BOOKS

Tiny Spanish publisher to ‘clone’ world’s most mysterious book – a centuries-old manuscript of strange plants and naked women

The precious documents is believed to have been written six centuries ago in an unknown or coded language that no one – not even the best cryptographers – has ever cracked

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 August, 2016, 7:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 August, 2016, 7:03am

It’s one of the world’s most mysterious books, a centuries-old manuscript written in an unknown or coded language that no one – not even the best cryptographers – has been able to crack.

Scholars have spent their lives puzzling over the Voynich Manuscript – an intriguing mix of elegant writing and drawings of strange plants and naked women that some believe holds magical powers.

The book is locked in a vault at Yale University’s Beinecke Library. But after a 10-year quest for access, Siloe, a small publishing house in northern Spain, has secured the right to clone the document – to the delight of its director.

“Touching the Voynich is an experience,” says Juan Jose Garcia at Siloe’s office in Burgos. “It’s a book that has such an aura of mystery that when you see it for the first time ... it fills you with an emotion that is very hard to describe.”

Siloe, which specialises in making facsimiles of old manuscripts, has bought the rights to make 898 exact replicas of the Voynich – so faithful that every stain, hole, sewn-up tear in the parchment will be reproduced.

They will be sold for up to 8,000 (HK$70,200) each and about 300 people have already ordered copies.

Raymond Clemens, curator at the Beinecke Library, said Yale

decided to have facsimiles done because so many people want to consult the fragile manuscript.

“[It] enables libraries and museums to have a copy ... and we will use the facsimile ourselves to show the manuscript outside of the library.”

The manuscript is named after antiquarian Wilfrid Voynich who bought it about 100 years ago from a collection of books belonging to the Jesuits in Italy.

Theories abound about who wrote it and what it means. For a long time, it was believed to be the work of 13th century English Franciscan friar Roger Bacon.

But that theory was discarded when the manuscript was carbon dated and found to have originated between 1404 and 1438.

Others point to a young Leonardo da Vinci, an elaborate joke or even an alien who left the book behind when leaving Earth.

Its content is even more mysterious. The plants drawn have never been identified, the astronomical charts don’t reveal much and neither do the women.

Scores have tried to decode the Voynich, including cryptologists such as William Friedman who helped break Japan’s “Purple” cipher in the second world war.

The only person to have had any success is ... Indiana Jones, who in a novel featuring the fictitious archaeologist manages to crack it.

Only slightly bigger than a paperback, the book contains over 200 pages including several large fold-outs.

It will take Siloe around 18 months to make the first facsimiles, in a painstaking process that started in April when a photographer took detailed snaps of the original in Yale.

Workers at Siloe are currently making mock-ups before they finally set about printing out the pages in a way that makes the script and drawings look like the real deal.

The paper they use – made from a paste developed by the company – has been given a special treatment so it feels like the stiff parchment used to write the Voynich.

Once printed, the pages are put together and made to look older.

All the imperfections are re-created using special tools in a process kept firmly secret by Garcia, who in his spare time has also tried his hand at cryptology.

“We call it the Voynich Challenge,” he says.

“My business partner ... says the author of the Voynich could also have been a sadist, as he has us all wrapped up in this mystery.”