Blog reader Nils Kopal has purchased a copy of a famous 16th century crypto book. Inside he found more than he had expected. Can a reader tell him what these additional texts and illustrations mean?

The book De furtivis literarum notis by Giambattista della Porta is generally considered the best cryptology book of the Renaissance era (check here for an online version at Google Books). Porta, a genius and polymath, was an extremely productive author with an interest in agriculture, physics, engineering, philosophy, pharmacology, and cryptology. In addition, he published over 20 theatrical pieces.

 

An outstanding book

Though cryptology was only one of many of his interests, Porta was an excellent cryptologist. US encryption expert Charles J. Mendelsohn once said: “He [Porta] was, in my opinion, the outstanding cryptographer of the Renaissance. Some unknown who worked in a hidden room behind closed doors may possibly have surpassed him in general grasp of the subject, but among those whose work can be studied he towers like a giant.”

Among other things, De furtivis literarum notis (published in 1563) contains the first known mention of the letter pair substitution (on the left side of the following scan):

In addition, De furtivis literarum notis describes a variant of the Pigpen cipher:

Some of Porta’s ideas only came into use centuries later.

 

Nils Kopal’s copy

Nils Kopal, crypto history expert, CrypTool developer and reader of this blog, has recently purchased a copy of De furtivis literarum notis. It’s not an original from 1563 but a beautiful reprint from 1743.

What is especially interesting about this edition is that it contains some additional material. After the actual content of the book, 19 illustrations follow. Here are the first three of these:

As far as I can see, these pictures have nothing to do with cryptology. Anyway, Nils and I wonder what they mean. Can a reader say more about these illustrations?

 

The astrological part

The last part of the 1743 version of De furtivis literarum notis is formed by an astrological treatise consisting of four pages containing two illustrations:

Does a reader know what exactly this treatise is about and what this final illustration means? If so, please let Nils and me know.


Further reading: Who can break the cryptograms of Civil War spy Robert Bunch?

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Kommentare (13)

  1. #1 Bill Briere
    Wyoming, USA
    10. Februar 2019

    The last of the four pages looks like something separate from the other three.

    The page’s title is probably the Italian “duodecima figura,” although it could also be the Latin “duodecima figura” or “duodecim a figura” — or something meant to have an ambiguous or universal flavor to it. Those distinctions might not have mattered much at the time.

    The drawing itself could indicate a transposition key. It looks like the two sets of numbers penned at the bottom were a later addition by someone studying the book, and the string “1537426” corresponds to the vine wrappings on the sticks.

    Too bad there’s no ciphertext to go with this key, if that’s what it is.

  2. #2 Bill Briere
    Wyoming, USA
    10. Februar 2019

    The last of the four pages looks like something separate from the other three.

    The page’s title is probably the Italian “duodecima figura,” although it could also be the Latin “duodecima figura” or “duodecim a figura” — or something meant to have an ambiguous or universal flavor to it. Those distinctions might not have mattered much at the time.

    The drawing itself could indicate a transposition key. It looks like the two sets of numbers penned at the bottom were a later addition by someone studying the book, and the string “1537426” corresponds to the vine wrappings on the sticks. Too bad there’s no ciphertext to go with this key, if that’s what it is.

  3. #3 Thomas
    10. Februar 2019

    The images containing the vignettes are engravings (“Spring”, “Summer” and “Fall”) by Johann Christoph Steinberger, a German artist (1680 – 1727). They are held by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

  4. #4 Bill Briere
    Wyoming, USA
    10. Februar 2019

    Maybe the 1743 publisher stuffed the then-recent Steinberger art and other miscellaneous items in there just to fill out the back of the book.

    The final “duodecima figura” page might have been included as a seemingly relevant parting shot: an unsolved code or challenge cipher (although it seems more likely to be a key to a missing ciphertext).

  5. #5 Thomas
    10. Februar 2019

    The astrological text (“Tempora Lapidis”) is part of Jean D’Espagnet’s ‘Enchiridion Physicae Restitutae’ (1623).

  6. #6 Thomas
    10. Februar 2019

    I think the text is from D’Espagnet’s other book, i.e. ‘Arcanum Hermeticae Philosophiae’, not from the ‘Enchiridon’.

  7. #7 Thomas
    10. Februar 2019

    This is the translation of the Latin part of the ‘Arcanum”: https://books.google.de/books?id=1Ht0DwAAQBAJ&pg=PT269. The subsequent Italian part (after the square brackets) seems to stem from another source, as well as the last drawing.

  8. #8 Simon
    10. Februar 2019

    Here is my translation of the text in old Italian.
    It is unusual how it goes from Latin to Italian so suddenly. Also, the first part doesn’t make much sense to me, and it changes topic twice, suddenly.
    In the final part about Cato the Censor, there are these numbers: 77-1-1-1-2-5-9-11-3-5-14-7-2-42.
    All this makes me think the whole text can be a form of steganography.

    *Translation*
    “And that great Father of the letters and panegyric Dominical, whose fame reached the Indies, and we have de fide the answers so that great Alexander it was wonderfully clarified filling [?] his heart
    with so many graces, given by God as the highest good and tired was his horse, who had run at full speed, and stopped to rest underneath an oak, asleep, dreamed of that great Serpent who showed him that healthy herb with which he healed his entire Army.
    Plutarch narrates that Cato, having seen Rome again, met a very decrepit old man, who was weeping; after asking him why, the old man answered, grieving: know, Censor, that I am seventy years old, during those years I have suffered great pains of body and soul; I buried Father, Mother, Grandfather, two Aunts, five Uncles, nine sisters, eleven brothers, three legitimate wives, and five slaves, fourteen children, and seven married children, and what hurt me most, two very loyal friends, one in Capua and the other in Rome and, to complete my series of unhappy events, i’m left with a very perverse nephew; therefore, Cato, since you are obliged to do good deeds, being a honest Roman, Censor of the people of Rome, I beg you to grant me one of these two things: that this nephew of mine obeys me and serves me, or make sure that I die soon, because it is a great cruelty to be harassed by the living, after i have been mourning the dead for forty two years.”

    *transcription*:
    “E quel gran Padre delle lettere e panegiriche Dominicale del quale vi sono andate le notitie infino all’Indie, e ne abbiamo de fide le risposte
    onde quello grande Alessandro restò chiarito meravigliosamente ampretandosi il core di tante gratie dispenzate da dio come sommo bene e stracco fu il
    suo cavallo quale corso avea con briglia sciolta, trattenutosi riposò sotto una quercia e addormentato li venne in sogno quel gran Serpente quale gli mostrò quell’Erba salutare con la quale guarì tutto il suo Esercito.
    Narra Plutarco, che avendo Catone riveduto Roma s’incontrò in un vecchio molto decrepito, che piangeva comandatagliene la cagione, rispose tutto doglioso il vecchio: sappi censore, che io ho settant’anni ne quali ho patiti gran travagli di corpo e di animo; che ho seppelliti Padre, Madre, Avolo, due Zie, cinque Zij, nove sorelle, undici Fratelli, tre Mogli legittime, e cinque schiave, quattordici figlioli, e sette figliole maritate e il che più mi dolse due fedelissimi Amici, l’uno in Capua e l’altro in Roma e accio si finisse
    il cumulo della mia infelicità mi e’ restato un nepote molto perverso per il che ti scongiuro Catone per quel che alla bontà sei obbligato, che poi che sei Romano virtuoso e censore del Popolo di Roma, ad una di qste [queste] due cose provegga: ò che questo mio nipote mi ubbidisca, e serva, o fare, che presto io moia percioche e gran crudeltà che mi perseguitano i vivi, essendo quaranta due anni, che altro non fo che piangere i morti.”

  9. #9 Simon
    10. Februar 2019

    @Bill Briere
    “duodecima figura” makes sense because in latin it just means “twelfth illustration”, it is used when each illustration in the book has a number, and there are eleven other illustrations before this one.

    However, the space between letters is unusual, it’s written like “du ode c i m af ig ura”, so maybe there is more meaning to it.

  10. #10 davidsch
    houten
    10. Februar 2019

    Well, it’s clear something is missing. The Italian text holds the cipher text. I quickly went through the main part, so it’s very probable I’m missing letters. But this is the cipher text: PMA Z2 Z5 s9 F11 M3 s5 f14 fm7 A2 C1 R1 C1. Now I would have expected a table somewhere, where you can find the plain text for these. On the other hand the text tells us to do something with the 70 and 42. Perhaps 70-42 = 28.
    I count 11 (if you omit the last C1) or 12 letters with the mention of a number. The picture duodecima = 12. Is that a coiincidence? Then I tried putting the numbers in a line only. Then you get: beikcengbaaa transposed to ascii, numbers 2 5 9 11 3 5 14 7 2 1 1 1.
    If you only use the first 11 (beikcengbaa) it van be deciphered exactly to the English word “enchantress”. But that’s probably not correct and you will have to use the sticks and the robe somehow.

  11. #11 Marc
    10. Februar 2019

    The sticks maybe represent Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn:

    Stick 1: Sunday – Sun (i)
    Stick 2: Monday – Moon (5)
    Stick 3: Tuesday – Mars (3)
    Stick 4: Wednesday – Mercury (1)
    Stick 5: Thursday – Jupiter (4)
    Stick 6: Friday – Venus (2)
    Stick 7: Saturday – Saturn (6)

    The numbers below (i,5,3,1,4,2,6) indicate the order of the planets in the solar system, except the moon.

    Stick 1: Sunday – Sun (i)
    Stick 4: Wednesday – Mercury (1)
    Stick 6: Friday – Venus (2)
    Stick 3: Tuesday – Mars (3)
    Stick 5: Thursday – Jupiter (4)
    Stick 2: Monday – Moon (5) ?
    Stick 7: Saturday – Saturn (6)

  12. #12 Thomas
    10. Februar 2019

    The last drawing belongs to Alchemy, it represents seven metals and is taken from Petrus Bonus’s ‘Lacinius Pretiosa margarita novella de thesauro, ac pretiosissimo philosophorum lapide, Venice, 1546’:
    http://www.levity.com/alchemy/petrus_bonus.html

  13. #13 Thomas
    10. Februar 2019

    This is the “Prtetiosa” book containing the original drawings where the single trees stand for the seven metals: http://aboutpsyche.com/_media/books_and_literature/pretiosa_margarita_novella/pretiosa_margarita_novella.pdf