Wilfrid Voynich's "Heraldry"

Wilfrid Voynich used an unusual "cat and mouse" design for the covers of his later catalogues (of rare books and incunabula): the earliest known instance is on his Catalogue 27, though the example below is taken from his Catalogue 31. Jean-Yves Artero mentioned (in a recent thread on the VMs mailing list) that this resembled a woodcut from the front of 1560 book reproduced in David Ovason's (1998) book "The Nostradamus Code" (Arrow Books).

Since then, further research has elicited more of the story: this cat-and-mouse design was first used as a frontispiece by the early Venetian printer Giovanni Battista Sessa round about 1500, but other printers in his family continued to use it (and more ornate variations on it) through the 16th Century.

So, Jean-Yves' example was from a book printed by Melchiorre Sessa (hence the "MS" initials on either side), but the earliest instance I have found dates to 13th June 1496. There, Giovanni Battista Sessa (or, to use his Latinised version, "Ioannes Baptista Sessa", hence "IBS") published the first account in Italian of Marco Polo's journey: and it is here that our journey seems to end (though it is quite possible that this came from an even earlier source).

Melchiorre Sessa 1560 motif (scanned by JYA) Voynich motif (scanned by AJB) Giovanni Sessa 1496 motif
Melchiorre Sessa, 1560 Wilfrid Voynich's motif, Catalogues 27 & 31 Giovanni Battista Sessa, 1496

Note: reproduction editions of this 1496 incunabulum have recently been made available by Vicent García Editores, S.A..

We should not be surprised to see this motif in some way: WMV's main business was in finding (and selling) early incunabula, such as these: for example, Dana Scott points to WMV's "Catalogue 24", which contains a 1528 Melchiorre Sessa printing, including the (same?) "cat and mouse" publisher's device:-
7 RINGELBERGH (Joachimus Fortius), of Antwerp (1499-1536).
    Institutiones Astronomicae ternis libris contentae. Quorum
    primus spherae ac mundi naturam declarat: secundus orbium :
    tertius circulorum. Cum annotationibus, & indice. 8vo, Ital.
    types, with Hebrew and Greek pass., 48 II., (8) II., index, wood-
    cut publisher's devices (cat and mouse) on title and at end, fine
    woodcut border to the 4th leaf, woodcut hist. inits., woodcut
    diagram, good copy, bds., £1 1s
          Io. Ant. de Sabio, for Melchior Sessa, Venice, 1535

However, the last word on WMV's earliest knowledge of the device seems to go to Jean-Yves Artero, who points us to an earlier WMV catalogue - in fact, to WMV's third list of books in 1901 (priced at half a crown). There, on page 318, reference 1227, we see:-

"L'Amoroso Convivio di Dante, Impresso in Venegia per Marchio Sessa nell' anno MDXXXI.
The Sessa mark (cat and mouse) appears twice: in border of title and in an other form on last leaf...".
Furthermore, Jean-Yves notes that in Voynich's first list of books (second edition, 1902), the company's telegraphic address was "Sessa, London". Clearly, though WMV certainly knew the Sessa family early in his antiquarian career (perhaps primed by his key associate Mr Edgell, with whom he started his business, but about whom we know practically nothing), he did not appropriate its motif until much later.

My opinion on all this? For WMV, perhaps the cat in the motif came to represent him - and the mouse his precious "Cipher Manuscript". FWIW, I suspect that the "discovery" of this manuscript came to be what WMV wanted to present to the world (and to himself) as his defining moment, the culmination of his journey of self-discovery (or, rather, the construction of his own self-image). However, in some ways this also marked the end of his life - his (and everyone else's) inability to unlock the manuscript's secrets meant that WMV had tied himself to a mast of a ship over which he had no control... and remained there, listening to the siren (nymph?) call of the VMs till his death.

Make of all that what you will... :-)

Cheers, ....Nick Pelling....