Decoding the Renaissance exhibition material

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Zone 1: THE RENAISSANCE OF CRYPTOGRAPHY

...a familiarity with the conditions and customs of [the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries] will bring one to the conclusion that there were, indeed, very few things in those days that did not have something to do with ciphers.

—William F. Friedman, “Saying it in Cipher” (1920)

The Birth of the Cryptographic Book

The Renaissance was the first great age of mass communication, but it was also the period when the art of secret writing came into its own. The new science of codes and ciphers produced some of the period’s most brilliant inventions, most beautiful books, and most enduring legacies.

One of the oldest cryptographic books was written by the quintessential Renaissance Man, Leon Battista Alberti. His short text on ciphers, Opuscoli morali, first published in this 1568 collection, was written a century earlier, making it Europe’s oldest extant treatise on ciphers and earning Alberti the title of Father of Western Cryptology.

However, the first printed cryptographic book was Trithemius’ posthumous work on polygraphic (or multiple writing) systems, Polygraphiae libri sex. The title -page, which can be seen below, depicts Trithemius presenting the book to its dedicatee, Emperor Maximilian I. The monk behind him provides the keys to the locked book, whose secrets are central to the exercise of power in church and state.

Items Included

Case 1 – The Birth of the Cryptographic Book

  • Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72). Opuscoli morali. Venice: Francesco di Franceschi, 1568. PQ4562 .A6 1568 Cage; displayed A1v (image).
  • Johannes Trithemius (1462–1516). Polygraphiae libri sex. [Basel]: Johann Haselberg, 1518. Z103.T7 P6 1518 Cage; displayed title page (image).

The First Cryptographic Couple

William Frederick Friedman (1891–1969) and Elizebeth Smith Friedman (1892–1980) are sometimes described as the nation's First Cryptographic Couple. They were introduced to the subject and to each other by the larger-than-life textile magnate George Fabyan at Riverbank, a country estate and research institute near Chicago. They joined a team providing support for Elizabeth Wells Gallup, the leading advocate of the popular idea that Francis Bacon had written Shakespeare's works and left ciphered clues throughout the 1623 First Folio and other texts. The Friedmans quickly lost faith in this theory and moved to Washington, where William ran the Signals Intelligence Service and Elizebeth worked for the Coast Guard and other agencies. But they continued their study of the Renaissance and eventually settled on Capitol Hill. Many of the books they used at Riverbank are now housed across the street in the Fabyan Collection at the Library of Congress.

Items Included

Case 2

  • LOAN courtesy of the Library of Congress. William F. Friedman (1891–1969). Methods for the Solutions of Ciphers. Geneva, Ill.: Riverbank Laboratories, 1917–22.
  • LOAN courtesy of the George C. Marshall Foundation, Lexington, VA. Exceptional Civilian Service Medal. Presented to William F. Friedman in 1944.
  • LOAN courtesy of the George C. Marshall Foundation, Lexington, VA. Medal for Merit. Presented to William F. Friedman in 1946.
  • William F. Friedman (1891–1969) and Elizebeth S. Friedman (1892–1980). The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957. Not yet accessioned.
  • LOAN courtesy of the George C. Marshall Foundation, Lexington, VA. Photo of William F. Friedman and Elizebeth S. Friedman, ca. 1957. 310 2nd Street SE, Washington, DC.

Wall Panel

  • LOAN courtesy of the Bacon cipher collection, manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, lenox, and Tilden Foundations. William F. Friedman. Cipher Baconis Gallup. Manuscript, ca. March 1916.

Invisible Ink

Not all secret communication depends on codes and ciphers, and one of the oldest tricks in the book was to make the message itself invisible. Using nothing more than materials found in the average kitchen—lemon juice and a candle—it is possible to make written letters disappear and reappear at will.

Items Included

Case 3

  • John Wilkins (1614–72). Mercury; or the secret and swift messenger. London: J. Norton for John Maynard and Timothy Wilkins, 1641. W2202; displayed p. 42-43 (image).
  • Miscellaneous collection of recipes. Manuscript, ca. 1600. V.a.140; displayed fol. 14v (image).
  • LOAN courtesy of the Library of Congress. H. O. Nolan. The Production and Detection of Messages in Concealed Writing and Images. Geneva, Ill.: Riverbank Laboratories, 1918.

Secretaries, Scribes, and Ciphers

The cryptographic book emerged with—and through—the invention of moveable type, but people had been using cryptographic means to secure their communications for centuries before the advent of print. Diplomatic and commercial business throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods depended heavily on handwritten codes and ciphers: official correspondence and private documents alike are peppered with mysterious symbols designed to be read only by those who had the key to the system.

Items Included

Case 4

  • Sir Francis Walsingham (1530?–90). Autograph letter, partly in cipher, to unknown recipient, May 26, 1574. Manuscript compilation, 17th or 18th century. V.b.264; displayed item 5 btwn. p. 434-435 (image).
  • Leonhart Fuchs (1501–66). De historia stirpium. Basel: Michael Isingrin, 1542. 245- 323f; displayed back endleaf 3rv (image).

Wall Panel

  • George Digby, Earl of Bristol (1612–77). Coded letter written for King Charles I. April 27, 1645. X.c.125; displayed p. 1 (image).

The Secret Science at a Glance

A new field has been well and truly established when it can be divided into parts and displayed in a single view. By the end of the sixteenth century, books on cryptography could offer systematic surveys of enough techniques and technologies to fill sprawling diagrams that dazzled the eyes and boggled the mind.

Case 5

LOAN courtesy of the Library of Congress. Gustavus Selenus [pseudonym for August II, Duke of Braunschweig-Lüneburg-Wolfenbüttel] (1579–1666). Cryptomenytices et cryptographiae libri IX. Lüneburg: Johann and Heinrich Stem, 1624.

LOAN courtesy of the Library of Congress. Claude Comiers (d. 1693). Traité de la parole, langues, et ecritures. Brussells: Jean Leonard, 1691.

Zone 2: HOW TO MAKE ANYTHING SIGNIFY ANYTHING

...the highest degree of cipher...is to signify anything by means of anything.... For by this art a way is opened, whereby a man may express and signify the intention of his mind, at any distance of place....

—Sir Francis Bacon on ciphers (1623)

Alphabets

For Friedman, the pen was mightier than the sword: as he put it in his Six Lectures on Cryptology, "the greatest and the most powerful instrument or weapon ever forged or improved by man...is the weapon of literacy...and the most important invention, the one that made the weapon of literacy practical, was the invention of the alphabet." Letters themselves were cryptography's secret weapon and they had as much power to change the course of battles as bullets and bombs.

Items Included

Case 6

  • Giovanni Battista Palatino (ca. 1515–ca. 1575). Compendio del gran volume de l’arte del bene et leggiadramente scrivere tutte le sorti di lettere et caratteri. Rome: Heirs of Valerio and Luigi Dorici, 1566. Z43.A3 P3 1566 Cage; displayed F3v-F4r (image).
  • Blaise de Vigenère (1523–96). Traicté des chiffres, ou, Secretes manieres d’escrire. Paris: Abel L’Angelier, 1586. Z103 .V6 1586 Cage; displayed fol. 302v-fol. 303r (image).
  • Giambattista della Porta (1535?–1615). De furtivis literarum notis. London: John Wolfe, 1591. STC 20118 Copy 1; displayed p. 90-91 (image).

Stenography

By the end of the sixteenth century, abbreviated alphabetical systems had emerged to improve the speed and secrecy of writing. "Shorthand" became widely available through popular manuals, and Samuel Pepys used it to protect his famous diary from prying eyes. Like cryptographic systems, shorthand methods replaced letters, syllables, and whole words with arbitrary symbols. This made them available, in fact, as codes and ciphers, and many authors in the field pointed to the close relationship between stenography (speedy writing) and steganography (hidden writing).

Items Included

Case 7

  • John Willis (d. 1625). The art of stenographie, teaching...the way of compendious writing. London: W. White for Cuthbert Burbie, 1602. STC 25744a; displayed A8v-B1r (image).
  • FACSIMILE. John Willis (d. 1625). The art of stenographie, teaching...the way of compendious writing. London: W. White for Cuthbert Burbie, 1602. STC 25744a; displayed title page (image).
  • Francis Bacon (1561–1626). De sapientia veterum. London: Felix Kingston, 1634. STC 1129; displayed A3r additional title page (image).
  • Henry Oxinden (1609–70). Manuscript miscellany, ca. 1642–70. V.b.110; displayed 2nd leaf, verso (image).
  • Thomas Shelton (1601–50?). Tachygraphy. London: Samuel Simmons, 1674. 262551; displayed p. 1 (image).

Tables

Alphanumeric tables are one of the first great technical inventions in the field of cryptography, and it may not be an accident that they emerged with the advent of moveable type. They took advantage of what the printing press did especially well—distributing permutations of individual letters and numbers in a square or rectangular grid—and they made the work of substituting plain-text with cipher-text easier, more accurate, and far more secure.

Items Included

Case 8

LOAN courtesy of the Library of Congress. Johannes Trithemius (1462–1516). Polygraphiae libri sex. [Basel]: Johann Haselberg, 1518.

LOAN courtesy of the Library of Congress. Giovan Battista Bellaso (active 16th century). La cifra. Venice: 1553.

Blaise de Vigenère (1523–96). Traicté des chiffres, ou, Secretes manieres d’escrire. Paris: Abel L’Angelier, 1587. Z103 .V6 1587 Cage; displayed item 2 btwn. p. 184-185 (image).

Bacon's Biliteral Cipher

In the course of the sixteenth century, cryptographers found ways to reduce the entire alphabet to only a few letters—and the great scientist and statesman Sir Francis Bacon devised a system using just two. In Bacon's "biliteral" (or two-letter) system, each letter of the English alphabet is represented by a different five-letter combination of A's and B's, from AAAAA for A to BABBB for Z. What made Bacon's invention so powerful is that these A's and B's could be represented by two types of anything—roman and italic type, pluses and minuses, apples and oranges, and so on. Using this system, as Friedman was fond of quoting, "it is possible to signify omnia per omnia (anything by means of anything)."

Items Included

Case 9

  • Francis Bacon (1561–1626). Of the...advancement of learning. London: Thomas Purfoot and Thomas Creede for Henrie Tomes, 1605. STC 1164 copy 1; displayed sig. 2Q1r (image).
  • Francis Bacon (1561–1626). De dignitate & augmentis scientiarum. London: John Haviland, 1623. STC 1108; displayed p. 278-279 (image).
  • Francis Bacon (1561–1626). Of the advancement and proficiencie of learning. Oxford: Leonard Lichfield for Robert Young and Edward Forrest, 1640. STC 1167 copy 1; displayed p. 266 (image).
  • LOAN courtesy of the George C. Marshall Foundation, Lexington, VA. William F. Friedman (1891–1969). “KNOWLEDGE IS POWER.” Aurora, Ill., ca. January 1918.

Disks and Volvelles

The cipher disc may be the most iconic image in the history of cryptography. And for good reason: it puts a simple but powerful system of alphanumeric substitution into the palm of one's hand. In portable form, it was particularly well-suited for use in the field. Within the covers of the period's books, it became one of the primary applications of the new technology called the volvelle, where one circle (often featuring a pointing hand) could be turned on top of another, with each turn of the disk presenting a new cipher alphabet.

Items Included

Case 10

  • Jacopo Silvestri (active 16th century). Opus novum. Rome: Marcello Silber, 1526. Z103 .S5 1526 Cage; displayed f. 6v (image).
  • Giambattista della Porta (1535?–1615). De furtivis literarum notis. London: John Wolfe, 1591. STC 20118a; displayed p. 72-73 (image).
  • Johannes Trithemius (1462–1516). Polygraphie et universelle escriture caballistique. Paris: Jacques Kerver, 1625. Z103.T7 P6 F7 1625 Cage; displayed p. 328 (image).

Wall Panel

  • Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72). Opuscoli morali. Venice: Francesco di Franceschi, 1568. PQ4562 .A6 1568 Cage; displayed

Grilles

The popular scientist Girolamo Cardano was credited with an invention that is still in use today. In the so-called "Cardan grille" a sheet with irregular holes cut in it is laid over a blank page and the intended message is written in the spaces. The sheet is then removed and the rest of the spaces are filled in with innocent—or even misleading—text. When the recipient lays the same grid over the letter in the same position, the hidden message is revealed.

Items Included

Case 11

  • Girolamo Cardano (1501–76). De rerum varietate. Basel: Heinrich Petri, 1557. 156- 884f; displayed title page (image).
  • Giambattista della Porta (1535?–1615). De occultis literarum notis. Montbéliard: Jacques Foillet and Lazarus Zetzner, 1593. 173- 568.1q; displayed p. 134 (image).
  • LOAN courtesy of the George C. Marshall Foundation, Lexington, VA. William F. Friedman (1891–1969) and Elizebeth S. Friedman (1892–1980). Cryptographic Christmas Card for 1928.
  • LOAN courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society. John Clotworthy, viscount Masereene (d. 1665). Autograph letter to John Winthrop, Jr., with grille. Dublin, 6 March 1634/35.