The journey to America of a set of manuscripts from the Collegium Romanum


Yale University Press has recently published The Voynich manuscript edited by Raimond Clemens. In this volume we can find several contributions and full reproduction of the most enigmatic and mysterious book preserved in the Library of the Roman College. The starting point for the historical researches is the Fondo Kircheriano (APUG 555-568), where today some letters written to Athanasius Kircher to present the manuscript are preserved. For the occasion we want to republish the article by one of the authors, René Zandbergen.

In 1903, the Society of Jesus decided to sell a collection of classical and humanist MSs to the Vatican Library. The list of items drawn up for this sale is still preserved in the Vatican Library, Arch.Bibl. 109. The books and MSs entered the Vatican Library in 1912, and a very elaborate catalogue of the Latin MSs among them  (Vat.Lat. 11414-11709) was published in 1959 by Mgr. J. Ruysschaert. Not all of the MSs from the original list entered the Vatican, though, and Ruysschaert already indicated that the missing ones were probably (‘ni fallor’) acquired by the book dealer W. Voynich and sold to American libraries.

Nowadays Wilfrid Voynich (1865-1930) is best remembered for his cipher manuscript, MS 408 of the Beinecke Rare Book and MS library of Yale University, better known as the Voynich MS, which remains one of the most famous unsolved problems in the history of cryptography. This MS was part of his most valuable acquisition, in 1911 or 1912, when he acquired an estimated 30 manuscripts (and possibly some early prints). Voynich always claimed that he discovered the MSs himself, outside Italy, in chests of which the owners were unaware what they contained, and that he could not say exactly from whom, and where he bought them, because he was bound to secrecy, as part of an agreement with these owners [1]. The only person whom he seems to have told the truth, in confidence, was his wife.

Voynich manuscript

After Voynich’s death, a set of 16 old bibliographical notes were found in his London book shop. These were clearly removed from this MS collection. One example is shown here. The annotations in pencil are from a later date.

The small attachment “ex Bibliotheca privata P. Petri Beckx” immediately tells us that this MS once belonged to the society of Jesus in Rome, and escaped confiscation by the state in 1873. In addition, on the reverse of these notes one finds the original shelf mark of the MS while it was in the Bibliotheca Maior, in the above case “4 e 24”.

Identical attachments referring to P. Beckx are found on almost all MSs in the Fondo APUG of the Historical Archives of the Pontifical Gregorian University, and on all of the MSs that the Vatican Library acquired from the Society of Jesus between 1903 and 1912, as mentioned at the

University of Chicago, Ms. 110 : Boccaccii Ioannis, De genealogia deorum.

start of this article. This last collection also has the same bibliographical notes glued to the inside front covers of the MSs, as shown by this example for MS Vat.Lat.11458:

Voynich’s widow wrote a letter, to be opened after her own death, divulging some of the confidential information from her late husband. She states that in 1911 he was invited to acquire his famous collection of MSs through an intermediary of the Society of Jesus: Fr. Joseph Strickland S.J., so he did not discover the collection himself. Joseph was one of three brothers from Malta who were among the earliest pupils in the famous Jesuit college at Villa Mondragone, and in later years he worked there as a teacher. The letter further clarifies that, indeed, Voynich had to promise secrecy as a condition for the sale, which she records took place in Frascati. This secrecy has unfortunately led to the loss of useful information and only a fragment of the correspondence between Voynich and the Strickland brothers has survived, seriously complicating the research of these events. There are reasons to believe that the location of the sale in Frascati was Villa Mondragone. At the same time, the above-mentioned Fondo APUG is also known as the Castelgandolfo collection, strongly suggesting that this may have been preserved in the villa of Prince Alessandro Torlonia, a close friend of P. Beckx, who made his villa available to the Society in 1873, hosting the novitiate and many Jesuit fathers. Further research into the precise sequence of events for this collection is still on-going.

René Zandbergen


The bibliographical note shown here and the letter from E. L. Voynich are preserved together with the Voynich MS and other related material at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven (CT). It is shown here with permission from the library.

[1] From many letters still preserved in the Beinecke library, one of which has been published in Ernest H. Wilkins, The University of Chicago Manuscript of the Genealogia Deorum gentilium of Boccaccio, University of Chicago Press, 1927. Also, with some modifications in Wilfrid M. Voynich, A Preliminary Sketch of the History of the Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript, in “Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia”, Vol. 43, 1921 (April 20, 1921).


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