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An Aristotle MS bought by W. Voynich from the Jesuits in 1912


The antiquarian book dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich (1865-1930) made an important acquisition of illuminated manuscripts in Southern Europe in 1911 or 1912. Some of these manuscripts were on exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1915 (1). Some of the highlights of that event were a MS supposedly illustrated with water colour paintings from Giotto and the manuscript still named after him: the Voynich MS, now MS 408 of the Beinecke Rare book and MS library of Yale University, New Haven. The former was sold to the Morgan library in New York, and with respect to the latter, Voynich made a presentation about it to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 1921 (2). On that occasion, he indicated that he would not disclose the location where he acquired these manuscripts. Only much later Hans P. Kraus (3), announced that it was bought from the Jesuits, at the Villa Mondragone in Frascati, just outside Rome. In 1912 this Villa hosted a high-class a Jesuit boarding school. The reason for Voynich’s secrecy was that he had promised this to the Jesuit sellers as a condition for his acquisition of these manuscripts (4).

The origin of the manuscripts bought by Voynich

The first indication about the origin of this collection is provided by additional archival material preserved in the Beinecke library. Many of the manuscripts had paper slips attached to their inside front cover, with descriptive information about each manuscript. Voynich removed them in order to leave no traces of the origin of these manuscripts, in line with his promise to the Jesuits. One of 16 such slips, still preserved in the Beinecke library, refers to a Latin Aristotle manuscript comprising 10 books. It is shown in Figure 1 below (click on it for an enlargement).

The small paper attachment to this slip: "ex Bibliotheca privata P.Petri Beckx" (partly obliterated) refers to the time that the Society of Jesus was suppressed in 1873, and their library, the Bibliotheca Major of the Collegium Romanum, was confiscated, together with many other libraries, by the Italian state. Petrus Beckx S.J., Father General of the society, was allowed to retain his private library, and this was apparently stocked up with some of the most valuable items from the Jesuit libraries. This collection was thereafter moved to one or several safe places (see note 4), and in 1911-1912 part of the collection (classical and humanist manuscripts and prints) apparently surfaced in the Villa Mondragone.

We know more about the origin of these manuscripts from a catalogue of Latin manuscripts acquired, equally in 1912, by pope Pius X and donated to the Vatican library. This catalogue was published by Mgr. José Ruysschaert (5), and it refers to Voynich’s acquisition of almost 30 manuscripts from the same collection from the Collegium Romanum (6). The manuscripts described by Ruysschaert equally include paper catalogue slips like those in Figure 1, which he dates to the 18th or 19th Century, and typescript attachments referring to the private library of P.Beckx. In addition, these manuscripts bear a stamp indicating their donation to the Vatican library by Pius X (7).

Ruysschaert’s source is a handwritten catalogue still preserved in the archives of the Vatican Library. This is a list of printed books and manuscripts sold to the Vatican, of which some manuscripts are presently not found in the Vatican Library, but the majority that do, have been annotated in the margin with their present Vatican shelf marks (Vat.Lat. 11414 – 11709). It appears that Voynich was allowed to acquire some of the Jesuit manuscripts that were already intended to be sold to Pius X (see note 6). This written catalogue is not entirely complete, and has a number of omissions. Some 6% of the books that went to the Vatican library are not found in it, and the same fate appears to have befallen the Aristotle MS discussed in this page. It cannot be indentified in it.

More about the Aristotle manuscript

Turning back to Figure 1, further annotations on the catalogue slip of the Aristotle manuscript, most probably made by Miss Anne M. Nill (8), indicate that this manuscript was later sold to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, making reference to De Ricci (9) p.82 where an Aristotle MS appears as Ms HM 1035. Ruysschaert lists two manuscripts sold by Voynich to the Huntington Library, but omits this one (10). The annotation on the slip also includes a question mark, presumably referring to the fact that the Huntington manuscript only consists of 98 folios comprising books 8-10 of the original manuscript. Before searching for the remaining books, it is worth looking at this manuscript in more detail.

In the Huntington library description of HM 1035 it is identified as a manuscript that was once part of the library of Pier Leoni, physician of Lorenzo de Medici. The Huntington catalogue refers to the important study by Ruysschaert (1960) (11), although this particular manuscript is again overlooked by Ruysschaert and not mentioned in it (see note 10).

The library of Pier Leoni

According to Ruysschaert (1960), the Pier Leoni manuscripts may be identified by two common properties:

  1. The cover with author and title in Gothic writing on the dorso and a numeral at the top
  2. Numerous glosses in Leoni’s hand

Indeed, the binding of HM 1035 is in an identical style as that of HM 65 (12), which is identified in Ruysschaert (1960) as a Leoni MS. Another example may be observed in the Vatican digital collections (13). There are illustrations in Ruysschaert (1960) (which I cannot include here) showing several examples of the common style. The cover of the Aristotle MS furthermore appears to be the cover for the complete set of 10 books, as the Huntington catalogue entry says: cf. the multiple titles on the spine, which must have referred to the text[s] on the missing 130 folios at the beginning of the book.

At the same time, the Huntington library refers to the catalogue of Pier Leoni's library, published by Dorez (14), and tentatively identifies HM 1035 with nr. 8 'Aristoteles de Natura Animalium'. This would mean that the original work had been dismembered prior to 1582 (15), but the catalogue slip shown here suggests that this volume was bound together and consisting of 229 folios at a much later date. To better understand this apparent contradiction, it is now time to search for the missing part of the complete Aristotle manuscript.

The missing part of the Aristotle MS

Armed with the catalogue slip shown in Figure 1, a search was made in De Ricci's 'Census' to see if the remaining part of some 130 folios with 7 books was sold to another American library. This search was successful (16), and in fact it turned out that this part was further divided in two. Consequently, all 10 books of the original manuscript are still available, and they have become separated into three volumes that are now preserved in three American libraries. The following table provides the relevant details:

Books Folios De Ricci Ref. Present location
1 - 5 1 - 66 Vol. I p.700 The University of Illinois, Urbana - Champaign, Rare book and MS library, MS 8
6 - 7 67 - 130 Vol. I p.512, also supplement, pp.151-152 The Newberry Library, Illinois, Ms. 23.1
8 - 10 131 - 228 Vol.1 p.82 The Huntington Library, San Marino, California, Ms. HM 1035

The following table compares the titles of the ten books, as recorded on the slip from the Collegium Romanum, and by the present owners of the manuscripts:

Book Collegium Romanum Present
1 Ethicorum libri X Ethica Nicomachea
2 De bona fortuna De bona fortuna
3 Oeconomicorum libri Oeconomica, libri III
4 Rhetoricum ad Alexandrium Rhetorica ad Alexandrum, libri II
5 Magnorum moralium Magna Moralia, libri II
6 Politicorum Politica
7 Rhetoricorum ad Theodecten Rhetorica
8 De naturis animalium: quod opus transtulit e graeco in latinum Michael Scotus De naturis animalium, libri X
9 De partibus animalium De partibus animalium, libri III
10 De generatione animalium De generatione animalium, libri V

The manuscripts

Beside the concordance of the titles, the three volumes are characterised by a number of similarities, taken from De Ricci and the catalogue entries of the present owners of the manuscripts. These are not conclusive, however, with respect to the question whether manuscripts once used to be together.

The most significant evidence, however, is, that on old foliation consistently runs from 1-228 over the three volumes. Additionally, the third volume has been renumbered in a modern pencil hand. This volume also preserves the common binding, while the other two volumes have a modern limp vellum cover.

There is no doubt that Voynich acquired the complete set. What appears to be his catalogue entry (a8665) is visible on illustrations kindly provided by the University of Illinois and the Huntington Library (in one case with an attached 'a'). The pencilled number 992 on fol.131 is also of interest. According to the Huntington library catalogue, the front pastedown of the MS also has J991 and J992. Without having seen them, these seem inevitably related to the J1022 written on the inside cover of the Voynich MS. These annotations on the Aristotle manuscript(s) must have been made at a time when it was already split into two parts. They are modern, and can also be tentatively be associated with Voynich, who used (among others) H and J catalogue marks before moving to America, and A catalogue marks for his American stock (17). It seems safe to conclude that the Aristotle MS and the Voynich MS were together in the same collection at some time. The two manuscripts including books 1 to 7 were both owned by Rev. Frank W. Gunsaulus, who acquired several manuscripts from Voynich.

Tentative Conclusion

Final confirmation of the common past of the three manuscripts should come from the identification of the glosses that were mentioned already above. For the identification of the hand of Pier Leoni in these manuscripts, help from a relevant expert is still required. Until this is confirmed, we may still try to identify the books in the catalogue of Pier Leoni's library. In the catalogue published by Dorez we find: 132 'Aritotelis Ethica et Œconomica'. This could represent the collection of books 1-7, since no item referring to politics or rhetoric is found.

Pending confirmation of the Leoni ownership, the following appears to be the history of this manuscript:

The Aristotle manuscript cannot be positively identified in the handwritten catalogue that was the source for Ruysschaert (1959). This is why he omitted it in both this work and in his study of the library of Pier Leoni. There is only one item that could match this MS, and it is simply called: Aristoteles - Varia. In the margin, this is considered to be the MS that is now Vat.Lat.11509, though with some additional marks indicating uncertainty. It is indeed listed to be a parchment MS of unknown Century, which matches the paper slip at the top of this article.


The catalogue slip was kindly made available by the Beinecke Rare Book and MS Library of Yale University, New Haven (CT). I am indebted to the University of Illinois, Urbana - Champaign, Rare book and MS library, and the Huntington Library, San Marino (CA), for providing illustrations of their Aristotle manuscripts. I am grateful to the Vatican Library / Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana for the digitisation of several of the MSs among Vat.Lat.11414-11709.


Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago (1915)
Voynich (1921)
See Kraus (1978)
This episode is analysed in detail on another page.
Ruysschaert (1959)
Ruysschaert lists these manuscripts in the preface p.vii, footnote 3, which is transcribed here. The collection is analysed in significant detail here.
An example may be >>seen here.
Secretary to Voynich till his death, and later to Kraus.
De Ricci (1937)
Listed are HM 65 and HM 1034 but not HM 1035, evidently because it did not appear in the hadwritten catalogue.
Ruysschaert (1960)
As indicated in the Huntington catalogue entry for HM 65.
See a >>digital scan of the dorso of another Leoni MS.
Dorez (1897)
The date when Pier Leoni’s library was sold, cf. Dorez (1897) (op.cit.) and Ruysschaert (1960) (op.cit.).
It is perhaps ironic, that I was able to find these manuscripts using the index in De Ricci (1937) (op.cit.) which was composed by the same Anne Nill who put the question mark on the paper slip shown above.
From information collected by Rich SantaColoma in the Grolier Club Library in New York. Voynich evidently used several labels for his manuscripts. The older H- and J-series, were renumbered into an A-series during his move to America. This is further confirmed in Wikins (1927), p.79. It still requires further analysis.
This should be compared to a similar entry on MS Vat.Lat.11418 fol.1, which is from the hand of Coluccio Salutati (cf. Ruysschaert, 1959). If it is confirmed to be the same hand, the history of this MS is further complicated.


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Copyright René Zandbergen, 2017
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Latest update: 22/01/2017