On Voynich and the herba borissa

Yesterday evening the gentle author of this blog visited the presentation of the book “L’enigma del manoscritto Voynich“, the enigma of Voynich manuscript. a book about the famous manuscript, one of the greatest riddles of the history, in the most famous esoteric bookshop in Rome.

I live very near to the bookshop, so I decided to walk a little,  profiting of  one of the first summer nights, so I walked down Quirinale hill, where I live, and after crossing Via del Corso, which is so called because Pope Paul II from 1467 organized here Carnival races (corsa in Italian).

On the other side of the street there is the Jesuit Collegio Romano, founded by St.Ignatius Loyola, and where many famous scholars  teached and lived, even one of the stars of this story, Athanasius Kircher, who was the last owner of the Voynich manuscript we know. When Voynich found the book in fact, it was in a jesuit villa near Rome, where Jesuits took their collections when Piedmontese soldiers entered in Rome, in 1870.

Athanasius Kircher was very interested in Egyptian cults and especially the ones dedicated to Isis.

Oedipus Aegyptiacus, 1692
Oedipus Aegyptiacus, 1692

For some strange coincidences 🙂 the area of Collegio Romano, where Kircher lived was previously occupied by the Isis temple built by Marcus Antonius (Cleopatra’s lover) so in 1600 it was still full of archaeological relics.

In Rome Isis was identified with Persephone, with a spike in her hand, and this let us think of something astrologers know well, Spica rising in the first facie of Virgo.

Schifanoia, Virgo facies

Isis temple was soon destroyed because of a scandal reported by Flavius Iosephus: a woman was cheated and raped there, so the Emperor Tiberius, who was not  fond of this kind of things and he had the idea which opportunity makes the thief, completely destroyed the temple.

In this area I crossed Piazza della Minerva, with its obelisk taken from the temple of Isis:

The Egyptian obelisk

Isis obelisk is carried by an elephant designed  by the famous architect  Gian Lorenzo Bernini, from one of the best sellers of Renaissance, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, published in 1499 by Aldo Manuzio.

The book  written in a strange mix of Italian and Latin, with words from Greek and Arab and Hebrew is the story of  an esoteric journey in which Poliphilo pursues his love Polia in a fantastic land.  The same author is unknown, maybe Pico della Mirandola or Lorenzo de Medici or Leon Battista Alberti. And the author of wonderful pictures which depict the dreamy land is unknown too, some say Andrea Mantegna.

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (page 38), 1499

The inscriptions on the elephant explain the first half of the title of this post:

Alessandro VI, the ancient obelisk, monument to the Egyptian Pallas, taken from the ground and erected in the square which was of Minerva ((Goddess of Wisdom)) and now of the Mother of God, dedicated to the Holy Wisdom in the year 1667-

Whoever you are, who are seeing on the obelisk these hieroglyph from the learned Egypt carried by the elephant, the strongest of the animals, understand the message: just a strong intelligence could carry a sound Wisdom.

A true and grounded wisdom should be supported by a vigorous mind.

Left the obelisk, in minutes I arrived at the bookshop, where the lecture was going to start.

The book was introduced a strange couple of men, a japanese and a computer expert:

I really did not understand anything from the Japanese because he talked a strange mix of Italian and something else. The rest of the hour was about  the story of Voynich manuscript, a book nobody could read because it is written in a special language.

The heroes of this story are the ones who are always involved in this kind of tales as Da Vinci Code and Focault’s Pendulum teach: John Dee, Leonardo da Vinci, Rudolph II, Rosacrucian movement, alchemists….

We should not miss Girolamo Cardano, which invented a famous method of crittography called with little fantasy 🙂 Cardano grid. This seems to be the same method used for the new age Genesis Code, poor Cardano…

I don’t know if the book is a falsification and there is no secret hidden in its pages, but some sections are especially interesting as the botanical section, with its images of  unknown herbs.

Some Italian researches as Vera Segre and Sergio Toresella have studied these kind of herbals, called “alchemical herbals” from the name Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), the first Professor of Natural Sciences in Bologna University and a famous scientist and polymath, gave to the ones in its possession.

They were so called because they did not list the virtues mentioned in famous books like Dioscorides’ Materia medica or Circa Istans, which were used by doctors and specialists. Alchemical herbals were used by charlatans and barbers, diviners. vagabonds….The word alchemical here is not connected with alchemy as a set of sophisticated operations, here the making of gold implied cheating and profiting from the selling of some secretum 🙂

Especially famous is the case of the moon herb, lunaria.

Lunaria from Voynich manuscript
Lunaria from Voynich manuscript

Herbs were always linked with astrology and some lists are very famous, but peony and moon herbs have a special place in botanic astrology, while they are never mentioned in more academical textes and their curative virtues are unknown.

Hermes says that peony is the strongest herb, and its power comes directly from God.

If we squeeze it and we put its juice on silver we will have pure gold, and if we take a part of it and we put on lead, we will have gold and with the juice from its roots we oil iron and it will liquify it… ((Capitulum hermetis de herba borissa))

Strangely enough the same qualities of lunar herbs are mentioned in Arab alchemy.

Its most famous virtue is being the money herb, and it is called like that in several European languages, in Italian it’s known as “Pope’s money,” in English “perennial honesty”.

Anyway, here everybody knows Pinocchio’s adventure with the Cat and the Fox, where these strange couple of thieves propose to Pinocchio to come with them to the Land of Barn Owls in a land called the Field of Miracles where the coins can be planted and grown into a money tree….


  1. Vera Segre Rutz, Il Giardino Magico Degli Alchimisti: Un Erbario Illustrato Trecentesco Della Biblioteca Universitaria Di Pavia E La Sua Tradizione (Milano: Il polifilo, 2000).
  2. Vera Segre Rutz, “ Capitulum de arbore borissa – Le piante della Luna ,” in Florilegium : scritti di storia dell’arte in onore di Carlo Bertelli. (Milano: Electa, 1995), 124-129.
  3. Sergio Toresella “Gli erbari degli alchimisti,” in Arte farmaceutica e plante medicinali: erbari, vasi, strumenti e testi dalle raccolte liguri, ed. Liana Saginati

Written by Margherita Fiorello @ year 2009



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