Opening in November 2014
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. It left its mark on virtually every aspect of Renaissance culture, including the development of diplomacy and the waging of war, the creation of the postal system, the invention of sign language, and the search for hidden meanings in literature and the visual arts. And it provided the inspiration for the pioneering modern code-breaker William F. Friedman—chief cryptanalyst for the US government from the 1920s to the 1950s. Friedman’s introduction to ciphers (as well as to his wife Elizebeth, a distinguished code-breaker in her own right) came through his early work on Sir Francis Bacon; and he drew directly on Renaissance texts and technologies throughout his cryptographic career.
Decoding the Renaissance explores some six hundred years of secret communication, introducing the tricks of the trade and revealing the surprising connections between Renaissance texts and technologies and modern methods of cryptanalysis. The exhibition brings together the first comprehensive collection of early books on cryptography, many of Friedman’s most influential works, and the most mysterious of all unbroken codes, the so-called Voynich Manuscript, on loan for the first time from the Beinecke Library at Yale.