilions in Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli (particularly the so-called Garden Stadium and the grotto pavilion at the end of the Canopus) are all creations of a kindred spirit.”

When I studied the Villa d’Este, years ago, I searched extensively for possible forerunners to the water-garden design, thinking I might find something from an earlier century that influenced the VMS, but only located bits and pieces of information, as many of the early estates were overbuilt by new gardens or other complexes. I knew that Cardinal d’Este was inspired to some extent by Hadrian’s ruins nearby, but I did not know about the connection between Hadrian’s ruins and the bathing culture in Naples or that Naples had elaborate waterworks such as those I imagined might be illustrated on the rosettes folio.

“Elaborate pipe work hints at a sophisticated play of water with jets and fountains along the length of the peripheral canal, and inside the apse and the side niches.”

Yegül goes on to describe another feature that I observed in the VMS but thought was absent from the Naples bathing spas. Apparently cascades (waterfalls) were also part of the Baia complex:

“The pool [in the Thermae of Sosandra] is connected to a grotto and an extensive network of subterranean galleries that penetrate deep into the hill to reach the source…; this source appears to have served both the Sosandra complex and Baths A, higher up the hill. Several reservoirs are located behind and above the exedra. The water must have flowed in streams and cascades into the pool and continued down to the lower terrace….

Large vaulted chambers (like subaquatic grottoes) run along the high banks of the pool enclosure connecting the pool to grottoes and tunnels carved deep into solid tufa….

A row of interconnected, vaulted cisterns behind the Ambulatio was supplied by an aqueduct of Augustan date. These and other cisterns higher up on the hill must have brought fresh water to the various bathing establishments…”

These were all the physical features I had been seeking and thought were absent from Naples (I had pictured the usual somewhat-flat open-air thermal spas that are common in this region). I knew Naples had aqueducts, but so did many places… what I didn’t know is that the spas included caves, grottoes, grotto-like galleries, vaulted chambers, and domes. As we learn from the Petrus of Eboli manuscripts, there were also tents in which to rest after taking hot thermal cures. I had prematurely put Naples aside to look elsewhere.

A Fractured Narrative?

So how might these revelations relate to the pool pages in the VMS?

It’s very easy to say the VMS has sections on “healthful bathing”. That’s exactly what it looks like, at least to me… and long before I knew about the manuscript, others had dubbed it the “balneological section”. But how much of it is actually about bathing? I think the core of this section might be quite small, consisting of only two sheets which, back-and-front, comprise only eight pages—about 5% of the manuscript.

Which folios are they and how should they be arranged? The way the VMS is currently bound, these sheets are separated by other folios.

I’m not the only one who thinks the Voynich Manuscript may have been bound out of order. Many have noticed the inconsistencies. If one were to rearrange quire 13, it’s possible to separate out the bathing images from ones that might be related but may not be the exact same subject. Here is one possible way to organize the “core” of the bathing section.

You have to imagine the following pages as two wide sheets with a margin in the middle for the fold, with front and back sides shown left and right. Note how the upper sheet has both blue and green water and the second sheet has a very consistent set of green pools with roughly similar shapes.

I’m not certain where the narrative starts, but I suspect it is either the second or fourth frame on the top row.

There’s also more than one way to interpret individual parts of the images. For example, in the top-left frame, is that a conduit for bringing in the water or a steam vent for warming the chamber? Or is it a conduit for venting excess steam out of the chamber?

Whether these two sheets were intended to be folded one within the other is not certain either. What if they were meant to follow one another (which would be a very unconventional way to bind them, but since very little about the VMS is conventional, one should probably consider the possibility). Whether it matters depends on how self-contained each page is intended to be. If the text on each page describes a specific bathing complex, without wrapping to the next sheet, the order might not be crucial. Wrapping to the verso side of the same sheet would not be a problem, the narrative would follow regardless of whether the manuscript were bound or unbound.

The sections that separate the above folios in the current binding also have blue and green pools, but I noticed early on that the layout is quite different. The subject matter changes and the drawings inhabit the margins in a somewhat sequential manner.

While the above illustrations strike me as pragmatic, describing physical/geological features and maybe specific bathing pools, the ones currently sandwiched between them have a much more anatomical and metaphorical feel to them and may have been intended to follow or precede the pool section.

Biological References

I’ve consolidated and shuffled the following block of pages to illustrate one possible way the sheets could be arranged separately from the pool section, with frame 2 on the top row (with the dense text that looks like it might be an index) being the first folio. It may be intended to introduce the new section (or to summarize the previous).

If there is any connection between the VMS and healthful bathing (and if the pools are meant to document a spa similar to those that existed in Naples) then the odd biological structures in the margins might represent the parts of the body that were supposedly cured by each kind of bath. This would be consistent with the way Eboli described the baths. It might be relevant to the VMS that Eboli included a list of ailments specific to females.

Koen Gheuens has presented some interesting parallels between these drawings and astrology/astronomy as it was understood in the 15th century. I find Gheuens’s ideas both interesting and plausible, given that each part of the body was believed to be ruled by a certain constellation, as evidenced by the many “zodiac man” drawings in medieval medical texts.

The Balneum Trituli had frescoes with figures pointing to the body parts that were supposedly cured by specific baths.

Imagine if the VMS author combined 1) bathing, 2) body parts cured by bathing, and 3) astrological medicine, all into one… it might come out something like the following folios. There are even sections with rainbows, which relate to both water and prisms (to this day prisms are still believed to have curative properties) and which also might represent “connections” in a metaphorical way.


If the VMS documents healthful bathing practices and cures for specific body parts, it doesn’t have to represent Pozzuoli—any grotto-like health spa with a combination of natural and manmade pools and cascades might be illustrated in the same way.

In fact Yegül points out that Charles II founded a hospital for hydrotherapy in 1298, in the village of Triepergula and I found many spa areas in eastern Europe with characteristics similar to the thermally active baths of Naples.

But given that the Naples bathing complexes experienced a surge of popularity after Ebolo’s manuscript was replicated, it’s not unreasonable to think they may have inspired the pool pages in the VMS. It’s also worth noting that the Baia complex was embellished with Hellenistic-themed statuary, including the Homeric blinding of Cyclops. Could the VMS eye-poking nymph be indicating a body part cured by a thermal bath, the blinding of a mythical character, a constellation related to a specific body part, or maybe all three?

I’m not sure whether the VMS illustrations are based on any specific reference like the verses of Eboli. I’ve felt for a long time that the author drew on a variety of sources, combined with personal experience in some subjects such as plants, and synthesized various forms of knowledge into the unique presentation we see today. But whether the text is copied from specific sources, I don’t know—it might be—it’s hard to say when we can’t read a word of it, even now after centuries of trying.



You can see an e-facsimile of a mid-14th-century copy of Eboli’s Baths of Pozzuoli on the e-codices site as Cod. Bodmer 135. There are other examples, but only about half are illustrated and some of them post-date the VMS.

I am indebted to the following article by Fikret Yegül for describing topological/geological features of the Naples region before the 1538 earthquake:

Yegül, Fikret K, “The Thermo-Mineral Complex at Baiae and De Balneis Puteolanis”, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 78, No. 1 (March 1996) pp. 137–161.


J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Medieval Fashion VMS Style

As a follow-up to a previous blog, I have added tunic images to a map of the Holy Roman Empire as it was about 1400. They are not perfect matches to the tunics in the Voynich Manuscript, but they are close, and it gives a visual sense of how this kind of clothing was depicted in manuscripts and paintings, and where this style of dress may have been worn.

Hunting for Hats

Locating tunics similar to those in the VMS was a challenge, and finding hats similar to the one on the crossbowman just as hard. Those with a rounded turban-like base with a portion that hangs to the back usually have tails made of fox fur or sheepskin or several tails or folds of fabric. Some are too short, others are squared off at the bottom.

[Image credits: left BL 1231 f2r, middle Codex Sang 602, right Houghton Typ 127]

A long round tail like the one in the VMS is less common, but I was able to find one (below left). Note that the tunic is a little more fancy than the VMS, with much wider sleeves and a cape the covers the shoulders. There are a number of similar hats in Vatican Pal Lat 871 and the one shown right notably wears a simple tunic with a plain band at the collar and waist. Note also that it is enclosed in a circle of text:

[Image credits: left Morgan M.453, right Vatican Pal Lat 871]

These images [added July 11, 2017] are from a Swedish book of law. They illustrate tunics that are more elaborate than the VMS, with fancy collars and sleeves as were worn by the upper nobility. The tails on the hats are not as long as those of the VMS, but they are of interest because they are the correct general style, and resemble those in Pal Lat 871. [Image credit: Eriksson’s Landslag Cod. Ups. B.68]

I have only located one image so far that matches well to the VMS tunic that also shows a man with short legs and a similar hat, in Vatican Pal Lat 1806 (included at the bottom of the following map). The origin of this manuscript is thought to be Augsburg, Germany. It includes quite a few images of tunics similar to those in the VMS.

And now to the map (you can click on the image to see it larger):


In searching for these pleated tunics, I looked all over the world but was not able to find any that were closer than the ones illustrated above in the more distant countries. Not only were the clothing styles different, but the drawing styles, as well. I also rejected tunics that were a combination of vest and tunic as separate pieces of clothing and those with split sleeves.

We cannot know how accurate the VMS illustrator drew the clothing, but it’s noteworthy that the VMS Gemini twin shows the laces on the boots, a detail that is absent from most other drawings. The illustrator made an effort to record details despite the small size of the VMS, which is why it seemed worth the effort to look for costumes of a similar style.


                                                                                                                                   J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

The Site of the Cross

On December 14, 2016, Searcher, on the forum, suggested that the cross-shaped item in the hand of a nymph on folio 79v might be a cross-staff. This was an intriguing idea, especially considering the way in which the instrument is held and the fact that there is another nymph holding something that looks like calipers, so I looked up some of the history of cross-staffs to see if there might be support for the idea.

The cross-staff is an ancient instrument which may trace back as far as the Chaldeans, who are also connected to early forms of astrology. In the Renaissance, it was used in navigation, but its original purpose was to study and measure distances related to the sun and stars. The staff provided a way to guide the eye and was the forerunner to instruments such as the quadrant and sextant.


In its simplest form, the cross-staff consists of a rod with a smaller crossbar mounted at 90 degrees to the longer bar. The smaller bar is known as a “vane” or “transom”.

A cross-staff was held to the eye so the person using it could site along a line to the sun and compare this with the distance to the horizon. The vane was adjusted back and forth until both could be brought into view at the same time. Refinements included various means to move the crossbar, and markings on the instrument, in degrees and minutes, to help determine distance. Sometimes multiple vanes were added, but the basic instrument needed only one.

The cross-staff was sometimes known as Jacob’s staff. This may be based on the ladder Jacob envisioned stretching in a line from Earth to heaven. It has also been suggested that the name comes from one of the medieval names for the constellation we know as Orion, which has a short “belt” of stars resembling the vane on a cross-staff.

In French, it was called arbalete, rayon astronomique, and baton de Jacob, or arbalestrille for the marine version (the fore-staff). In Portguese, balestilha. In Latin, radius astronomicus, and in German, Jacobs-Stab or Stab und Kreuz, or just Kreuz.

Three modes for using the cross-staff for siting and measuring are illustrated in Gemmae Frisii de radio astronomico et geometrico liber (Frisius, et al, Cavellat, 1557).

The earliest reference to the cross-staff, so far identified, is from 11th-century China. In Europe, the earliest references to modern use of the instrument are from Provençe in the 14th century. Of particular interest is a reference by Gersonides, a Jewish scholar who believed in astrology, who describes the instrument and attributes its uses not only to measuring distances between celestial bodies, but also their diameters.

In this image, Moslem astronomers discuss the use of the astrolabe (upper right) and another uses a double sighting rod (left) while an early form of quadrant sits next to him on the table. The Q’uran (written in the 7th century) includes a passage about Allah/God having set out the stars to help navigation at night, thus inspiring an interest in the practical application of astronomy. [Image courtesy of the University of North Florida]

By the 19th century, a modified cross-staff with a round or square head, and sometimes a quadrant of slits, was used in surveying, in combination with a rod or chain and a number of staves. It was useful for measuring fields, platting lands, and certain forms of cartography.

The Cross-Staff for Navigation

Yemeni Astrolabe, 1291 [Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Edward C. Moore Collection]

Of particular interest to Voynich researchers is the history of the cross-staff for navigation on water. In marine navigation, it was known as a fore-staff, so-called because the person using it faced the direction being observed, in contrast with the back-staff which was used with one’s back turned. Adjustments had to be made for how high the person was above the water.

It may seem surprising, but historians claim that the cross-staff was not used for marine navigation until fairly late in the middle ages.

In the Mariner’s Museum, they have this to say about the history of the cross-staff:

“…sailors did not use it until the early 1500s; the first recorded date was 1514. As with other early navigation instruments, the first use for the Cross-Staff was in astrology, in measuring the altitude of stars to help forecast the future.”

William Wales notes, in 1744, that John Werner, of Nuremburg, recommended the use of the cross-staff as a marine instrument for determining longitude, by observing the distance between the moon and stars, in a book printed in 1514 (W. Wales, 1777), which is likely the same reference noted by the Mariner’s Museum.

In Motorboating (July, 1947), there is a practical description of the difficulties of using an instrument like a cross-staff on the sea:

“The pitching, rolling deck of a ship prevented general adaptation of the astrolabe. The cross-staff required the observer not only to sight directly on the blazing sun but also to look at two things simultaneously: the sun and the horizon. In the middle and high latitudes this latter job was not too difficult. In the low latitudes traversed by so many ships of the early days, it was nearly a physical impossibility to sight on a noon-day sun nearly overhead and a horizon dead ahead. These disadvantages led John Davis to invent, in 1590, his Back-Staff or Sea-Quadrant.”

Andrew MacKay, in 1793, sheds further light on why the cross-staff was not the instrument of choice for determining distance on water in the early days:

“The method of reckoning the latitude in degrees and minutes being introduced, instruments for observing altitudes were divided accordingly.– The Astrolabe, (a circular ring, having a moveable index and fights,) was applied to observe altitudes at sea. It was, however, supplanted by the Cross Staff, and that again by the Quadrants of Davis and Hadley, in succession.”

Thus, he suggests that use of the astrolabe preceded the cross-staff for marine purposes, with the quadrant eventually succeeding it.

On the left is a sighting rod (without crossbar), to the right, an astrolabe, constructed of overlapping, rotating rings—an instrument commonly used in navigation. Note the cloud band and the pattern in the background. [British Library, Bodley Digby 46, late 1300s]


If the object in the hand of the nymph on folio 79v is a cross-staff, then it’s unlikely that it’s intended as a marine navigation instrument—the astrolabe and other means were more commonly used for this purpose before the 16th century. In the early 15th century, the cross-staff was primarily used for land navigation, architectural measurement, and astrology.

Unfortunately, the other images on the page, below the cross-wielding nymph, add little to our understanding of the cross-shaped object unless, perhaps, the Jacob’s Ladder story is being used in a metaphorical way and the presence of a nebuly-like “umbrella” over the nymph and her crow’s-next viewpoint are pointing to a path to heaven, a concept particularly prevalent in Christian iconography, but common to many cultures.

Or perhaps it’s the astrological significance of the cross-staff that is alluded to in the Voynich manuscript. If the various nymphs are personifications of constellations, as suggested by Koen Gheuens, it would not be out of place to find a cross-staff aimed at the stars or a possible connection with Jacob’s rod, which was traditionally associated with Orion’s belt.


J.K. Petersen

Copyright © 2017, All Rights Reserved

The Cardinal’s Nymphs

I had hoped to write a whole series on this one specific topic (the Villa d’Este). I have thousands of images and copious notes, but I simply cannot find the time to sort and credit all the images and grammatize my notes. The material has been languishing in my files for nine years, so at the risk of never posting it at all, I have decided to upload it in skeletal form…

Of Water and Worts

In 2008, as I was familiarizing myself with the VMS plant drawings, and looking at the pool pages, I spent several months looking up all the botanical gardens that were in existence prior to 1520 and, while doing so, also investigated the culinary/medical gardens that were present in most large estates, including castles, universities, monasteries, and medical schools. Some of the ones I found were later than my cutoff date of 1520 but I hoped they might provide clues to earlier structures that inspired them.

What motivated me to look into botanical and courtly gardens was the VMS emphasis on plants and water, and several “map” rosettes that looked like they might be related to gardens, as well (particularly the “aerial” view on rosette 9, which resembles a garden design with water flows).

The Farnese Gardens were created on the Capotilline hill in Rome, in the mid 16th century. This shows an aerial view of the garden layout with each section arranged with different geometric shapes. Culinary, medical, and decorative gardens were an integral part of court and institutional life, and gardens with waterworks were particularly popular in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Other parts of the VMS “map” could be interpreted as fountains and pipes. The little decorative element between rosette 6 and 7 (right) might be a fountain and there are obvious parallels to water and streams in rosettes 3 and 7. Other parts look like water spraying and it’s possible that rosette 2 represents a water source with gargoyle spouts around a central column, as were found in many pubic squares.

In my search for medieval gardens that might have a strong connection to water, especially piped water, I explored the Vatican gardens, the Garzoni Gardens, the Versailles gardens, the Dresden fountains, the Salerno, Padua (which were framed by a circular wall), and Verona gardens, St. Petersburg gardens, English gardens (especially ones near Roman baths), the Villa d’Este, in Tivoli, Italy, and many others. I also looked into spa areas in Bohemia, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and some of the Grecian islands. Information on similar themes in Spain was sparse. They may exist, but in 2008 there was almost no information on the Web about them.

Viva Villa d’Este

The d’Este estate particularly interested me because it had piped water and many Pagan artworks and architectural structures strongly connected to water, nymphs, and plants—reminiscent of VMS plant-and-water imagery in general and to the rosettes page, in particular. One could describe the d’Este estate as “unapologetically” Pagan for reasons I’ll discuss below.

A diagram of the extensive gardens, fountains, and waterworks of the Villa d’Este. Water was also a prominent geographical feature on the lands surrounding the main estate, with many waterfalls and pools, some of which are a bright green.

A Brief Background

The d’Este family was wealthy, influential, and strongly interested in the arts. The Villa d’Este, in a scenic mountainous area near Rome, was commissioned by Ippolito II d’Este (1509–1572) and even though he was connected to the Roman Catholic church and became a cardinal, he was apparently more interested in Roman history and beliefs than in contemporary Christian customs. As such, the artworks on the estate include Greco-Roman gods, the Ephesian Diana, and round arched Pagan temple pools with nymphs sheltered under archways. Throughout the estate are fountains, cascades, gargoyles, and pools.

Thus, there are many parallels between the d’Este estate and the VMS and rather than blog about each one, as I originally hoped, I’m simply going to list them

The dangling teats/testicles under the nymph on folio 77v is reminiscent of the acorns/testicles/breasts depicted on many ancient sculptures of Diana. It’s difficult to know what the breast-like shapes signify in the VMS. At first I thought it might refer to the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus. Then I thought the figure might represent the Sabine who stopped the fight between the Romans and the native hill people. K. Gheuens has pointed out that it might represent a constellation, in which case Cassiopaea would be a good candidate. On the left, the Ephesian Diana is framed by an arched grotto, as are several of the VMS nymphs, as water streams around her and from the breast-like forms on her chest. Note also that the crown-veil shape framing the head of one of the VMS nymphs could be based on crown-veil shape imagery related to an ancient goddess. [Image courtesy of Yair Haklai, Wikimedia Commons.]

A number of the canopies and arches over the nymphs in the VMS look like the grotto structures surrounding goddesses and Greco-Roman gods on the d’Este grounds. Water was an intrinsic aspect of Pagan religion, and nymphs were believed to live in water or were created in (or from) water. There are also ancient caves nearby, carved into the cliffsides, and an ancient goddess temple by the road on a hilltop—the whole area is steeped in ancient traditions.

Legendary Greco-Roman figures are framed by archways and numerous fountain works. Trees and water were sacred and intrinsic to Pagan religion, as water was believed to be the birth and dwelling place of goddess nymphs. [Image courtesy of Google Maps Street-view].

One of the more breathtaking corners of the estate is an oval pond, in the Pagan style, which includes a semi-circle of archways with sculptures under the arches, and a richly textured grotto-like waterwall behind the stone balcony.

The Della Ovata pond and archways are evocative of Pagan goddess-temple styles. The VMS central rosette, which features a circular structure with stars and decorative “columns” could be an iconic representation of ancient goddess temple architecture. The Falda grotto-style fountain pool (below), built on a similar concept, shows what the rockwork around the Della Ovata may have looked like before the more recent low-wall was added.

Waterfalls and Green Pools

In the middle ages, the Villa d’Este was surrounded by natural wonders: mountains, cliffs, crooked roads, and many rivulets and waterfalls. The VMS is full of “waterfall”, pool, and bathing imagery that bears similarities to this topography. The VMS rosettes page includes many escarpments, and there is a shape between rosettes 4 and 6 that could be interpreted as a fountain. There is also a crooked mountain road connecting rosettes 1 and 4 leading from what might be an eye-shaped mountain or volcano. A similar road leads to the Villa d’Este. Notice the pipes coming out of the VMS volcano-like “mountain” (water was piped down to feed the estate’s cistern and extensive waterworks).

The Cascadia is a scenic landmark in Tivoli, by the Villa d’Este. Notice the green pools and the rivulet connecting the pools, very similar to how green pools are arranged in folios 78r and 81r. The Cascadia lower river has terraced pools, some of which have been shaped with nearby rocks to make them more comfortable for bathing.

This image, from the 1930s, shows the topography of the d’Este estate in Tivoli, Italy, with its many waterfalls and green-water bathing pools. In the 16th century, the gardens were much more extensive.

The pool imagery on folio 78r might represent natural waterholes that have been rocked in for bathing, so it’s difficult to know whether the VMS “pipes” that appear to be feeding the pools represent natural water, or aquaducts and pools constructed to create bathing holes.

Natural water holes existed in the landscape in countless regions, including the Alps, Bohemia, Pozzuoli, and the town of Tivoli, Italy, and there may also have been bathing holes in the Villa d’Este grounds, which were larger in the 16th century than they are now, which makes it very difficult to know if these pool pages are generalized, allegorical, or meant to represent a specific location.

The Villa d’Este had a large culinary/medical garden, similar to those at monasteries. It’s possible that rosette 9 is an aerial view of gardens common to castles, monasteries, and universities.

The VMS map is full of pipe shapes. They come out of the mountain, they surround the central rosette, and they spray between rosettes 2, 4, 6, and 8. No one has been able to convincingly explain the meaning of the pipes or their relation to the rest of the imagery, and they may be allegorical, but if they are intended to be real pipes, here is one thought…

The Villa d’Este was built with some incredible piping systems and waterworks, centuries ahead of their time. They form a lattice underneath the grounds and are not just there to provide water to people and plants, but also to feed elaborate fountains and whimsical waterworks, throughout the estate, some of which were triggered by people walking nearby, so they would be showered unexpectedly as a form of entertainment. The estate was a marvel of hydraulic engineering and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A popular theme in medieval imagery is the courtly garden party, which is often shown as a ringed area with a central fountain. You might notice in the second picture below that the fountain embellishment resembles not only the containers in the VMS small-plants section, but also the VMS “architectural columns with feet” that look like large containers in the central rosette.

I didn’t want to constrain my research to Europe, I always search as far afield as possible, but information on medieval spa sites and gardens east of Constantinople or south of the Mediterranean is scarce and was especially scarce nine years ago, but I did find some information on gardens in the Levant, including the area around Jerusalem. The idea of Jerusalem intrigued me because I thought the “mountain” in rosette 1, with its almond-shaped “eye” (similar to an olive pit) might be the Mount of Olives.

The Garden of Gethsemane (image from 1893) is in an arid region, where it’s harder to grow things, but still bears some similarities to more northerly gardens, with a circular design and a fountain-like centerpiece, but I wasn’t able to reconcile many features of the VMS map with this part of the world.


I hate to stop in the middle of a topic, I have much more information but so little time, so I’ll end by saying I wasn’t able to convince myself that the rosette map was the Villa d’Este or any of the similar gardens that preceded it (many of which no longer exist except in verbal descriptions). The reason I’m not sure is because I couldn’t reconcile what looks like compass points (the two suns and the T-O map) with the layout of the d’Este estate. It’s close… the “mountain”, the water, the escarpments, and some of the other features could be related to real physical features, but it takes a bit of wrangling, and there is some imagery that doesn’t quite seem to fit this location.

Villa d’Este was one of many ideas, and I’m keeping it on the table, but it post-dates the VMS by more than a century, and information on its predecessors is scanty. Also, I subsequently found a location that MIGHT explain the rosettes page better than Villa d’Este, a location that better fits the compass points. It doesn’t have extensive waterworks, but it did have piped water and nearby natural waters, and some of the other features on the rosettes. Unfortunately, I can’t spare time to describe it today. It will have to wait for another blog.

                                                                                                                                   J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Of Wolves and Women

I held off writing this blog for about two years because I simply couldn’t decide which one of two legends fits better and I was hoping to find something definite that would lead me to one or the other (or to a third interpretation if the first two weren’t correct). Unfortunately, almost nothing about the Voynich is definite except its enigmatic nature, so if I wait for a revelation, this might never get posted.

So here we go, I’ll post both alternatives and let the reader decide if one or the other (or neither) has any validity. Here’s the central part of the image (folio 77v):

Maidenf77vThere are some pipe-like biological structures connecting various figures and the maiden is standing in some kind of “pool” (perhaps bodily fluids?) with three pendant shapes below her. At a glance, the image could be interpreted as a womb in the center with ovaries to either side, but could it mean something else, or have a dual meaning?

Diana or Sabine?

KircherDianaWhen I first saw this VMS page, it reminded me of two things. The first was the Ephesian Diana. I have a multitude of pictures of Diana and the evolution of her image from the early days of fancy necklaces to symbols of plenitude (acorns and possibly bull’s testicles) to the inevitable depiction of Diana with a multitude of breasts rather than testicles, ready to feed the world. The version of Diana at the Via d’Este displays a chest full of breasts. The image on the right, from one of Athanasius Kircher’s books, is not as clear, but might be testicles. The appendages under the central figure in the VMS could be interpreted as either testicles or breasts.

But… I wasn’t sure this was a metaphor for Diana, and the ejaculating phallus in the left-hand margin seemed to suggest something other than goddess worship (which was a sacred rather than a carnal adoration to many of the ancients). It’s possible this page is about procreation and insemination, fertility and abundance, as befits Diana, but maybe there’s another explanation…

A More Primal Interpretation

SheWolfBronzeThe second idea that came to mind at almost the same moment as the first was this… Could those pendant shapes represent animal teats and thus be a reference to Rome? They reminded me of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, the twins who had a disagreement over where to place their new city, an altercation that led to Romulus killing his brother Remus so he could have his way.

If the pendant shapes weren’t breasts or testicles as would be associated with the goddess Diana, could they be the teats of the she-wolf that fed Romulus and Remus? Is this a reference to the founding of Rome or to the capture of Rome in the 8th century BCE?

If so, then perhaps the VMS is allegorical imagery of the abduction of the Sabine women. I searched for a picture that might express the same ideas as the VMS, but in a more literal way and found this 18th-century painting by Jacques-Louis David:

SabineWomenPaintingNote how the posture of the maiden trying to intervene in a battle somewhat echoes the arms-wide pose of the nymph in the VMS:

SabineWomenDetailThis might fit the VMS imagery more closely than the story of Diana. It could also explain the ejaculating phallus in the margin. Technically, the legend of the Sabines is about the abduction of the Sabine women, not the rape of the Sabines, but how often in history have warriors abducted women without an expectation of having sex with them, especially when they were kidnapping them expressly to take them as wives? Note also that two of the nymphs at the top are wearing veils. There are other places in the VMS where veils are associated with marriage-related imagery, but I’m not sure of their intended meaning here.

Voyf77vThumbThe story of the she-wolf and the founding of Rome might account for the dangly bits below the nymph’s feet (rather than being on her chest as might be expected if she were Diana) and the nymph with chin up and arms spread might represent the Sabine women who cast themselves between opposing forces, willing to die rather than to subject themselves to impious relationships with their kidnappers, an action that supposedly ended the battle and forged a truce between the Sabines and the new colonists.

Either way, it’s another example of a page where biological imagery and mythical imagery might both be intended. If so, they are expressed in an obtuse but rather original way.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved