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Specializing at first in incunabula—books printed before 1501—he sold to prestigious collectors and libraries, including the British Museum, which bought the entire contents of his eighth catalog.The books from that purchase, now shelved together in the British Library, provide a snapshot of the rich contents of Voynich’s shop in Soho Square, later moved to the grander purlieus of Piccadilly.
This “herbal” section is followed by a cluster of large foldout pages decorated with circular zodiacal or astrological diagrams, and this in turn gives way to a section of ten folios containing yet more unrecognizable text, interspersed with decidedly unerotic drawings of groups of plump naked women, bathing in pools and conduits of blue or green water, which some students of the manuscript have suggested might be symbolic representations of bodily functions such as reproduction.In this belief, he was following a letter from the Prague physician Johannes Marcus Marci to Kircher, dated August 19, 1665, which had been tucked inside the manuscript.Marci’s letter claimed that the manuscript was the work of the thirteenth-century English Franciscan scientist and alchemist Roger Bacon, and that more recently it had been acquired for the library of the emperor Rudolf II for the very large sum of six hundred golden ducats.The book’s closing section consists of twenty-three pages of closely written text without illustration, made up of short paragraphs of just a few lines apiece, each paragraph prefaced by a star or asterisk.Kraus had bought this baffling manuscript as a commercial speculation in 1961, for $24,500 plus a half share in any future profit.More than three hundred of these hidden Jesuit treasures ultimately ended up in the Vatican Library, but in 1912 Voynich, who regularly toured Italy in search of incunabula and manuscripts, managed to buy a few.
One of these, described by Voynich as the “ugly duckling” of the former Collegio Romano collection, was the future Beinecke If Voynich labeled his acquisition an ugly duckling, he was nevertheless convinced that he had acquired an exceptional swan in the making, for he believed its baffling text concealed a scientific treatise of major importance by one of the greatest minds of the high Middle Ages.
The vendor was Anne Nill, secretary, professional collaborator, and ultimate heir of the manuscript’s first discoverer, a remarkable Polish-Lithuanian bookdealer and adventurer, Wilfrid Michael Voynich.
Born in 1864 and a graduate in law and chemistry from the University of Moscow, Voynich had been arrested in 1885 as a revolutionary Polish nationalist and had spent five years in exile in Siberia.
Kircher told another Prague-based Jesuit mathematician, Theodor Moretus, that he had indeed tried unsuccessfully to decipher the text: marginal traces of an early effort to supply equivalents from the Latin alphabet for the mysterious letters in the manuscript itself may be relics of these attempts at decryption. His knowledge of the court of Rudolf II was not very deep, and largely derived from a popular history of scientific and alchemical studies at the Prague court published in 1904 by Henry Carrington Bolton, an American chemist, bibliographer, and historian of science.
Bolton’s book, The Follies of Science at the Court of Rudolf II, 1576–1612, gave a prominent place to the English magician and alchemist John Dee, who with his assistant and “scryer,” Edward Kelley, spent years attempting to communicate with angels, in order to learn the universal language spoken by Adam in Paradise before the Fall.
The precise circumstances surrounding Voynich’s acquisition of Beinecke 408 are obscure, but it had certainly been one of a group of manuscripts and books from the library of Athanasius Kircher, the seventeenth-century Jesuit polymath and scientist.