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VMs: The Fontana ciphers

I made some changes to my site yesterday but I had trouble uploading it. I'll try again tonight. I have started reading the Battisti
edition but I haven't finished it. Here's a preliminary report.

Fontana wrote at least six books:

1,2. Two books about water clocks, preserved in manuscript at Bologna.
3. De Trigone, about surveying, preserved in manuscript at Oxford.
4. An encyclopedia, modestly called De Omnibus Rebus Naturalibus,
known from a printed edition (Venice, 1545)
5. De Bellicorum Instrumentis, preserved at Munich.
6. Secretum de Thesauro, preserved at Paris.

Only the last two are written in cipher, the same cipher in each, and
the plaintext is Latin. The Secretum de Thesauro is about 130 pages
long, the Liber slightly shorter. Some headings and labels are in
Roman script, the bulk of the text in cipher. Both are furnished with
somewhat fantastical illustrations, mostly of improbable looking
devices. The cipher is known to be Fontana's invention but both
manuscripts are copies by other hands, not autographs.

The Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber starts off with stuff about siege
engines: some of them look practical and others decidedly not. The
magic lantern comes towards the end and I think is intended as a
contribution to psychological warfare.

The Secretum de Thesauro is about memory, very broadly defined. It
starts off with what Fontana calls instruments of memory, but this
means what we would now call display devices. The first one is a kind
of peg board used to display a word by inserting lettered pegs into
numbered holes. Next come devices with lettered spokes slotting into
wheels, lettered rings threaded onto circles and spirals, lettered
discs and clock faces. Then comes a section, also illustrated, about
optical illusions: for instance a puzzling picture of overlapping
circles turns out to concern after-images. This is as far as I have
read continuously, but I skipped ahead to find the explanation of
the star ring diagram, which occurs in a section about mnemonic

This diagram occupies the lower two thirds of one page. It consists
of four carefully drawn concentric rings overlain with asterisks
(schematic stars made with three penstrokes crossing each other).
Thus each ring looks like the European flag only with more stars in it
(40 or so in the outer ring, 15 or so in the smallest ring). The
circle enclosed by the smallest ring contains pen lines radiating
out from the centre. The stars are not labelled. A caption in Roman
letters says 'celum ecclexie'. The accompanying cipher text concerns
the principle that mnemonic images should be dramatic and exaggerated:
water should gush in floods, animals should be fierce etc. The
editors suggest that the image is intended to represent the vault
of a church decorated with the celestial spheres surrounding the

The Battistis place Fontana in the context of Renaissance humanism:
he was very conscious of living in an age of new knowledge with
huge technological potential. He was also a showman who put on
displays of white magic and it is difficult to estimate how serious
he was. The Battistis speculate that the cipher was designed both
to conceal and intrigue: I can well imagine somebody displaying the
Secretum as entertainment ("what do you think that is?"). In an
age of great men he comes over as a second division figure, but
the book is great fun and I am enjoying reading it. It isn't the
key to the Voynich manuscript, but it gives off the Voynich feeling
of a deliberately created puzzle. I now think that this is the
context of the VMS.

Philip Neal

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