This page explores the details of the 'discovery' of the Voynich MS by Voynich in 1911 or 1912, in particular the questions where the MS was hidden and how he found it. This 'discovery' does not only concern the Voynich MS, but rather a larger collection in which it was included.
This page is closely related to a parallel page that explores the composition of this collection. There are regular cross-references between the two, but both pages can be read independently, without having to go back and forth all the time.
There is a third page that paints the historical background of this collection, which is recommended reading, but not absolutely needed to understand the present page. Many details of that page are also included here.
The location where the manuscripts were stored and sold has always been reported to be the Villa Mondragone in Frascati, but the evidence for this, and for many other details surrounding this 'discovery' have never been analysed in detail. In the first part of the present page I will present all evidence about these events known to me, either directly from Voynich himself, or indirectly from other people's reports of his statements. We will see that there are several different versions to his story, in particular about the location of the sale, which is either a castle in Austria, a castle in Southern Europe or more specifically a castle in Frascati.
In the subsequent sections I will explore independent sources related to these events, while keeping open all different versions of Voynich's story. Here, it becomes clear that Voynich was obliged to maintain strict confidence about the sale and about the origin of the manuscripts, by the Jesuit sellers (whom indeed he never mentioned, except to his wife).
The conclusion is that one of the main elements of Voynich's story, namely that he discovered these manuscripts himself, in chests of which the guardians were unaware of what they contained, is certainly not true. It was a collection hidden by the Jesuits in or before 1873, offered for sale to the Vatican in 1903, and around 1911 Voynich was invited to buy part of it. It was in one of two possible places not far from Rome, either Castel Gandolfo or Frascati, or in fact in both, one after the other.
All books and articles written about the Voynich MS tell us that it was discovered by W.Voynich in Villa Mondragone in Frascati.
Is this really what happened? Voynich always maintained that he discovered the collection of books and manscripts that included the Voynich MS (1) in chests of which the owners themselves were unaware what they contained, but he never said exactly where this was. He certainly never mentioned Villa Mondragone. This location was announced by Hans P. Kraus thirty years after Voynich's death. Kraus owned the MS after the deaths of Wilfrid and Ethel Voynich, and had access to some information not previously divulged by Voynich.
This part of the history of the MS has largely been copied between printed and internet sources over the years without much further investigation, but the availability of new evidence makes this investigation possible now.
Information from Voynich about the acquisition of this collection of manuscripts is relatively sparse. Best known are the statements in his 1921 paper (2), where he refers to his acquisition of these manuscipts in a castle in Southern Europe, while he was keeping the precise location secret, since he was still hoping to buy more books there. This was written nine years after the event, but there are also some earlier recorded statements from Voynich. They are presented here in chronological order.
The first sources we have are several newspaper reports from November 1915 that describe a number of exhibitions of Voynich's most interesting manuscripts and early prints (3). I have transcribed them here. These exhibitions included many more books than just the Jesuit collection including the Voynich MS, but the most notorious items were from it. During these exhibitions, Voynich spoke about the origin of the collection, and this has been recorded in the above-mentioned newspapers with some variations. Without repeating the full text of the four reports, following is my summary of them.
During research, Voynich found evidence, possibly in some old correspondence, of a collection of MSs hidden in Austria. These were MSs from ducal or princely libraries, which were taken abroad during Napoleon's invasion into Italy, in order to prevent that they were taken to Paris by Napeolon. After some detective work, Voynich found the chests in a castle in Austria, or a castle of an Austrian nobleman. These chests had not been opened for more than a century, and their owners or guardians had no idea what they contained. Voynich obtained the rights to them, also because the original owners had all died and the collection(s) had been forgotten.
A bit more than one year later, Voynich wrote a letter to Prof. Wilkins of the University of Chicago (4). This letter, which is dated 27 February 1917, discusses a Boccaccio MS that prof. Wilkins was studying, and in it Voynich answered some questions from Wilkins. The Boccaccio MS originates from the same collection as the Voynich MS (5), and it was sold by Voynich to the University of Chicago. The letter says:
The large collection of manuscripts, acquired by me from its hidden place, six years ago, consisted to my best knowledge of many collections belonging to Dukes and Princes, including part of the Malatesta library, part of the Matthias Corvinus library, and part of the Libraries of the Dukes of Parma, Modena and Ferrara, part of the collection of Borso, Alfonso D’Arragonia, and several others. I do not know from which of these collections Boccaccio was removed. Until the close of the 18th Century all these manuscripts were in Italy, but were then removed abroad in fear of Napoleon’s invasion. As far as I know, from that period until discovered by me, they were not disturbed, and not seen by anyone. The place from which I purchased them I cannot disclose, due to my promise given to the guardians of these manuscripts, whose former owners, as you see, disappeared, thanks to the unification of Italy under the Savoy Dynasty.
In a letter of 18 September in the same year he wrote to Edith Rickert (6), a cryptography expert interested in the Voynich MS:
In regard to the history of the MS., I am sorry I can tell you very little because I am bound by promises made to those from whom I acquired it.
In his 1921 paper (see note 2) Voynich wrote:
In 1912 [...] I came across a most remarkable collection of preciously illuminated manuscripts. For many decades these volumes had lain buried in the chests in which I found them in an ancient castle in Southern Europe
As I hope some day to be able to acquire the remaining manuscripts in the collection, I refrain from giving details about the locality of the castle.
Wilfrid Voynich died on 19 March 1930, and four months later his widow Ethel Lilian Voynich (henceforth simply ELV) wrote a letter that should only be opened after her own death (7):
The Cipher MS. was bought [inserted: with other MSS] by W.M. Voynich, in or about 1911. It was the property of the Vatican, and was (in a castle ?) at Frascati. The intermediary through whom he approached the Vatican authorities was the English Jesuit Father Joseph (?) Strickland, who had, I believe, some connection with Malta. Father Strickland, who has since died, knew that the sale of certain MSS. had been decided upon, if a buyer could be found whose discretion could be trusted. Whether this [inserted: secrecy] was because of the strained relations with the Quirinal I do not know. Father Strickland gave his personal assurance that W.M.V. could be trusted, and on that assurance he was allowed to buy, after giving a promise of secresy [sic]
In 1961, one year after ELV's death, the new owner of the MS was the rare book dealer Hans P. Kraus. From him we have two reports about a visit he made to the Vatican library, where he spoke about the MS with Mgr. Ruysschaert. This event is also described here.
when I was, a few weeks ago, in the Vatican Library, I found out that the Cipher Manuscript comes from the library of the Collegium Romanum, which was housed in 1911 in the Mondragone Monastery in Frascati. The Vatican Library bought the whole collection and the Cipher Manuscript with the other 17 illuminated manuscripts are still listed in the inventory. This inventory was printed by Ruysschaert – Codices Vaticani latini 11414 – 11709.
In 1963 we were in Rome and I visited Monsignor Jose Ruysschaert at the Vatican library. I knew that he had published the catalogue of the Mondragone library and I hoped to get information about the Cipher manuscript.
These two reports are not fully consistent: in one the year appears to be 1962 and in the other 1963. Furthermore, in one there is the suggestion that he learned about Villa Mondragone from Ruysschaert, while in the other it appears as if that was his prior knowledge or assumption. In May 1962 Kraus was one of the participants of a trip to Italy that was organised by the Grolier Club (of which he was a member) (8), and the visit to the Vatican Library took place on 22 May. It is logical that the letter to Friedman, written only briefly after the event, has the correct year. Kraus' inaccuracy does require us to treat his reports with some care, and we will come back to this further below.
There are some common points, and some inconsistencies in the above. What clearly emerges is that Voynich was only allowed to acquire the set of books and manuscripts under promise of secrecy, and that he always stuck to that.
It has to be stressed that this secrecy did not specifically concern the Voynich MS, but the entire collection that he had acquired (see note 1). This is clearly reflected in the above-mentioned letter about the Boccaccio MS of the University of Chicago (9). His secrecy is confirmed by material now preserved in the Beinecke Library. Some of the documents have comments written in pencil saying "safe to keep" or "don't destroy this", showing that other material must have been destroyed.
The year in which Voynich 'discovered' the MS is traditionally reported as 1912, and this is the year that he mentioned in his 1921 publication (see above). At the same time, the letter from ELV (see note 7) says "1911 (or about)", and the 1917 letter from Voynich to Wilkins says "six years ago", implying 1911. Kraus’ letter to Friedman also mentions the year 1911. Finally, Ruysschaert (1960) (10) writes ‘towards 1912’ (from his French: "vers 1912"). We cannot yet resolve this uncertainty, and I will always write 1911-1912. It is of course quite possible that his involvement in the acquisition spanned the years 1911 to 1912.
The main inconsistencies in the various reports from Voynich (and Kraus) are the following.
What makes matters even more complicated is that Voynich was a man with a very lively fantasy. This was already pointed out by Rafal Prinke (2012) (11), and we find more proof of it in Kennedy (2016) (12). Both have been partially reflected in Voynich's biography. We find that he loved to exaggerate both the details of his life (wandering for months through a Mongolian desert) and the details of his books (supposed illustrations from the hands of such famous artists as Giotto and Mantegna) (13).
In view of all this uncertainty, let's not try to jump to conclusions now, but look at other evidence first.
The manuscripts that Voynich acquired had bibliographical paper slips attached to them, which he removed and hid. They were found in the London shop by Herbert Garland in 1937, sent to Anne Nill in the US and are now preserved in the Beinecke Library. As far as I know, Voynich never mentioned or showed these to anyone. An example of these bibliographical slips is shown below.
It says ex Bibliotheca privata P. Petri Beckx, and Petrus Beckx S.J. was the General Superior of the Society of Jesus when the society was suppressed in 1873. These paper slips have been analysed in a dedicated section in the parallel page. This analysis shows conclusively that the collection of manuscripts, from which Voynich was allowed to acquire a subset, belonged to the Society of Jesus. At the same time, the princely and ducal owners that Voynich mentioned on several occasions were not an invention. These were the owners of the manuscripts before they entered the Collegium Romanum Library, and another section of the same page shows that and each of the names in Voynich's letter to Prof. Wilkins (as cited above) is attested.
This collection of manuscripts disappeared from sight around 1870-1873, when the Society of Jesus was suppressed and their libraries were confiscated. Their disappearing has been recorded for three of the manuscripts in the collection, which had been consulted in the Collegium Romanum library up to that time (14).
Voynich gave two possible reasons for his secrecy. The first is that he was obliged to maintain secrecy about the sale by the guardians (i.e. sellers) of the manuscripts. The second, later, reason was a commercial one, namely that he was still hoping to return to this place to buy more manuscripts. We already saw in the analysis of the paper slips on the parallel page that in the manuscripts preserved in the Vatican the name of Beckx has been erased, while on the slips we still have from Voynich it is perfectly legible. This clearly means that the erasure was not done before the sale, but by the Vatican library after the sale. This need for the Vatican to hide the origin of the manuscripts tells us that the entire sale must have been done in confidence. That means that Voynich's original story (which is also reflected in the letter of ELV) must be the correct one. Additional confirmation of this storyline is presented further below.
There exists a catalogue of a collection of Jesuit manuscripts for sale to the Vatican, written in 1903, that includes many of the manuscripts aquired by Voynich. It has been described here. This must be the inventory that Kraus referred to in his letter to Friedman. The existence of this catalogue clearly shows that the part of the story of Voynich, where he discovered the manuscripts in chests of which the owners did not know what they contained, is not true. It can only be part of a "cover story", one he needed in order to fulfil his promise of secrecy. Here again, the information provided by ELV in her letter, namely what Voynich told her in confidence, fits exactly with the information from this catalogue. He must have been invited to acquire a number of the manuscripts. Did this take place in Frascati, or in an Austrian castle?
The Jesuit father Joseph Strickland (15), who was the intermediary for the sale according to ELV's letter, was an alumnus of the nobile collegio Mondragone. From 1903 to 1911, while still associated with the college, he was working in Florence, where Voynich was operating one of his book stores since 1908. Some letters from Joseph and Paul Strickland (Joseph's brother, also alumnus of Villa Mondragone) written shortly after the sale of the manuscripts to Voynich are preserved in the Beinecke. While they don't provide any real insight in what happened, one of them has a Villa Mondragone letterhead. The '(castle?) at Frascati' mentioned by ELV is therefore most probably Villa Mondragone.
We may learn more about this episode from additional historical records, first of all a letter written by Paul Pierling S.J..
An important witness of the suppression of the Society and the confiscation of their property during the reign of P. Beckx S.J. was the Jesuit Father Paul Pierling (1840-1922), who was the secretary of the Assistant for Germany in the Curia Generalis (16) and who was based there (in the Casa Professa, annexed to the Gesù church) from 1871 to 1876. He recorded some of the events in a letter. Following are some excerpts of it (17) (my annotations in square brackets).
It was as late as 18 October  that Father vice-superintendent of the Gesù received the official communication that announced the transfer of ownership [of the Casa Professa] on the 20th of the current month.
In order to know exactly what was the point, we thought it would be better to ask for some explanations on the way the seize had to be done. The notary answered that each religious person was allowed to keep all his personal properties, but that the community properties were transferred to the state. For lack of instructions, he was unable to resolve the doubt brought up by P. Rubillon about assistants libraries, but, three days later, the positive answer came back and each Assistant was authorized to take away his own books.
We walked immediately towards the great library. The absence of catalogue caused a surprise, which ended when genuine acts proved that the catalogue never existed. Copies of these acts were taken and the Piemontese seals closed the doors above which we can see St-Ignatius of Manrèse, with the caption: “Liber exercitiorum S.P.I. bibliothecas Societatis aperuit”. The library of the Duchess of Saxony, which must be transferred by will to the Emperor of Austria, was sealed by a secretary of the Austrian legation, some days later.
Here we clearly see the origin of the 'Private library of P.Beckx'. It was a ruse which allowed the Jesuits to preserve books from their libraries from confiscation by the state. In Carini Dainotti (1956) (18) we read that Beckx was allowed to keep 4000 items. In addition, she says, P.Beckx took 60 cases out of the Casa Professa. It is not certain that all books that now show stickers saying Ex bibliotheca privata P.Petri Beckx were really placed in his private library at this time. The stickers may have been an added safety measure to protect books that had already been put in hiding.
We find these stickers:
The above three sets of books and manuscripts were preserved in the Collegium Romanum library (Bibliotheca Maior) which is to be distinguished from the library of the Casa Professa. What happened to the Casa Professa library mentioned by Paul Pierling S.J. is not known to me. The origin of these three collections is demonstrated by the identification of the original Collegium Romanum shelf marks that have been written on them in various places. Most particularly they have been written in pencil on the reverse of the bibliographical slips of the first two collections. See for example "4 c 62" in >>MS Vat.Lat.11543 ), and similar codes (4, followed by a character c-f, followed by a number) on many of the Beinecke slips. A few are also written in the margins of the 1903 catalogue.
These codes match the type Se >>as discussed on this page. In addition, in Holmes van Mater (1927) (19) we read that the Marcanova MS of the collection bought by Voynich was seen in the Collegium Romanum library, with shelf mark "4 F 44".
So, what happened with the books and manuscripts saved by the Jesuits in or before 1873, and in particular the collection including the Voynich MS? This is quite a complicated part of history, and the few cases of moves of archives and libraries that I have been able to extract from various sources may be used to show this.
The main library of the Collegium Romanum was confiscated, which means not only the books, but also the building itself, which was simply converted in the new state library. Many books and manuscripts were salvaged by moving them out and hiding them. Additionally, an important collection was also hidden inside the building. It is not clear when this was initiated, but this collection of books and manuscripts was stored in a room that has become known as the Ripostiglio and which was locked and hidden behind a trap door.
It was discovered four years later, in 1877, by a government official (20). His report criticised the Jesuits, who on their side responded with indignation. The 1752 most important manuscripts in this collection were transferred to the state library where they now form the Fondo Gesuitico. None of the manuscripts from this collection had a "P. Beckx" sticker attached to it. The most valuable item was a Muretus autograph, but it also included five autograph manuscripts of Kircher (21). This clearly shows that Kircher's library had been integrated into the Collegium Romanum library by then.
The less interesting part of this collection was moved to an attic in the Collegium Romanum building, the so-called soffitta, and largely fogotten. It suffered a bit from the elements (primarily water), and later this collection was given back to the Jesuits, who integrated it into the historical archives of the GRegorian University as the Fondo Curia. In may of these, the original Collegium Romanum shelf marks have still been preserved.
In a newspaper article from the Journal de Lyon of 29 October 1873, we read that 144 Jesuits had to leave Rome. 50 of them moved to two Villas that the prince of Torlonia had placed at their disposal: one in Castel Gandolfo, the other on the ancient territory of Bola, between Praeneste and Tivoli (22). Several were accepted at the college of Mondragone, in Villa Borghese in Frascati. We further read in the biography of Beckx (23) that on 13 October 1873 the historical Jesuit novitiate of St.Andrea al Quirinale was forced to close and had to be evacuated within two weeks. Prince Alessandro Torlonia immediately offered to continue the activities in his Villa in Castel Gandolfo.
Finally, we read in the preface of Chan (2002) (24):
The authorities of the Order made an attempt to save the Archives from any harm. They were first transferred to the basement of the Palazzo Torlonia on Via della Riconciliazione (25) and in 1873 to the attics of the German College which at that time was located in the Palazzo Borromeo on Via del Seminario near St. Ignatius Church.
It is clear that Prince Alessandro Torlonia (1800-1886) played a significant role in helping the Jesuits in 1873, and we need to look at this more closely. However, let's first briefly turn to the library of the Duchess of Sachsen that was also saved from confiscation, as already mentioned above in the letter of P.Pierling S.J..
The general of the Society of Jesus was responsible for securing another important library from confiscation by the Italian state, namely the library that was described above as the library of the Duchess of Sachsen. It is more generally known as the Bibliotheca Rossiana (26). We may start with a brief history of this library.
The bibliophile Giovanni Francesco de Rossi (1796 – 1854) collected a significant library of books and manuscripts with the financial support of his wealthy spouse Louise Charlotte de Bourbon (1802 – 1857), Duchess of Sachsen (from her first marriage). De Rossi insisted with his wife that, in case of his death, this collection of over 10,000 items should not be dispersed but remain intact. After De Rossi died, his widow remarried, and in order to avoid problems in case of her own death, she decided to donate the entire collection to the Jesuits in Rome, who stored it in the Casa Professa.
The donation, which took place in 1855, was governed by a formal donation contract, a document signed by herself and by P. Beckx, which stated among others:
This document was considered binding, not only by the Society of Jesus, but also by Austria and it would play a decisive role in the vicissitudes of the library.
During the first 18 years after the donation, while the collection was in the Casa Professa, it was completely inaccessible. At this time, this collection was known as the Biblioteca della Duchessa di Sassonia. It was one of two libraries preserved in the Casa Professa, the other one being the main Jesuit library (27).
As we saw, in 1873 the newly formed Italian state confiscated all libraries owned by the Society of Jesus, but some considerable parts of at least the Collegium Romanum library escaped from confiscation. The remainder was transferred into the Italian National Library in Rome. For the library of the Duchess, who had already died in 1857, one of the clauses in the contract had come into effect, and the Austrian ambassador to the Vatican agreed with P.Beckx that the entire collection should be transported to Austria. Initially, possible locations for the storage of this collection were explored by both parties, and Malta was proposed by the Jesuits as an interesting option, but eventually discarded in favour of Austria.
The library of the Duchess was packed into 53 boxes (28) and moved just a few hundred metres, from the Casa Professa to the Palazzo Venezia, which was the residence of the Austrian ambassador. The transportation to Austria took place in 1877, initially to the sacristy of the Jesuit Church near the old University in Vienna. This location eventually turned out to be too humid for the valuable collection, and so, after another 18 years, in 1895 the collection was moved to a more appropriate location: the Jesuit College in Vienna’s 13th district: Wien-Lainz. From this time onwards the collection was known as the Biblioteca Rossiana. At this time it contained approximately 9000 items, including about 1200 manuscripts, 2500 incunables and some 5300 mostly valuable later prints. The collection was arranged on 23 bookshelves and was available for consultation by historians.
In 1912 there was talk about selling the library, and both antiquarian book dealers (29) and major European libraries were interested, however, this sale did not take place because of legal concerns related to the contract of the Duchess with the Jesuits. Finally, in December 1921, the entire collection was moved from Vienna to the Vatican, and incorporated into the Vatican Library as the Fondo Rossiano, where the books and manuscripts received new shelf marks, and where they are still preserved today. This transfer involved difficult negotiations, since the Italian state was still very interested in Jesuit property that they considered subject to confiscation. This is nine years after the sale of the Jesuit collection that included the Voynich MS, and it show that the confidentiality of that sale in 1912 was most probably justified.
Could items marked "from the private library of P.Beckx" (estimated between 2000 and 3000 items) have been equally stored in the college in Wien-Lainz, at least for some time? This is of course suggested by Voynich's "Austrian castle" story. The college in was located in a former Jagdschloss so it would be justified to call it a castle. Some further suggestions in this direction are found in Grafinger (1997) (see note 26). Following is a translation of footnote 34 on p.104:
The Jesuits possessed two libraries in the Provincial House of Rome [casa professa]: on the one hand the Bibliotheca Rossiana, on the other hand their own library, for which the general requested intercession by the Austrians, since it would certainly be affected by a confiscation of the Italian authorities. Cf. report of Hübner to foreign minister Andrassy of 22. X 1873 (HHStA, PA XI 219, Nr. 29, f. 174r) (30); in addition La Capitale. Gazzetta di Roma Anno 4 Nr. 110, Friday 17 Oct. 1873, 2.
This suggests that P. Beckx was indeed considering help from the side of Austria for his own library. Furthermore, with respect to the Bibliotheca Rossiana, we read on p.111:
The General of the Jesuits, now residing in Florence, was asked by a representative of the Austrian-Hungarian embassy to the Vatican at which location outside Italy the library should be placed. For this, four locations were under discussion: Malta, Innsbruck, Kalksburg and Vienna. Initially, a transfer to Malta was considered. However, P. Beckx rejected this option out of consideration for the Austrian emperor, and in his answer of 15 September 1877 decided in favour of the Jesuit house in Vienna.
From this, we know that Beckx favoured three locations in Austria for the Bibliotheca Rossiana, namely the Jesuit colleges in Kalksburg (near Vienna), Innsbruck and Vienna itself. The last, as we have seen, was actually a church, and this is the location where the library was moved after a few years.
Of the three sites mentioned by Beckx for reception of the Bibliotheca Rossiana, Kalksburg looks most like a castle, as shown by a photo from 1900:
Of all other Jesuit sites in Austria, Freinberg is most like a castle, as shown by a photo from 1920:
Interestingly, Joseph Strickland studied in the Jesuit college of Feldkirch sometime between 1870 and 1875 (31), and around the same time teachers at this college included Franz Xaver Wernz (the Jesuit General in 1906-1914) and Franz Ehrle (prefect of the Vatican Library in 1895-1914), i.e. two of the key people related to the sale of the manuscripts of the Collegium Romanum to the Vatican Library) (32). However, all of this is almost certainly coincidental.
An additional intriguing detail may be found in the catalogues of the Morgan library, which describe the two Corvinus manuscripts that originate from Voynich's acquisition (33). The library catalogue says that these manuscripts come from the Jesuit college in Wien-Lainz, i.e. where the Bibliotheca Rossiana was stored. Could this be evidence that also the collection including the Voynich MS was hidden there after 1873? According to a source quoted by the Morgan library, the binding of one of the two manuscripts was identical to that used by De Rossi for his entire collection (34). The Morgan library was so kind to send me an image of this binding, and it could be verified that this was only similar, but certainly not identical (35). Furthermore, the Hungarian historian János Csontosi reports seeing both manuscripts in the Collegium Romanum library in 1870 (36), while the library of De Rossi was already packed in chests in the 1850's. Thus, even if the binding were that of De Rossi, it does not follow that these manuscripts from the Collegium Romanum library were moved to Vienna (37).
On the one hand, the story of Voynich that the manuscripts were stored in a castle in Austria is quite plausible, given the historical evidence related to Beckx' interactions with the Austrians, and the move of another library that had been stored in the Casa Professa in 1873 to a castle in Austria. It seems hard to imagine that Voynich could have invented such a story which coincidentally matches these records. On the other hand, all the other elements of his story that could be verified turn out to be false. He certainly did not discover the collection in chests of which the owners were unaware what they contained, and his detective story related to correspondence leading him to the discovery becomes nothing more than a fairy tale. If the 'Austrian castle' is indeed nothing more than a cover story, Voynich possibly had some help from Strickland in putting it together, as he should have been well aware of the Bibliotheca Rossiana in Wien-Lainz and its history (38). With this, let us leave Austria and turn back to Italy.
Sometime before 1884 the Jesuit bibliographer Carlos Sommervogel was tasked by P.Beckx to issue a new version of De Backer's complete Jesuit bibliography (39). The first two issues were from the brothers Augustin and Alois De Backer, both Belgian Jesuits. Sommervogel already assisted in the preparation of these issues (40). By 1886, Sommervogel realised that important references for him were contained in the hidden archives of the Society. He temporarily obtained access to some documents of these archives, and from this episode we know that they were stored somewhere in the Roman province (41). The third issue of the Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésus (42) started appearing in 1893, but it does not mention the Carteggio Kircheriano, which consists of 14 documents from the Fondo APUG with the typescript label Ex bibliotheca privata P.Petri Beckx. The Jesuit bibliographer Sommervogel did not know about their existence.
As regards the collection of 380 manuscripts acquired by the Vatican (and Voynich), the Jesuit historian Miquel Batllori S.J. declared many decades later, in 1962, (43) that he had not been able to find any detail about the sale of the manuscripts to the Vatican library, or about their previous whereabouts, despite searching for it in the Roman Archives of the Society (ARSJ).
These two points show on the one hand that archive material was stored somewhere in the Roman province, but on the other that the items labelled as from the private library of P.Beckx were indeed completely hidden from sight, even to Jesuit historians.
As mentioned above, prince Alessandro Torlonia (1800-1886), a close personal friend of Petrus Beckx S.J., helped the Society of Jesus in 1873 by hosting people, a school and Jesuit documents in the various dwellings he owned inside and outside Rome. In June 2015 I learned from the very helpful staff in the Historical Archives of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, that the collection called Fondo APUG, which includes a.o. the Kircher correspondence, was moved back to Rome in 1919, and that it is also still known as the "Castel Gandolfo collection" (44). This very strongly suggests that this collection was indeed stored in the Villa of Prince Torlonia in Castel Gandolfo, before being moved back to Rome in 1919. Since both this collection and the collection of 380 old manuscripts originate from the Collegium Romanum library, and both have the same "P.Beckx stickers", it seems quite likely that they would have been moved to Villa Torlonia at the same time.
Now where was the building of Torlonia's Villa in Castel Gandolfo? In literature, two such buildings are mentioned. One is known as Villa Carolina, and the other as the Villa dei Gesuiti. Both were acquired independently by Giovanni Torlonia (1755-1829), and inherited by Alessandro's older brother Carlo. Upon Carlo's death in 1848 they both befell to Alessandro. The building that hosted the Jesuit novitiate was the Villa dei Gesuiti, which derives its name from the fact that in the past it belonged to the Society of Jesus. It was, however, taken from them in 1773. The Villa achieved some minor fame because Goethe spent three weeks there in October 1787, and he wrote about falling love there. A photograph of the building, made before 1902, is shown below (45).
Its location both on a map of 1913 and a modern satellite view is shown below.
Both Villas are visible in the aerial picture below.
We are still faced with several options: the collection of manuscripts including the Voynich MS may have been stored only in the Villa Torlonia in Castel Gandolfo; it may have been there first, but moved to Villa Mondragone in the course of the sale to the Vatican; or it may have been in Villa Mondragone ever since 1873. The critical question here is whether Villa Mondragone would have been safe enough in 1873, as it was a Jesuit school. Xavier Ceccaldi points out here that at this time the rector of the Jesuit college at the Mondragone was father Alessandro Ponza di S.Martino S.J., who was the brother of count Gustavo Ponza di San Martino, one of the trustees of King Vittorio Emanuele II, who had already shown his support to P. Beckx. This could have played a role, and the villa could have been considered safe.
Let's finally review the evidence that Voynich acquired the manuscripts in Villa Mondragone. The letter from ELV, which is reliable since most other statements in it could be confirmed by independent evidence, clearly says 'Frascati', which is a distinct place from Castel Gandolfo. This remains our strongest evidence. Furthermore, Kraus wrote in his letter to Friedman:
when I was, a few weeks ago, in the Vatican Library, I found out that the Cipher Manuscript comes from the library of the Collegium Romanum, which was housed in 1911 in the Mondragone Monastery in Frascati. The Vatican Library bought the whole collection and the Cipher Manuscript with the other 17 illuminated manuscripts are still listed in the inventory. This inventory was printed by Ruysschaert – Codices Vaticani latini 11414 – 11709. And on page vii it is mentioned that the Cipher manuscript, together with others, was sold by the Jesuits to Voynich
One could interpret this in different ways. It is clear that Ruysschaert will have told Kraus that the manuscripts come from the library of the Collegium Romanum. Now did Ruysschaert also say that this was hosted in the Mondragone, or is this Kraus' own addition? Villa Mondragone is not mentioned in Ruysschaert's catalogue at all, and as we saw above, Batllori, who collaborated with Ruysschaert in its preparation (46), did not know anything about the location in 1962. Kraus then adds that the Vatican library bought the whole collection, which is inaccurate because it implies that the entire Collegium Romanum library would have been stored in Villa Mondragone and acquired by the Vatican. This inaccuracy is more likely to be attributed to Kraus. When he then writes that the various manuscripts are still listed in the inventory, it is clear that he refers to the inventory drawn up in 1903, indicating that Ruysschaert would have shown it to him.
In 1873 Villa Mondragone was owned by Marcantonio Borghese, who was also supportive of the Society of Jesus. Just one year earlier, his son Giulio had married Alessandro Torlonia's only remaining daughter Anna Maria, after which Giulio assumed the Torlonia family name. The two princes were therefore closely associated and may well have cooperated during these events.
In (or before) 1873 two collections of manuscripts were removed from the Collegium Romanum library, and stored outside Rome. The larger one of more than 2000 items was almost certainly moved to Villa Torlonia in Castel Gandolfo. The smaller one including the Voynich MS probably went the same way. It was decided to sell the latter collection to the Vatican in or around 1903. In the course of this sale, the collection may have been moved from Castel Gandolfo to the Villa Mondragone. The sale (to the Vatican and Voynich) was completed in 1912. Voynich became involved most probably in 1911, through the mediation of Joseph Strickland S.J. Voynich did not discover the collection himself and it was never 'lost'. He had to promise never to tell anyone what was the origin of the collection. Even the Vatican tried to obfuscate its origin by erasing the name of Beckx from the manuscripts. When Voynich was allowed to acquire the manuscripts, he seems to have considered it already the property of the Vatican (47). The other, larger collection was never intended for sale. It went to the German college in 1919, where it remained hidden and inaccessible (48).
Following is a graphical representation of the various moves of Jesuit library material. A similar figure could be drawn for the various moves of Jesuit archive material. All information leading to it has been presented in a dedicated page.
|Vicissitudes of the Society of Jesus.|
In this illustration, blue boxes refer to Jesuit collections and red boxes to other collections. Orange arrows are 'involuntary' moves, typically confiscations. The boxes for Castel Gandolfo and Mondragone still bear question marks, for the reasons stated above.
The paths of the various manuscripts originating from Kircher's library can be drawn against this overview. A group of 19 of his manuscripts, including his complete correspondence but also some other autographs, is now preserved in the Fondo APUG in the historical archives of the Gregorian University. Another 5 Kircher manuscripts are now preserved in the 'Fondo Gesuitico' of the national library of Rome, as already explained above. The result is shown below, giving us a complete trail of the Voynich MS from Kircher to Voynich
The secrecy that Voynich had to promise was clearly imposed on him and not his own invention, since we saw that in the Vatican Library, most of the stickers 'Ex bibliotheca privata P.Petri Beckx' have been damaged in such a way that the name Beckx is unreadable. Another example of this is provided by the incunable >>Inc.II.630, which, according to the 1903 catalogue, was also sold to the Vatican by the Jesuits. ELV's letter also hints at this:
Whether this [inserted: secrecy] was because of the strained relations with the Quirinal I do not know.
We are left to wonder why Voynich changed his story from 'Austrian castle' to 'castle in Southern Europe'. Ellie Velinska has a plausible theory for this. Voynich had been denounced and became a target for invetigations by the FBI in 1917, because he had been talking freely about obtaining manuscripts with secret codes in Germany and Austria, during the time of World War I (49). Because of this, not only he, but several other people in his circle were investigated. This may have led him to change his story.
I am grateful to the Historical Archives of the Pontifical Gregorian University (Archivio storico della Pontificia Università Gregoriana) in Rome for the valuable information about their history; to Chr.Grafinger of the Vatican library for many helpful suggestions, and to W. Voelkle of the Morgan Library for additional helpful information. Several newspaper clips were found by E.Velinska. The location of Villa Torlonia in Castel Gandolfo was found with significant help from Michelle Smith.
Copyright René Zandbergen, 2017