The brain-teasing Veronese riddle might instead make sense to alchemists. Especially if associated with the inexplicably neglected drawing on the verso.
In fact it would have sufficed a normal scientific attitude, that’s to say turning the page, to see a sketch very similar to the long tongues three-headed face of Turba Philosophorum. The two illustrations are much alike, but the Veronese parchment’s is much more sophisticated than Turba Philosophorum’s. As for the riddle, it was a common medieval conundrum: ” In front of him led oxen, White fields plowed, A white plow held, A black seed sowed”. Even Umberto Eco reported it in his novel “Baudolino”, but in a more close to latin form.
Actually it was not the riddle itself to make universally known the Veronese parchment codex LXXXIX, kept in the Scriptorium Veronensis Ecclesiae, known as Biblioteca Capitolare di Verona, but its philological implications: it is known as the first written evidence of a major watershed from Latin to a Romance language, though many contemporary scholars now place it at the latest stage of Vulgar Latin. In fact the original text ” ✝ separebabouesalbaprataliaaraba & albouersorioteneba & negrosemen seminaba“, interpreted by Schiapparelli and students in 1924 as ” Se pareba boves, alba pratàlia aràba et albo versòrio teneba, et negro sèmen seminaba” ( see an english translation above), presents few words still sticking to the rules of Latin grammar, and a mostly suppression of Latin cases and genders. Consequently, with no cases, the effect is the typical ending of Italian verbs and substantives. With, at least one word that is already uniquely italian, Versorio, still the word for “plow” in today’s Veronese dialect ( being a venetian myself, I can testimony).
It has been said the lines we are examining seem a writing test on a blank page ( the folio 3 recto). This explanation, however, seems contrived, there is no evidence of that, especially given the parchment’s subject, which is a Mozarabic oration written for the Toledo church surely before A.D. 732. Subsequent additions testimony how the parchment has undergone a long trip through Mediterranean before arriving in Verona: “Flavius Sergius bicidominus sancte ecclesie Caralitane” makes a clear reference to Cagliari, Sardinia. Then “Maurezo canevarius fideiussor de anfora vino de Bonello in XX anno Liutprandi regis” places it in Pisa, Tuscany, during King Liutprand reign, just shortly after 732. An then Verona, where still is.
Let’s briefly spend some words now for the above mentioned drawing. Presently I cannot say if the image was drawn on the same page or on the verso. But, unquestionably, this is an alchemical diagram. Very similar to a Turba Philosophorum’s, as said above and as you can judge by yourself. Why this immensely important and unveiling image has never been mentioned before? Was it another writing test? In my opinion this diagram deserves a dedicated coming article.
Around the same period, from 8th to 10th, century the Mozarabic Spain was the destination of many knowledge seekers, who moved to Spain only for this reasons. Among them Gerardus Cremonensis, whom we owe the translations from Arabic of many science cornerstone books. Back at that time Alchemy was not a hidden science and art, as it will be from the half of fourteenth century on, with Pope John XXII’s bull Spondent quas non exhibent, but it was an important part of the official science, if not the primary. Thus we cannot be surprised by these alchemical evidences on a Christian Oration. In fact just below the riddle’s lines, there is a classic thanks giving to God, ” ✝ Gratias tibi agimus omnipotens sempiterne Deus” thanks to you we operate, eternally almighty God, which strange enough is so similar to the medieval ending lines of the majority of Alchemy dedicated treatises.
In conclusion, might the riddle been affixed just to test a pen (even if a quill pen)? And why was this riddle so known during middle ages in Italy? An apparently nonsense conundrum, which has received a nonsense explication in modern times, especially among italian scholars ( not surprisingly) : “Pushed forward the oxen (fingers), plowed plowing a white field (paper), held a white plow (quill pen), and sowed the black seed (ink).” So easy, so stupid and moreover so out of context with the alchemical image perfectly visible on the recto page. if it had been so stupid why the riddle became a common puzzle of the time?
In Alchemy the white field to be plowed and sown, is our Terra Alba Foliata, our white female Mercurius Philosophorum in which a White plow of a previously sided apart, and so duplicated, white male Mercurius Philosophorum with reincrudated, or returned to their primitive Mercurial state, metallic gold is to be sown. When metallic gold is dissolved in our Mercurius Philosophorum, the real Universal Dissolvent/Alkahest, always gets black. This is the unquestionable sign of a perfect dissolution and consequent digestion. The iconographic theme is universally known by every newbie in Alchemy.
So my interpretation of the Veronese riddle is : “Pushed forward the oxen (fingers), plowed plowing a white field (female Mercurius Philosophorum), held a white plow (male Mercurius Philosophorum), and sowed the black seed (reincrudated metallic gold).” Yes, the Alchemical Marriage at the beginning of the Main Work (see an Opus Magnum scheme).