Venetian Ciphers with Superscripts

Whereas most ciphertexts look similar, being a stream of arbitrary symbols or Arabic figures, a class of Venetian ciphers produce a distinct appearance: a series of letters with superscript digits or exponents. Such a system was introduced to handle the increasing vocabulary (Meister (1902) p.21). In the same period, Venetian ambassadors also used ordinary symbol ciphers. Ciphers for ambassadors in Constantinople had a large vocabulary by arbitrary symbols without superscirpts (Pasini (1872), p.44, p.63; p.45, p.64). (Cryptologically, superencryption in the caselle cipher discovered by Bonavoglia (2019) is more interesting, but is off-topic herein.)

Superscript-Digit Cipher with Regular Syllable Assignment (ca.1578-1587)

The cipher, known as the Zifra Granda or Ziffra Granda, reproduced in Fig. 1 of Bonavoglia (2019) from the book of ciphers 1578-1587 (ASVE, CX Cifra, chiavi e scontri di cifra con studi successivi , busta 4, reg. 16; ASVe gives "buste 8, registri 1") has a nomenclature of some 500 entries, whereby syllables and words are represented by a letter (h, f, p, L, r, a) followed by one or two digits. (In actual use, the digits are often written as superscripts.) There is regularity in the arrangement. In particular, Bonavoglia (2019) points out that syllables -a, -e, -i, -o, -u are consistently given digits ending in -1, -2, -3, -4, -5, respectively (Fig. 2).

The substitution table assigns each letter three homophones: a polywog (a circle with a rightward stroke), turned T (a vertical bar with a rightward stroke), and u with superscript digits. Similar polywog or arrow-like symbols are also used in Spanish ciphers (see Leyva's Cipher and Cp.44 in another article).

An Unsolved Cipher (ca.1589)

Ms. 994 of National Library, Madrid, contains an undeciphered letter from Venetian secretary Marco Otthobon [Marco Ottobon] to ambassador, Juan Mocenigo [Giovanni Mocenigo], dated 27 April 1589. Valle de la Cerda appears to have solved it, but his solution is lost. See another article. (This is placed in this section simply because its date is close to that of the above cipher. There is no evidence to indicate that the cipher has a regular assignment of symbols.)

Superscript-Digit Ciphers with More Irregular Assignment

Similar ciphers with superscript digits used by some Venetian ambassadors are more irregular.

Giovanni Michiel (1555)

Giovanni Michiel (Dizionario Biografico, vol.74 (2010)) was ambassador in England in 1554-1557.

His cipher was solved by Paul Friedmann (1869), and corrected by Pasini (1872). It has more irregular arrangement as compared with the Zifra Granda above. Pasini (1872) and Bonavoglia (2020) present passages in this cipher, which allows partial reconstruction of the cipher (Pasini (1869) appears to reproduce the whole reconstructed cipher, but the plate after p.9 is not properly scanned in Google's copy.).

It does not show an apparent regularity as seen in the Zifra Granda above.

Digits 3, 8, and 9 are not used (Pasini (1872) p.45).

Giacomo Soranzo (1553)

A passage of a letter of 19 September 1553 by Giacomo Soranzo (Dizionario Biografico, vol.93 (2018)), ambassador in England (1550-1554) before Michiel, is presented in Bonavoglia (2020). As far as this specimen is concerned, it is the same as Michiel's cipher above except for d65 for "Sua Maesta", which is t25 in Michiel's cipher. Pasini (1869) lists several differences between Michiel's and Soranzo's ciphers (p.14).

Marc'Antonio Da Mula and Federico Badoer (1554-1555)

The cipher used by Marc'Antonio Da Mula and Federico Badoer (Dizionario Biografico, vol.5 (1963)), ambassadors in Spain, was the same as Michiel's (Pasini (1872) p.44).

Antonio Tiepolo (1564-1567)

The cipher used by Antonio Tiepolo (Dizionario Biografico, vol.95 (2019)), ambassador in Spain (1564-1567) is different from Michiel's. Pasini (1872) presents a passage of his letter of 8 April 1566 (p.44).

Ciphers with Superscript Letters

Michiel Surian (1557-1558)

Michiel Surian, ambassador in England (1557-1558) succeding Giovanni Michiel, used a cipher with superscript letters (Bonavoglia (2020) quoting a letter dated 15 January 1558, Pasini (1872) p.43, quoting a letter dated London, 21 April 1557; According to Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, Vol. 94 (2019), Michele Surian was ambassador to Philip II in Flanders and followed the king during his stay in England in March-July 1557, and returned to Venice in 1559). Again, the arrangement is irregular. The following is a reconstruction from the specimens presented in Bonavoglia (2020).

Ciphers with Superscripts in State Archives of Venice (ASVe)

The State Archives of Venice (ASVe) has "ASVe, CX Cifra, chiavi e scontri di cifra constudi successivi" (CX=Council of Ten) in Buste 1-8. Its content is summarised in Bonavoliga, "Ciphers of the Republic of Venice." Of hundreds of materials, some are in the DECODE database.

Busta 4 Reg.16 f.64 (Zifra Prima; DECODE R1789)

Busta 4, reg.16 is a book of ciphers compiled in 1577-1578 (Bonavoglia, "Two Unknown Venetian Cryptologists", n.6; "The ciphers of the Republic of Venice", p.5, p.10).

The symbols of the cipher f.64 are made of a letter (a-h) with a superscript figure (1-99).

The cipher consists of an encoding section ("per scriver") and a decoding section ("per trazer"). That is, this is a two-part code, though the arrangement is not completely random. Importantly, letters, syllables, and words are all arranged without distinction.

d96 a
f1 Accio
f2 Accordo
f3 Ad
f4 Ada di giavin[?]
f4 Al
f6 Alum

Busta 4, Reg.16, f.77[?] (Ziffra Granda)

This (mentioned above; not found in DECODE) is printed in Figure 1 of Bonavoglia, "Two Unknown Venetian Cryptologists".

Busta 4, Reg.16, f.78 (Ziffra Piccola)

This (not found in DECODE) is printed in Figure 2 of Bonavoglia, "Two Unknown Venetian Cryptologists." This is a simple numerical cipher without superscript. (This is important because it served as the base cipher for the caselle cipher.)

Busta 4 Reg.16 f.79 (DECODE R1790)

This is a two-part code, but has only a few elements other than single letters.

Busta 4 Reg.16 c.74 (Ziffra N.11)

This (not found in DECODE) is presented in Figure 7 of Paolo Bonavoglia, "Enigma". This was made by Francesci in 1587.

The superscript figures used for single letters are limited to 1-20. Bonavoglia found that the symbols assigned to single letters are not random, but formed by a modulo-20 addition (Figure 8). For example, the first row has "a5" for c, and the first column has "f12" for the f-row. Thus, the intersection of the c-column and f-row has "f17" (5+12=17). Similarly, the intersection of the d-column headed by "a19" and the c-row headed by "c15" has "c14" (19+15=14 mod 20).

a b c d e f g h i l m n o p q r s t u z
a20 a17 a5 a19 a6 a8 a3 a4 a12 a18 a11 a1 a2 a14 a13 a16 a9 a15 a7 a10
c15 c12 c20 c14 c1 c3 c18 c19 c7 c13 c6 c16 c17 c9 c8 c11 c4 c10 c2 c5
d1 c18 d6 d20 d7 d9 d4 d5 d13 d19 d12 d2 d3 d15 d14 d17 d10 d16 d8 d11
f12 f9 f17 f11 f18 f20 f15 f16 f4 f10 f3 f13 f14 f6 f5 f8 f1 f7 f19 f2
g17 g14 g2 g16 g3 g5 g20 g1 g9 g15 g8 g18 g19 g11 g10 g13 g6 g12 g4 g7
h16 h13 h1 h15 h2 h4 h19 h20 h8 h14 h7 h17 h18 h10 h9 h12 h5 h11 h3 h6

The figures used for syllables, numbers, and words are mostly 1-20, but a few are from 21-99.

ASVe also includes ciphertexts in these kinds of ciphers. Most are accompanied with decipherments (as far as can be seen in DECODE). According to Bonavoglia, a cipher made of a letter and a two-digit figure was used for almost a century ("Ciphers of the Republic of Venice", p.10).

In the following, the transcription is only a fragment and may be inaccurate.

Busta 6 f.18-19 (DECODE R1842)

Pera [Constantinople], 9 December 15[8]1.

The figures are not written as superscripts.

... o18 l18 e80 f38 f19 f33 l8 o28 a23 o28 c34 c4....

Busta 6 f.105-106 (DECODE R1843)

Hieronimo Lippomano, Pera [Constantinople], 20 July 1590.

La deliberatione di V. SS. Illme .... qui r14 a84 a6 a44 s38 u9 f59 u5 u2 a93 f34 a92 u9 f63 a43 t7 ....

Busta 13 f.36-37 (DECODE R1845)

Michiel Surian[?], Vienna, 29 September 1552

... rp5 m3 g6 e2 d3 m3
r3 pp5 c4 mp5 lp1 l2 mp0 m2 p3 p3★ pp1 ep1 n2 pp0 fp0 g6 n6 c8 g7 e3
n4 xp1 r6 np5 v2 c2 q3 cp5 e8 ap0 f6 c3 cp5 c8 c6 cp5
rp0 p4 k8 K2 K2★ h5 c6 r3 dp1 c2 e8 n9 f6 p3 m3 np1 c3 h2 lp5
cp5 p4 r6 ap0 h4 mp5 b2 N7 n8 d2 a2 a8 lp1 x2 d4 A6 p7 p3 l8
fp1 ep1 m4 n4 np17 h0 p0 a7 m4 m3 c2 l4 pp5 t2 m3 ap5 z7 cp5 rp0
l4 c7 d3 n4 a7 rp0 g4 n4 cp00 m3 cp5 d2 t2 e8 ap1 f6 tp1 n6
K2 np1 c3 v9 c6 c2 c9 np5 ep1 a8 mp1 ap0 c7 e4 b8
A1 p4 g6 n8 m3 rp0 ap0 n3 c6 a8 v5 ap5 R1 d4 m6 lp5 c2
l3 ap0 N7 g6 d6 k9 pp0 t2 e2 c7 m2 rp5 lp1 ep0 mp0 f4 c6
et alla gratia della ...
Da vienne. Alli [29 September 1552]
Di V. Sertor denotissmo sertor
Michiel Surian[?] Amb.

Questa cosa gia molti mesi e solicitata da Domino Nicolo Villario ilquale &ts mosta di esser fidel serviton della scr^ta v^a sa sanuto molta difficulta a consegnirt &ts de qui si suspicana, et egli teattasse tate negocio con intelligentia di lei icr i fauoz delle raggion del R-mo Patiarcha et finalmente lo sa consiguito di quel modo et uedera li scr^ta v^a della copia del decuto es so fatto teadus di Todisio in Italiano, er sara i queste alliguo Gry

Busta 13 f.48-49 (DECODE R1846)

Michiel Surian, Vienna, 14 May 1554

The cipher appears to be the same as R1845.

... rp0 l4 g6 c3 c2 f7 mp0 a3 b-3 f2 y-4 ep1
e93 l3 a8 a6 a5 mp5 np1 f6 m4 ge0 tp1 a97 a7 ap1 o-2
i-8 n4 i-2 n2 cp0 cp5 c2 f2l3 ep5 np1 N4 a7 ap0 cp5 ep1
r3 ep5 c3 y-s a8 a9 mp5 ap5 c7 ap0 N4 c3 a7 l3 fp0 np1 a7
* np5 c6 fp53 l3 a9 dp0 A7 cp0 cp5 m4 c6 fp0 c2 f3
o-2 c2 cp0 cp5 m4 cp5 g6 mp5 N4 z8

Busta 13 f.66 (DECODE R1847)

Paulo Thiepolo [Tiepolo], Vienna, 11 June 1556

Eccmi: sigri: v5 a1 e5 v5 a4 f3 h-5 c6 np1 L4 o-3 c2 y-1 d0 e8 y-7

Busta 14 f.62-63 (DECODE R1849)

Jacomo Zambon, 3 August 1545.

The symbols include letters with a superscript letter as well as other symbols (such as letters with additional strokes).

Busta 14 f.75-76 (DECODE R1850)

Jacomo Zambon, London, 29 December 1546. The cipher appears to be the same as R1849.

Busta 14 f.83-84 (DECODE R1851)

Giacomo Soranzo, London, 11 September 1553.

.... L[0?]5 o12 L10 L40 L10 c10 r27 r27 L65 o21 r11 d70 r10 o50 f76 o62 s27 f50 ....

The cipher is probably the one used in the letter of 19 September 1553 presented in Bonavoglia (2020).

Busta 29 f.97-98 (DECODE R1867)

Michiel Surian, 12 June 1558

... Zi kb Lc rb rr nl aa ru an am....

The cipher may be the one used in the letter of 15 January 1558 presented in Bonavoglia (2020) and partially reconstructed above.

Busta 29 f.199-200 (DECODE R1868)

Alberto Badoer (Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani - Volume 5 (1963)), Madrid, 16 October 1578

r5 l83 f5 t80 r12 l28 e9 o-22 l83 c48 e36 t39 e7 c29 c58 e9 c48 t28 r5 r31 c32 e3
t32 l53 d29 e6 e80 r35 l28 o79 t28 a28 t29 c58 t28 r32 c48 o69 f35 l73 t28 t37
a19 f19 d82 t28 t69 l69 t37 a19 d39 l18 t3 l3 o79 l28 t3 l29 z31 d4 e3 d30 r68 r33

un hieronimo gondi maggior domo di aurelio santa croce venuto a me badoero disse in molto secre.... et il secretario antonio perez ... ....

Busta 30 (DECODE R1870)

Paris, 5[?] August 1595[?]

o5 o19 f4 o18 a23 a74 a6 r81 f31 o18 o4 a71 a96 a6 f13 o20 f27 r77 a32 a91 a31 r83 f2 a31 a44 r3 o5 o19 r2 l3 a44 r3
r37 l36 r3 a91 o19
a93 o4 r53 p1 o16 p9 a20 o20 r75 r84 a32 pi l20 r14 f8 a94 r7 o18 r42 o19 a42 r3
il sigor di Sansi e tiualmte passato à ....

Busta 30, p.19 (DECODE R1872)

[Giovanni] Michiel, London, 19 March 1555

.... ad esso Abbatt L75 a45 e27 e10 a61 L16 o51 L11 o20 e11 r47 r62 a70 f60 e20 e47 e27 o50 d11 ....

No decipherment attached. The beginning of the ciphertext is deciphered in Bonavoglia (2020) (printed in CSP Venice (British History Online)).

Busta 30, f.4[?] (DECODE R1873)

Rome, 25 April 1558

on eb rn ad ft re rs ce fc un ....

No decipherment attached. Not found in CSP Venice (British History Online).

Older Use

Marco Minio (1519)

A cipher used in a letter (1519) from the Senate to Marco Minio, ambassador in Rome (appointed in 1516, arrived in 1517 (Dizionario Biografico, vol.74 (2010))) is said to "resemble radically" Michiel's cipher (CSP).

Garbino (1528)

BnF Clair. 327 (Gallica), ff.279-280 is an unsigned letter of 11 April 1528 to Seigneur Garbino. The paragraphs in cipher are not deciphered. A seemingly contemporary addenda (see the next section) suggests the base letter of the cipher symbols with exponents indicates the initial of the word/syllable represented. The ciphers with superscripts from this period are similar in form to the ciphers in the second half of the sixteenth century presented above, but seem to be substantially different. Moreover, the superscript figures include three-digit figures.

Memoire in Italian (1528)

A memoire in Italian, dated Madrid, 11 April 1528 also uses a similar cipher with superscript figures (BnF fr.3022 (Gallica), f.44). Probably, it is a report of a Venetian agent in Madrid.

Addition to a Cipher

BnF Clair. 314 (Gallica), f.337 is an addition to a cipher, listing entries such as apresso (a327), Cartagenia (c327), Perilche (p400), scorn (s400), Zabre (z37)). The base letter indicates the initial of the word represented. Probably, the original cipher had entries a1, ..., a326, and the entries in the "A" section in this addition continue the sequence.

F.338 appears to be a list of code words such as Antonioto Adorno (Andrea de Passano), Antonio de Leyva (Agostino Spinola), Ambassiatore (Thesorero). These names suggest the list belongs to the 1520s (or 1530s).

(The same addenda and jargon are also found in BnF fr.3022 (Gallica), f.96-102. This was brought to my notice by Norbert Biermann's comment on Cipherbrain.)

Hieronimo Ranzo [Hieronimus Ranzo, Geronimo Ranzo, Jeronimo Ranzo, Jeronimo Rancio, Jerôme Rancio, Girolamo Ranzo] (1520s?)

Several undeciphered letters of Hieronimo Ranzo use similar ciphers with superscript figures (BnF fr.2988 (Gallica) f.2, f.9-10; BnF fr.3019 (Gallica) f.73-74; BnF fr.20506, f.136 (a copy of BnF fr.2988, f.9, which Norbert Biermann pointed out to me)). Hieronimo Ranzo served the Count of Gattinara (Wikipedia, Treccani), chancellor of Emperor Charles V, and is recorded as one of the witnesses of the Treaty of Saragossa (Wikipedia) (1529) (The text of the treaty reads as if Augustin de Urbano had been the chancellor, as quoted in Davenport (ed.) (2004), European Treaties bearing on the History of the United States and its Dependencies to 1648, p.197 (Google), but Augustin de Urbina was secretary of the chancellor according to Documentos para el quinto centenario de la primera vuelta al mundo: Tratado de Zaragoza (

The Ranzos was a noble family of Vercelli, and Gattinara's mother, Felicita Ranzo, was also from the family. Hieronimo Ranzo was a courtier of Charles V. (I was made aware of these by Thomas Bosbach's comments in Cipherbrain)

It is wondered whether Ranzo had any connection with Venice to use this kind of cipher.

By the way, Ranzo's cipher letter in BnF fr.2988, f.2, is preceded by another ciphertext on f.1. Since f.1 and f.2 are treated as one item in catalog information, I wondered whether one is an enclosure of the other. But it turned out that f.1 probably belongs to the latter half of the century, addressed to Mary Queen of Scots (see another article).

Similar-looking Ciphers

Spanish Cipher Cp.31

Spanish cipher Cp.31 for an ambassador in Rome (1579-1585) also uses superscript digits in the nomenclature. But unlike Venitian ciphers above, syllables are represented with diacritics (vowel indicators) (see another article).

Spanish Cipher Cp.57 (ca.1596)

The elements of the nomenclature of this cipher is also in the form of a letter plus a number (up to "51") (see another article). Although the number is not a superscript, the number of Venetian ciphers are not always written as superscripts.

Vergerio's Cipher

A cipher of Vergerio (?Wikipedia) printed in Rockinger (1891) also has supercripts.

Prague Cipher

A cipher from Prague printed in Rockinger (1891) also has supercripts.

Partenio's Falso Scontro

Falso Scontro is a Venetian scheme to convey a true message and a fake message at the same time. Paolo Bonavoglia describes in "Enigma" such a scheme proposed by Hieronimo di Franceschi (see my blog) and another one by his rival, Pietro Partenio. The latter produces a ciphertext with superscript figures.

i10 r15 c8 n17 i18 a13 v11 ...

Take the first element i10. The figure "10" is looked up in the row indicated by "i" in a square table. The plaintext letter is found at the top of the cell i-10. This process gives a fake message. The true message is conveyed by the base letters ircniav.... This needs to be deciphered according to a key transposition. (The fake message and the true message may as well be exchanged.)

Another scheme by Partenio to allow such double reading by using a Latin square is described in Bonavoglia, "Two Unknown Venetian Cryptologists", 7.3.


Paolo Bonavoglia (2020), "Decifra dispacci veneziani"

Paolo Bonavoglia (2019), "Hieronimo di Franceschi and Pietro Partenio: Two Unknown Venetian Cryptologists" (pdf), Proceedings of HistoCrypt2019

Paolo Bonavoglia (2021), "The ciphers of the Republic of Venice an overview," Cryptologia, p.1-24

Paolo Bonavoglia (2022), "The Enigma of Franceschi's Falso Scontro," HistoCrypt2022

Luigi Pasini (1872), Delle scritture in cifra usate dalla Repubblica di Venezia, reprint (2019) as Crittografia book series 2, edited by Paolo Bonavoglia; also included in as Appendix of Parte I in Cecchetti (1873), Il regio Archivio generale di Venezia (Google), p.289 (By the way, Pasini provided decipherments of many letters to CSP Venice (British History Online).)

Luisi Pasini (1869), I dispacci di Giovanni Michiel: ambasciatore veneto in inghilterra : 1554 - 1557 (Google)

Paul Friedmann (1869), Les Dépèches De Giovanni Michiel, Ambassadeur De Venise En Angleterre pendant les années de 1554 à 1557, déchifrées et publiées d'aprè les documents conservées aux archives nationales de Venise (Cited by Pasini (1872). I have not seen this.)

J.P. Devos (1950), Les chiffres de Philippe II (1555-1598) et du Despacho universal durant le XVIIe siècle

Aloys Meister (1902), Die Anfange Der Modernen Diplomatischen Geheimschrift

CSP Venice, vol.2 (1867) 'Appendix II: Italian Cipher', pp. lxix-lxxii (British History Online)

Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani (Treccani)

Ludwig von Rockinger (1891), Ueber Geheimschriftenschlüssel der bayerischen Kanzlei im sechzehnten Jahrhundert (1891) (Google)

DECODE Database:

Héder, M ; Megyesi, B. The DECODE Database of Historical Ciphers and Keys: Version 2. In: Dahlke, C; Megyesi, B (eds.) Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Historical Cryptology HistoCrypt 2022. Linkoping, Sweden : LiU E-Press (2022) pp. 111-114. , 4 p. [pdf]

Megyesi Beáta, Esslinger Bernhard, Fornés Alicia, Kopal Nils, Láng Benedek, Lasry George, Leeuw Karl de, Pettersson Eva, Wacker Arno, Waldispühl Michelle. Decryption of historical manuscripts: the DECRYPT project. CRYPTOLOGIA 44 : 6 pp. 545-559. , 15 p. (2020) [link]

Megyesi, B., Blomqvist, N., and Pettersson, E. (2019) The DECODE Database: Collection of Historical Ciphers and Keys. In Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Historical Cryptology. HistoCrypt 2019, June 23-25, 2019, Mons, Belgium. NEALT Proceedings Series 37, Linköping Electronic Press. [pdf]

©2020 S.Tomokiyo
First posted on 10 October 2020. Last modified on 17 January 2024.
Cryptiana: Articles on Historical Cryptography
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