Cryptography, Conspiracy, & Crime

I’m back from vacation!! While indeed it was a blissful week away, I am glad to be back. While I was away, however, I visited the The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City. They had a great exhibit on Federico da Montefeltro and His Library that included information on the Pazzi conspiracy. Historically it had always been viewed as primarily a blood feud between two families: the Pazzis and the Medicis. The Pazzis had hired de Montefeltro (known as the Duke of Urbino – his hooked nose apparently the result of an attack by a falcon) to assassinate two of the Medici brothers (they succeeded on one account but failed on another). It had always been conjectured but never proven that Pope Sixtus IV (is that like a Latinized Borg reference?) had a hand in the assassination attempt. Well, a few years ago, Marcello Simonetta at Wesleyan University (the one in Connecticut) discovered the “smoking gun” that implicated the Pope in the conspiracy. It involved being able to decode an intricately encrypted letter. Ironically, Simonetta was able to do this thanks to another historical document that detailed the decryption technique that was written by his own ancestor, Cicco Simonetta, apparently the father of modern cryptology (code-breaking) who was alive at the time! [Aside: Cryptography is code-making – I am ashamed to say I never knew the difference.] Anyway, they give a basic background on the cipher at the Morgan, but I couldn’t find anything specific about that exact cipher online. But here’s a brief paper on ciphers that seems to indicate it might have simply been a complex Caesar cipher though I recall something about certain people being represented by certain specific characters (as opposed to simply encoding the name). Plus the encrypted message was within an innocuous looking letter. Anyway, it’s often easy to decode since it only requires modular arithmetic, but you have to be looking for it to know it’s there and the living Simonetta had stumbled across his ancestor’s instructions just before tackling the letter in question!! How how cool is that?


2 Responses to “Cryptography, Conspiracy, & Crime”

  1. Why not ask the source itself (himself)? Thanks to QM for drawing attention to my little decoding discovery. If someone really wants to know a bit more about it, the catalogue of the Morgan ongoing show on “Federico da Montefeltro and his Library” offers many more details about the decoding technique (true, the basic principle was already contained in Caesar Cipher, but Renaissance masters of encoding made it quite a lot harder to break). But the really cool thing about the story is that my ancestor, Cicco Simonetta, the super-secretive Chancellor of the Dukes of Milan, was personally involved in the defense of Lorenzo de’ Medici against the orchestrated attack by Federico da Montefeltro (whose aquiline nose was carved out as a result of a mock-joust wound, in which he lost his right eye) and Pope Sixtus IV. I have put together all this intrigue in one forthcoming book, “The Montefeltro Conspiracy. A Renaissance Mystery Decoded” (Doubleday, 2008) where anybody interested in bloody plots and complicated codes will find much more to chew on. The book ends with a wholly new interpretation of the Sistine Chapel frescoes by Botticelli and Michelangelo… So, thanks again to QM and many kudos for his blogging fun.

  2. Quantum Moxie Says:

    Now that is neat – a blog comment from Marcello Simonetta himself! Many thanks Marcello for the clarifications and for your fascinating work. Perhaps I’ll run a short article on this in The Quantum Times in the next issue…

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