Sphaerae mundi compendium foeliciter inchoat. [Sphaera mundi; Disputationes contra Cremonensia deliramenta; Theoricae novae planetarum].

Venice: Erhard Ratdolt, 1482.

First printing, rare, of this assembly of basic texts of pre-Copernican astronomy, an exceptional copy in an untouched contemporary binding (this book, and its several fifteenth-century reprints, are almost always found in 19th or 20th century bindings). Sacrobosco’s De sphaera mundi (editio princeps 1472) was the first printed astronomical book, a synthesis of Ptolemy and his Arabic commentators, presenting an elegant, accessible Ptolemaic cosmology, and accepted as the most authoritative astronomical textbook of its time. From the time of its composition (ca. 1220), it “enjoyed great renown, and from the middle of the thirteenth century it was taught in all the schools of Europe. In the sixteenth century it gained the attention of mathematicians, including Clavius. As late as the seventeenth century it was used as a basic astronomy text” (DSB). Sacrobosco’s text is accompanied in this edition by two treatises by Regiomontanus (1436-1476) and his teacher Georg Peurbach (1423-1461), who were the outstanding astronomers of their time and their early deaths were “a serious loss to the progress of astronomy, [which] left the technical development of mathematical astronomy deprived of substantial improvement until the generation of Tycho Brahe” (ibid.). The tract by Regiomontanus is a critique of the Theoricae planetarum communis, the anonymous thirteenth-century university textbook usually attributed to Gerard of Cremona. It is followed by Peurbach’s Theoricae novae planetarum, composed around 1454 and first published at Nuremberg in ca. 1473), which became the standard astronomical text for over a century and a half. Following Arab astronomers, Peurbach “added trepidation to Ptolemy’s six motions of the celestial spheres and substituted solid crystal spheres for the hypothetical circles employed in Ptolemy’s Almagest” (Stillwell). The full-page woodcut on the verso of a1 (the recto is blank so it forms a frontispiece) features a hand holding an armillary sphere. ABPC/RBH list only four complete copies in the past 50 years: Bonham’s 2015 (modern binding); Dominic Winter 2004 (old vellum, a1 supplied from a shorter copy); Sotheby’s 1989 (modern binding); Sotheby’s 1985 (modern binding).

Johannes de Sacrobosco, or John of Holywood, or Halifax, was probably an Englishman, although even his nationality is uncertain. He lived at the end of the twelfth century and the beginning of the thirteenth century, and apparently spent most of his life in Paris, where he was a student and teacher of mathematics and astronomy at the university. “Sacrobosco’s fame rests firmly on his ‘De Sphaera’, a work based on Ptolemy and his Arabic commentators, published about 1220 and antedating the ‘Sphaera’ of Grosseteste. It was quite generally adopted as the fundamental astronomy text, for often it was so clear that it needed little or no explanation. It was first used at the University of Paris. There are four chapters to the work. Chapter one defines a sphere, explains its divisions, including the four elements, and also comments on the heavens and their movements. The revolutions of the heavens are from east to west and their shape is spherical. The earth is a sphere, acting as the middle (or center) of the firmament; it is a mere point in relation to the total firmament and is immobile. Its measurements are also included. Chapter two treats the various circles and their names − the celestial circle, the equinoctial, the movement of the ‘primum mobile’ with its two parts, the north and south poles, the zodiac, the ecliptic, the colures, the meridian and the horizon, and the Arctic and Antarctic circles. It closes with an explanation of the five zones. Chapter three explains the cosmic, chronic, and heliacal risings and settings of the signs and also their right and oblique ascensions. Explanations are furnished for the variations in the length of days in different global zones namely the equator, and in zones extending from the equator to the two poles. A discussion of the seven climes ends the chapter. The movement of the sun and other planets and the causes of lunar and solar eclipses form the brief fourth chapter” (DSB).

Georg Peurbach received his Bachelor of Arts at Vienna in 1448 and, after spending several years traveling in Italy and elsewhere, his Master’s degree in 1453. Apparently self-taught in the subject, Peurbach lectured on astronomy at Vienna, where one of his students was Johannes Regiomontanus (1436-1476). A notebook that Regiomontanus kept at Vienna during 1454-1462 begins with Peurbach’s Theoricae novae planetarum, completed 30 August 1454. “Theoricae novae Planetarum is an elementary but thorough textbook of planetary theory written by Peurbach to replace the old, and exceedingly careless, so-called Theorica planetarum Gerardi, a standard text written probably in the second half of the thirteenth century. The original version of the Theoricae novae, completed in 1454, contained sections on the sun, moon, superior planets, Venus, Mercury, characteristic phenomena and eclipses, theory of latitude, and the motion of the eighth sphere according to the Alphonsine Tables. Peurbach later enlarged the work by adding a section on Th bit ibn Qurra’s theory of trepidation. Regiomontanus brought out the first printed edition (Nuremberg, ca, 1474) … A number of printings from the 1480s and 1490s in small quartos (e.g. 1482, 1485, 1488, 1490, 1491), also containing Sacrobosco’s De sphaera and Regiomontanus’ Disputationes contra Cremonensia in planetarum theoricas deliramenta, seem to represent the standard school edition and common text, which is generally sound. The colored figures in these editions are copied from Regiomontanus’ printing … The diagrams are of considerable importance since parts of Peurbach’s text would be unintelligible without them. The Theoricae novae contains very careful and detailed descriptions of solid sphere representations of Ptolemaic planetary models that Peurbach based either upon Ibn al-Haytham’s description of identical models in his On the Configuration of the world (translated into Latin in the late thirteenth century) or upon some later intermediary work. Peurbach’s book was of great importance because his models remained the canonical physical description of the structure of the heavens until Tycho disproved the existence of solid spheres. Even Copernicus was to a large extent still under their influence, and the original motivation for his planetary theory was apparently to correct a number of physical impossibilities in Peurbach’s models relating to non-uniform rotation of solid spheres” (DSB).

Johannes Müller, called Regiomontanus, was arguably the most important astronomer of the fifteenth century. Born in the Franconian town of Königsberg in 1436, he was educated at the Universities of Leipzig and Vienna, and appointed to the Arts Faculty of the latter institution in 1457. Georg Peurbach was Regiomontanus' astronomical mentor, and the two men collaborated by, among other things, making observations together. On his deathbed, Peurbach charged Regiomontanus with completing an abridgement of Ptolemy's Syntaxis he had begun at the behest of Cardinal Johannes Bessarion. This work was finished by 1463, and printed as the Epitome of the Almagest in 1496; it was later used by such astronomers as Copernicus and Galileo. After Peurbach's death, Regiomontanus went with Bessarion to Rome, and accompanied him on various travels around Italy. Association with the Cardinal, a native of Trebizond in Turkey and a great patron of humanist scholarship, gave Regiomontanus access to other texts, and the opportunity for him to become fluent in Greek. Between 1467 and 1471, Regiomontanus worked in Hungary. With some help from the Hungarian court astronomer Martin Bylica (1433-1493), he compiled various astronomical and trigonometrical tables. In 1471, he relocated to Nuremberg, with the express intention of pursuing the observational reform of astronomy. An important part of his program was the publication of accurate editions of new and ancient texts, for which he obtained his own printing press. Around 1474 he published an ambitious publication catalogue entitled Hec opera fient in oppido Nuremberga Germanie ductu Ioannis de Monteregio. The first two entries were Theorice novae planetarum Georgii Purbachii astronomi celebratissimi: cum figurationibus opportunis and Marci Manlii astronomica. Added to both titles was the following important note: “Hec duo explicita sunt”, declaring that these two books had already been printed. In the end Regiomontanus only succeeded in publishing a total of nine items before his own early death in 1476, one of which was the Disputationes contra Cremonensia deliramenta (although this work does not appear in his catalogue).

“Regiomontanus’s Disputationes originated in a discussion between himself and the astronomer/astrologer Martin Bylica of Olkusch/Ilkusch immediately before the papal election of 1464. At the time, each man was attached to the household of a cardinal – Bessarion and Pietro Barbo, respectively. The conclave passed over Bessarion and eventually selected Ilkusch’s patron, who became Pope Paul II. After a brief introductory monologue by Regiomontanus, the Disputationes quickly turns to his critique of the Theorica planetarum attributed to Gerard of Cremona and to the advantages of Peurbach’s Theoricae novae planetarum over it. The dialogue began as a manuscript, of course, and at first was probably restricted to the Bessarion circle … It is significant for both the content of the dialogue and the diagrams in it that Regiomontanus’s critique of the Theoricae planetarum communis has some roots in the Viennese astronomical tradition and its Parisian antecedents. Some criticisms and proofs in the Disputationes are silently drawn from the De reprobation ecentricorum et epiciclorum (Paris, 1364) of Henry of Langenstein, who evidently brought it with him when he moved to Vienna to revive the university twenty years later. Regiomontanus knew the work thoroughly, for he not only copied the text during the 1450s in Vienna, but also drew the 18 diagrams that accompany the proofs in which Langenstein criticized the old Theoricae planetarum communis.

“Several years after setting up his press in Nuremberg, Regiomontanus still had no intention of printing his dialogue, for it does not appear among the more than 40 editions he announced as forthcoming in his printed broadside advertisement. By late 1474 or 1475, however, he had changed his mind. He printed the work with slight modifications and a new preface sometime before he set off for Italy in the summer of 1475 – and probably in haste because of this trip. The main body of the Disputationes promoted Peurbach’s Theoricae novae planetarum, which Regiomontanus had printed c. 1472, whereas his new preface responded to negative reactions elicited by the critical barbs he had included in his recent trade list. An additional incentive to publish his critique may have come from the knowledge that the Theorica planetarum communis was also in print (1472). In the earliest version of the Disputationes, the protagonists are “Johannes” [= Regiomontanus] and “Martinus” [= Bylica of Ilkusch/Olkusch]. In the printed work, each is identified only by his alma mater: “Viennensis” and “Cracoviensis.”

“Of the seven diagrams in the Disputationes, the first and last concern, respectively, the Sun and the nodes of the epicycles of Venus and Mercury in the zodiac. Regiomontanus uses [the remaining five diagrams] to illustrate his proofs against several of the old Theorica’s statements about the geometry of the Mercury model, one of Ptolemy’s most complex … Regiomontanus criticizes the Theoricae planetarum communis for several erroneous statements about, and careless extension of, the basic geometry of the model” (Shank, pp. 28-9).

The printer of the present work, Erhard Ratdolt (1442-1528), could have been working for Regiomontanus in his printing shop when the Disputationes and Theoricae novae were first being printed. It is known that he left his native city of Augsburg about 1474, and there is no record of his activities until 1476, when he began printing with two associates in Venice. Because of Ratdolt’s preference for printing scientific works, including those by Regiomontanus, some have conjectured that the two years for which there is no record were actually spent with Regiomontanus in Nuremberg. The first book to be issued from Ratdolt’s press was the Kalendarium of Regiomontanus, which they published in 1476, three years after the first edition had been printed by Regiomontanus himself. Ratdolt soon became well known for the beautiful books he produced − so well known that he was eventually induced to return to his native city of Augsburg to establish a press there, which he did in 1486. From 1476 until the time he left Venice he had been the sole proprietor of his printing business and had printed some thirty books, including the present work. His career as a printer at Augsburg lasted for more than forty years, during which he produced a notable group of books, differing considerably in style from the work of other German printers because of his superior craftsmanship and because of the superiority of the woodcut borders, initials, and illustrations that he brought back from Italy.

BMC V 286; Goff J405; BSB-Ink I-502; Hain-Copinger 14110; ISTC ij00405000; GW M14652; HC 14110*; Klebs 874.9; Sander 6661. DSB XI, pp. 348-52; XII, pp. 60-63; & XV, pp. 473-78. Graff, ‘Alteste Deutsche Farbenholzschnitte’, Zeitschrift fur Bucherfreunde, Neu Folge I (1910), pp. 335-40 (see especially p. 336). Shank, ‘The geometrical diagrams in Regiomontanus’s edition of his own Disputationes (c. 1475),’ Journal for the History of Astronomy 43 (2012), 27-56. See Thorndike, The sphere of Sacrobosco and its commentators, 1949.



4to , Small 4to (198 x 150 mm), ff. [60], 30-31 lines, Gothic type, a2 printed in red and black, 5- to 11-line woodcut initials, full-page diagram on a1 verso, more than 39 woodcut diagrams in text, many two-thirds page, of which 8 have a contemporary green, yellow or red wash, incipit printed in red, many ‘sgraffito’ initials (i.e., with white ornaments on a black background).

Item #3949

Price: $38,500.00