Originally Published: 2015-02-10

A little over a year ago, while photographing various objects held in museums in Rome, I came across the following strange artifact in the Epigraphic Museum of the Baths of Diocletian:

The museum placard reads thus: 1

Libello “basilidiano”

Libello formato da sette pagine racchiuse da un copertina con la testa di una donna velata e di un uomo barbato. Nelle pagine opistigrafe, sono incise coppie di figure, umane e animali in probabile successione, e un testo ricco di segni magici (charaktères), che non sembra avere senso compiuto.

Provenienza ignota, già nel Museo Kircheriano - IV-V sec. d.C.?

A little book

A book formed of seven pages enclosed by a cover with a veiled woman’s head and a bearded man. On the inside pages, engraved on both sides, a couple of human and animal figures are depicted probably at a latter date. Even the date [sic]1, rich of magic signs (charaktères), does not seem to make sense.

Origin unknown, already in the Kircherian museum - IV-V century AD?

The object was intriguing to me, as a metal codex is a relatively novel form, and I’d heard nothing of this particular object during the Jordan Lead Codices controversy (what ever came of that?). Mormons also have an especially strong interest in trying to prove the existence of a tradition of metal codices, and seem from my investigations to have no idea of the existence of this one. Surprisingly, this object is also nowhere to be found in the 2004 museum catalog.

The provenance on the placard is also mysterious: “Origin unknown, already in the Kircherian museum”. This seemed my best foothold for finding any further information about it. First off, what’s the Kircherian museum? According to the Italian Wikipedia page:

Il Museo kircheriano fu una raccolta pubblica di antichità e curiosità (Wunderkammer), fondata nel 1651 dal padre gesuita Athanasius Kircher nel Collegio Romano.

The Kircher Museum was a public collection of antiquities and curiosities (Wunderkammer), founded in 1651 by the Jesuit father Athanasius Kircher in the Roman College.

Apparently over the ages the collection was dissolved and reabsorbed into various other collections. The rough timeline seems to be that this object “remained”2 in the Museo Kircheriano at the Collegio Romano3 from at least 1837 until its ultimate dissolution in 1913,4 ending up in its present location. Where, when, how, and even in what form it came into the Kircherian is debatable.

Chasing down publications about this object has proven difficult and confusing, as there are (or were), potentially three different but superficially similar Basilidian metal codices which seem to have appeared in Rome around the same time:

Out of all the publications relating to these objects, Bonanni is the only one who seems to give any sort of potential provenance information (“Fuit hic plumbeus liber repertus in antiquo Sarcophago, in quo cineres demortui fuerant inclusi. — In this case the leaden book was found in an ancient sarcophagus, in which the ashes of the deceased had been shut up.”).

What I propose to set forth in this post is a chronological bibliography of everything I’ve found relating to these three metal codices, providing transcriptions of these texts and a rough pass at English translation where applicable.7 My hope is that collecting this material in one place will enable further scholarship in a neglected and apparently obscure area. Many of the sources I came across in my research note casually that Bonanni (and Contucci) considerably expanded the collection of antiquities in the Kircherian museum, and the provenance of many of these objects (now dispersed and displayed in other museums) is presumably similarly difficult to trace. Thus it seems to me that a useful project for an ambitious researcher interested in these matters would be to try to locate correspondence, archives, or other unedited manuscripts related to these curators and edit them on the model of Alberto Bartola’s Alle Origini del Museo del Collegio Romano and Nathalie Lallemand-Buyssens’ Les acquisitions d’Athanasius Kircher au musée du Collège Romain à la lumière de documents inédit. The two sources mined by these articles are the Apostolica Pontificia Universita Gregoriana, Rome (APUG) and Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu (ARSI), respectively, and given the size of these archives there still may be relevant material yet to be discovered.

Lallemand-Buyssens also notes the difficulty of figuring out when a particular object entered or left the museum as constituted at any particular point in time, and that many of the catalogs are not (and do not claim to be) comprehensive. However, given Kircher’s interest in and voluminous writing on other gnostic artifacts in the museum, and the fact that this artifact goes unmentioned by him in any work that I can find (perhaps it was in his lost Etruscan Journey?),8 as well as its absence from the items mentioned by Bonanni as remaining in the museum as it stood in 1698 (as described in his 1716 Notizie circa la Galleria del Collegio Romano, an edition of which can be found in Appendix III of Bartola),9 I think it is safe to assume that at least the artifact published by Bonanni in 1709 was acquired by Bonanni. That artifact’s replacement with the current one may be another story entirely, and one which has apparently confounded many.

Table of Contents


The following mere chronological presentation of the sources discussing these objects will probably give the reader a good view of some of the confusions and contradictions that have arisen in trying to research this topic. For one, half of the sources seem bent on misreading and misinterpreting that which came before them; for example King heaps scorn on Matter for confusing the present Kircherian artifact with Montfaucon’s, when Matter appears to do no such thing and in fact goes to great pains to note the differences between both of them and Bonanni’s, a distinction which King misses. For another, many of the sources are primarily preoccuppied with reciting every classical attestation of writing on lead. Maybe I have the benefit of the distance of time and the later archaeological finds and the scholarship which comes with them, but it seems to me that the oft-cited passage of Tacitus10 is discussing lead curse tablets, which appear to me a very different thing from what we have here.

One interesting facet to all this is that the descriptions given by Brunati, Ruggiero, Reisch, and the museum placard of the cover having a “bearded man” and a veiled woman match in description and arrangement the side of the cover we can see in Bonanni’s illustration (unfortunately, I did not get a good photograph of this side of the cover as it stands in the current museum, though what is visible of it matches;11 oddly, Matter says he did not know of any cover that went with his sheets).12 Additionally, Brunati makes the distinction of calling the pages “aeneis” (copper) rather than “plumbeo” (lead), which I initially thought was a mistake, but upon further examination may have been a more considered judgement. Is it possible that what has occurred here is that Bonanni’s “original”, at some point between 1709 and 1837,13 was disbound in order to have the pages sold off and replaced with forgeries while the cover was retained? Are the pages that we have modern forgeries modeled after two lost, potentially genuine, artifacts?

Chronological Bibliography

Bibliography (Kircher & the Kircherian)

Collected here are some of the works I’ve consulted in my research which are about Kircher or the Kircherian museum, which contain no apparent reference to the object(s) at hand. See also Athanasius Kircher at Stanford and the more comprehensive bibliography and online works of Kircher published by Hole Rößler.44

Bibliography (Bonanni)

Collected here are works I’ve found about Bonanni himself, a relatively obscure figure in comparison to Kircher.


  1. I would note here that I have copied the English translation from the placard, which for some reason, omits “basilidian,” and seemingly mistranslates “in probabile successione (“probably in sequence”) as “probably at a latter date” and “testo” (“text”) as “date”.  2

  2. I make this assertion on the basis that Brunati observes it in the Kircherian in 1837 in his Musei Kircheriani, and Reisch describes observing the codex in the Kircherian as it remained in 1891. The Baths of Diocletian was instituted as the inaugural seat of the Museo Nazionale Romano in 1890, so the codex may have been moved between then and the Kircherian’s ultimate dissolution in 1913.  2

  3. Wolfgang Helbig, Emil Reisch, Guide to the Public Collections of Classical Antiquities in Rome, trans. James F. and Findlay Muirhead, Vol. II. Leipsic, Karl Baedeker, 1896. p.415-416: “The Museo Kircheriano derives its name from the German Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680), a native of the neighbourhood of Fulda, who became a professor in the Collegio Romano about 1635. At Rome he indulged his mathematical and historical tastes by the formation of a collection of curiosities, which, besides natural productions of all kinds and specimens of all branches of artistic industry, included also a few unimportant antiques. It was not until the eighteenth century that this collection, chiefly owing to the exertions of Bonanni and Contucci, assumed more and more the character of a cabinet of antiques; and about the same time (ca. 1738) it acquired its chief treasure, the Ficoronian Cist. During the suspension of the order of the Jesuits (1773-1823) the Museo Kircheriano was more and more neglected in favour of the great papal collections in the Vatican and at the Capitol. But in the present century the famous archaeologist Giuseppe Marchi turned his attention to the neglected museum; under his auspices the section of Christian antiquities, the collection of leaden missiles for slings, and that of water-pipes received large additions, while the treasure-trove of Vicarello and the celebrated graffito of the ‘Caricature Crucifixion’ were also added to the museum under his management. The Collegio Romano and its collections became the property of the state in 1870; and since then the Museo Kircheriano has been completely re-arranged on a scientific system. The Graeco-Roman and Christian antiquities have been combined in a special section by Ettore de Ruggiero (in the rooms to the left of the entrance). The ethnographical specimens were transferred to the Museo Nazionale Preistorico ed Etnografico, opened in 1876, a collection that already, under the management of Luigi Pigorini, has risen to the rank of a museum of the first class, and is still constantly receiving additions. […] According to the present (interim) arrangement, the Museo Kircheriano occupies the saloon to the left of the principal entrance and the two adjoining rooms.” 

  4. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma, Le collezioni del Museo Kircheriano, http://archeoroma.beniculturali.it/en/node/620. Retrieved on 2014-10-31. 

  5. For the 1699 date of Montfaucon’s acquisition of his codex, see Montfaucon 1722. I had hoped that he may have gone into more detail in his Diarium Italicum which covers this period, but I can find no mention of it (see pp. 63, 200, & 353 for his mentions of other Basilidian artifacts). 

  6. The assertion that Montfaucon’s codex vanished sometime before 1828 is made on the basis of the footnote16 in Matter’s Histoire

  7. For the reader’s convenience I have used Google Translate to provide an initial translation which I have then revised manually according to my limited ability. Suggestions for improvement are more than welcome, as I make no claim to even a school-boy’s Latin. 

  8. It also strikes me as probable that had Kircher published something about an artifact of this sort, Montfaucon would have made a note of it in addition to Bonanni’s in his explication of the codices in Antiquité Expliquée (ii. 378). Montfaucon was familiar with Kircher’s work and had no reservations about citing or refuting it, as can be seen with his ridicule of Kircher’s interpretation of the Bembine Table of Isis in Antiquité Expliquée (ii. 340): “Le P. Kirker plus hardi a tout expliqué; il a crû avoir trouvé les sens les plus cachez de la table: ce sont, dit-il, les veritables, il n’en faut pas chercher d’autre après ceux-là. […] Ceux qui voudront se donner la peine de le lire, le trouveront peut-être tout-à-fait original, & douteront infailliblement que jamais Egyptien ait pensé comme lui.” 

  9. I also note that no Thecam plumbeam or similar such object is explicitly mentioned in Bonanni’s undated Breve notizia del ripartimento e delle cose conservate nel Museo del Collegio Romano eretto l’anno 1699, believed by Bartola to have been written in the first decade of the 18th century (APUG 35 VII (g), published in Bartola’s Appendix IV), though many of the categories of objects listed are broad and vague (for example, one could imagine it falling under “libri di varie lingue” or even perhaps “urne varie sepolcrali ed inscrizzioni”). 

  10. Cornelius Tacitus, Annales, Book 2, Chapter 69. English translation from Perseus: Germanicus meanwhile, as he was returning from Egypt, found that all his directions to the legions and to the various cities had been repealed or reversed. This led to grievous insults on Piso, while he as savagely assailed the prince. Piso then resolved to quit Syria. Soon he was detained there by the failing health of Germanicus, but when he heard of his recovery, while people were paying the vows they had offered for his safety, he went attended by his lictors, drove away the victims placed by the altars with all the preparations for sacrifice, and the festal gathering of the populace of Antioch. Then he left for Seleucia and awaited the result of the illness which had again attacked Germanicus. The terrible intensity of the malady was increased by the belief that he had been poisoned by Piso. And certainly there were found hidden in the floor and in the walls disinterred remains of human bodies, incantations and spells, and the name of Germanicus inscribed on leaden tablets, half-burnt cinders smeared with blood, and other horrors by which in popular belief souls are devoted to the infernal deities. Piso too was accused of sending emissaries to note curiously every unfavourable symptom of the illness.  2 3

  11. Sarah E. Bond has uploaded some pictures of the codex as it was later displayed in July of 2014, which shows the “bearded man” side of the cover. 

  12. Matter also states that the sheets have never been engaged on a hinge, an argument which is also borne out by their present appearance (but also potentially explicable by an over-zealous 18th century “conservator” filing them down to look nice after removing them from a hinge). 

  13. This period overlaps with the 1773-1814 suppression of the Society of Jesus, during which “Bonanni’s exhibits were dismantled and the objects dispersed throughout Rome. They returned briefly to the Roman College after the restoration of the Society in 1814” (Findlen, in Feingold 2003, p.272). Another potentially useful avenue of research may be documenting this dispersal and reassembly. 

  14. Louis D’Orleans, Novae Cogitationes in Libros Annalium C. Cornelii Taciti qui extant, 1622. p. 298. 

  15. Matter’s footnote: Anitiquité expliquée, tome II, p. 380. 

  16. Matter’s footnote: Il n’en est pas moins à regretter que ce monument, donné par Montfaucon au cardinal de Bouillon, ait disparu au point qu’on n’en connait plus de trace. (“It is nevertheless regrettable that this monument given by Montfaucon to Cardinal de Bouillon, disappeared to the point that nobody knows a single trace.”)  2

  17. Matter’s footnote: Chiflet, fig. 15. Gorlée, pl. II, fig. 342 et 343. Kircher, p. 461. 

  18. Brunati’s footnote: Mus. Kirch. 

  19. Brunati’s footnote: Antiq. Expl. T. II, p. 380 

  20. Brunati’s footnote: Op. cit. et Palaeogr. Gr. p. 180t 

  21. Brunati’s footnote: Dionysiaca L. XLI, vv. 340-353 

  22. Brunati’s footnote: Ann. L. II, N. 69.10 

  23. Brunati’s footnote: Origine de touse les cultes T. III, p. 243, edit. an. III Reip. Gall. sive an. 1795  2

  24. Brunati’s footnote: Apoc. V, I  2

  25. Brunati’s footnote: Archaeol Bibl. P. I, c. III. S 36, 37 

  26. Brunati’s footnote: Vita Apollonii L. III, c. 13  2

  27. Brunati’s footnote: Enn. II, lib. 3, c. 6; et Enn. III, lib. I, c. 6  2

  28. Brunati’s footnote: Comment. in Gen. S IX, pag. 14. Opp. edit. Maur. T. II  2

  29. Brunati’s footnote: Archaeol. Bibl. P. I, c. II, n. 18  2

  30. “interpretationem, me “Davum” esse fatear” (“mean “Davum” to me I admit”). For this expression see Davus sum, non Oedipus on the Italian Wikipedia and Alison Sharrock. Reading Roman Comedy: Poetics and Playfulness in Plautus and Terence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009. p.143 2

  31. Brunati’s footnote: L. IX, c. 31.  2

  32. Brunati’s footnote: Ner. c. 20.  2

  33. Brunati’s footnote: Stratag. L. III, c. 13, n. 7  2

  34. Brunati’s footnote: L. XLVI  2

  35. Brunati’s footnote: L. XIII, c. XI  2

  36. Brunati’s footnote: Lib. II, N. 69.10  2

  37. Matter’s footnote: Paleogr. critica, t. IV, p. 388. 

  38. Matter’s footnote: Entre autres par un des Amuleti de Florence.  2

  39. Excerpted and untranslated here is Matter’s description of some lead curse tablets excavated from tombs around the Via Appia starting in 1850:

    Des fouilles commencées en 1850, par l’ordre de M. le commandeur Jacobini, Ministre des travaux publics, sur les côtés de cette Voie Appienne qui fut comme une des nécropoles de Rome et un des berceaux mystiques du Christianisme, ont amené effectivement, parmi d’autres richesses plus considérables, la découverte d’un assez grand nombre de feuilles de plomb qui offrent à la science des faits nouveaux et des questions difficiles. Elles méritent donc, hors de Rome, la même attention qu’elles obtiennent dans cette cité de la part des archéologues les plus instruits et auxquels en est tout naturellement réservée la publication. Tout ce que peuvent faire ceux qu’ils ont bien voulu admettre à l’étude de ces objets, c’est de préparer bon accueil à leur future apparition et de solliciter celle-ci aussi prochaine que possible. C’est dans ce but que je tâcherai d’en donner une idée, accompagnée de quelques échantillons, en témoignant devant le public de toute la reconnaissance dont je suis pénétré de ce qu’il m’ait été permis d’en prendre des dessins et d’en copier les inscriptions. Je dirai d’abord ce que je tiens de M. Griffi et de M. Visconti sur les circonstances et l’état actuel de cette intéressante nouvelle, afin d’éveiller, à son égard, une curiosité aussi générale qu’il m’est possible. En fouillant le sol de la Vigna Marini, aboutissant à la Via Appia, sur la gauche de la porte Saint-Sébastien (Porta pia), en sortant de Rome, on a trouvé, dan un tombeau très—ruiné, sauf en quelques parties: 1.° une mosaïque représentant une femme avec un enfant; 2.° un sarcophage parfaitement conservé, et 3.° plusieurs petits sarcophages, les uns en marbre, les autres en terre cuite, contenant une certaine quantité de feuilles de plomb toutes roulées. On a retiré des sarcophages en terre cuite les feuilles de plomb, et on les a transportées au ministère des travaux publics et des antiquités. Le secrétaire général de cette administration, M. le chevalier Griffi, a voulu se constituer lui—même le gardien de ces lamelles cylindrées, en attendant qu’elles soient déployées et déposées dans un Musée. Des circonstances extraordinaires ayant fait suspendre les fouilles au mois de mai 1851, on a recouvert la mosaïque, afin de la préserver de toute détérioration; on a mis les petits sarcophages en marbre dans une maisonnette un peu démolie, mais qui rendra son dépôt à la prochaine reprise des travaux, et l’on a avisé aux moyens de recommencer ceux—ci. En attendant, il y a déjà là toute une série de monuments à examiner, la mosaïque, le sarcophage principal, les petits sarcophages en marbre, ceux en terre cuite et les feuilles de plomb, auxquelles il peut s’en joindre d’autres pour en faciliter l’interprétation. Ces lamelles de plomb seules ont été l’objet spécial de mes études, mais j’aivivement regretté de ne pouvoir examiner la mosaïque; quoiqu’elle soit, au témoignage de juges aussi compétents que M. Griffi et M. Visconti, […]


  40. King’s footnote: “In the pictures to which the disembodied spirit “before his journey addresses his prayers to the various gods, and then enters upon his labours. He attacks with spear in hand the crocodiles, lizards, scorpions and snakes which beset his path; and passing through these dark regions he at length reaches the land of the Amenti, whose goddess is a hawk standing upon a perch. Here the sun’s rays cheer his steps, and he meets amongst other wonders the head of Horus rising out of a lotus-flower, the god Pthah, the phoenix, his own soul in the form of a bird with a human head, and the goddess Isis as a serpent of goodness. The soul then returns to the mummy and puts life into its mouth.”–(Sharpe, ‘Egypt. Mythol.,’ p. 65.)” 

  41. King’s footnote: “The improvement is probably only due to the French copyist.” 

  42. Mayer-Deutsch’s footnote: Bonanni 1709. S. 180 und Tafel LX S. 193. Nach Bonanni wurde es in einem “antiquo Sarcaphago” gefunden. (“After Bonanni it was found in a “antique sarcophagus”.”) Mayer-Deutsch’s Taf. 4,08ab are reproductions of Bonanni’s plates.  2

  43. Mayer-Deutsch’s footnote: Helbig 1899, Bd. 2. 411, Nr. 1451 beschreibt das Objekt wie folgt: […] Diese Beschreibung stimmt in vielen Punkten (7 Seiten, Buchstaben, Symbole) mit derjenigen Bonannis sowie mit dem Stich überein. Nach Ruggiero handelt es sich aber nur um ein “analoges Monument”. Ruggiero 1878 S. 64. Siehe Ruggiero 1878, S. 63-79 mit Katalogtext sowie Holzschnitten der Deckel und der sieben inwendigen Bleitafeln. (“Helbig describes the object as follows: […] This description is consistent (7 pages, letters, symbols) with that of Bonanni and with the engraving on many points. After Ruggiero it is only but an “analogous Monument”. See Ruggiero, with catalog text and woodcuts of the lid and the seven inward lead plates.”)  2

  44. Rößler’s site is linked and cited in many places as http://www.unilu.ch/eng/forschungsbibliographie_269848.html, however, that link is now a 404. There are some versions in the Wayback Machine