The Invisible Brotherhood

Posted: September 23, 2009 in Braak

There are a handful of scattered historical accounts that refer to a peculiar sect of monks that enjoyed a brief notoriety in 15th century Florence.  Most modern historical accounts ignore them, eclipsed by the more dramatic events precipitated by Savonarola at the end of the century; and, indeed, the “Invisible Brotherhood,” as they are referred to in Lorenzo de Parma’s Accounts (in other sources referred to as the Ordo Vitruviorum or the Ordo Architectorum), did not participate in any of the social or political upheaval that characterized Florence in the late 1400s.  They did not, in fact, seem to do much of anything–except to be a little peculiar, at a time when peculiarity, if it wasn’t prosecuted, was still unlikely to be unremarked upon.

Parma’s Accounts of Florence is the most complete record of the brotherhood, though it does contradict directly with a handful of other sources, which shall be addressed shortly.  According to Parma, the Invisible Brothers were unrelated to the Dominicans of San Marco–the religious center of Florence at the time–and that they were refugees from a priory (probably located near Lake Como) that had burned to the ground some time in the mid-century.  The monks had established a second priory on the outskirts of Florence, but were often seen about the city, where they were notoriously laconic and suspicious of strangers.  The brothers could be recognized primarily by the fact that, in addition to wearing black monasterial robes, they also wore black veils beneath their hoods (presumably the source of the name), a white cross on their chests, and carried plain, straight swords on their belts.

To be clear, armed monks were not altogether that unusual an event in the 15th century–certainly, they had been fairly common in the preceding centuries, and most orders do not specifically prohibit the use of arms.  It does bear noting, however, that Parma’s lack of interest in the subject is itself remarkable.  He claims to have befriended one of the monks, a certain Brother Manos, and engaged in several discussions with him about natural philosophy–and somehow, during the course of these conversations, the subject of why he or his brethren were carrying swords never came up.

Parma’s conversations do give us the first and only mention of the brotherhood’s organizing document, The Autotechnicon.  According to Brother Manos, this was not regarded as an inspired or even an inspiring text, but purely as a kind of charter for running and organizing the monastery, and for training the monks in such a way that their prayers might be more spiritually fruitful.  If Parma and Manos are to be believed, the Autotechnicon offers no more conflict with the scriptures than the Augustinian Rule.  It is not clear whether or not the habitually taciturn Invisible Brothers also conducted themselves according to Augustine of Hippo’s ethos.

This lack of clarity no doubt was the source of many of their problems.  Savonarola, for example, considered them a heathen sect–or, at least, a sect in grave danger of apostasy–and mentioned the “Ordo Architectorum” in a 1493 sermon against self-indulgent philosophy.  A letter between Piero II de Medici, after his exile in 1492, and a cousin living in Florence (Lorenzo Simoni), refers to the “Ordo Architectorum” as well.  Piero, seeking support from the religious authorities remaining in Florence, requests of his cousin a list of potential allies among the Florentines.

Simoni mentions and disregards the Invisible Brothers in almost the same breath, suggesting:

“they are friends of the new republican government, and are also poor Christians.  They go forth armed, their faces hidden, and carry no symbols of their faith, nor do they speak of God or salvation.  My brother believes they are Jews in disguise.”

There is no corroboration from any other source regarding the lack of “symbols of their faith.”  Parma mentions the white crosses, which are either an invention on his part, or else an oversight on Simoni’s.

With Savonarola’s exile in 1498, the atmosphere seems to have soured against secret orders of monks, and the Invisible Brothers all but disappeared.  Presumably, they left the city to establish a priory somewhere else, but there are no further references to this peculiar sect of monks anywhere in Italy.  Considering the monks’ habit of covering their faces while in public, it is of course possible that they simply took off their robes and assimilated back into Italian society.

The only remaining mention of the Ordo Architectorum is a possibly apocryphal copy of the Autotechnicon, held in a private collection in Italy until the German invasion in the 1930s.  The book was stolen by the Nazis, recovered by the Americans during Patton’s Italian campaign, and is now stored safely at the library of Congress.

The book itself is problematic.  It is written entirely by hand, in a precise, formal script.  Material studies date the ink and paper to the mid-18th century, meaning it cannot have been an original.  There are, moreover, dozens of anachronisms in the text.

The Autotechnicon is a combination of fables, intended to instruct the monks in morality and philosophy, and training exercises.  It refers to “God,” “sin,” and “virtue” in abstracts, and could easily be adopted to a variety of sectarian ethoi.  With its repeated philosophical paradoxes, the “Virtue” (or “Arete”) section of the Autotechnicon reads very much like the Tao Te Ching written by a 15th century Italian monk.

The “Body,” or “Physic” portion of the book appears to be a manual for instructing monks in wrestling, boxing, fencing, and–oddly enough–music; this is entirely unique, to my knowledge, in the history of Western monastic orders.

The “Wisdom” or “Sophos” section is a set of a rules governing thought, that seems to be geared specifically to avoiding logical fallacies.  Most relevant are the lines “Because it occurred after does not mean it occurred because”–clearly an admonishment against the Post/Propter fallacy–and “Because they are alike does not mean they are the same”–possibly caution against what Frazier would later refer to as the superstitious “Law of Similarities.”

Most arresting of all in the text is the section entitled “Psyche “(the title is the only one left untranslated from the Greek).  This section involves the description of meditation techniques that are startling reminiscent of modern ideas regarding bio-feedback.  They include meditating on a particular symbol before one goes to sleep, so that a monk may make use of that symbol to stimulate drowsiness in himself, and using a visualization technique to ignore physical discomfort.

While much of the grammar and vocabulary does indeed seem to be translated out of the 15th century Italian (possibly originally from Greek sources), the anachronisms remain problematic.  The Arete section purports to follow the founder of the order, Brother Benedict (presumably NOT St. Benedict of Nursia), as he builds the first OA priory and trains his first students.  At the same time, the book portrays him as being a contemporary both of Piero II of Florence AND a contemporary of Galileo–two men whose lives are separated by centuries.

It’s not clear whether the current Autotechnicon is a pure 18th century forgery–though certainly the “Psyche” section is unusual even for that era–based on the aforementioned 15th century accounts, or whether the text is based partly on an original document that has incorporated or adapted elements according to historical events.

A few conspiracy theorists–specifically Manley Palmer Hall in his Secret Teaching of All Ages, and Charles Forte’s little-known Clandestine Organizations, Cults, and Societies–have suggested that the Ordo Architectorum simply went into hiding in the 15th century and has preserved since then.  Naturally, these theories include the order secretly taking control of politics, government, culture, &c., though why an order of isolationist monks should be interested in such a thing remains unexplained.  Most likely, this represents a certain amount of paranoia built up around what is, frankly, a very suggestive name.

  1. Anna says:

    Ooh, I want more 15th century monastic orders examined by Dr. Braak! Good read!

  2. Brother Manos was known to frequently abduct and hypnotize visitors to his roadside desert motel, abetted by a clubfooted assistant with a halting, irritating voice. He was also particularly bad at acting.

  3. braak says:

    Hey! How do we know he isn’t just very good at acting like a bad actor? History has not been forthcoming with the details!

  4. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Interesting. I had not heard of these strangely secretive, veiled monks. Now, I shall investigate further…

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