De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus.

Florence: Typographia sub signo Stellae, 1669.

First edition, a fine copy with manuscript corrections to the text (hitherto unrecorded, but present in other copies), of the most important and revolutionary geological work ever written. “This work did not have its like at its time and in the history of sciences there is hardly any comparable dissertation that offers such an abundance of new and epoch-breaking scientific findings in such a short space” (Kardel & Maquet, p. 260). It is comparable to Galileo’s works in that it revolutionised the scientific study of nature; in Steno’s words ‘from that which is perceived, a definite conclusion may be drawn about what is imperceptible’ (translation from Cutler, p. 114). “In a prodromus (‘advance notice’) to a document about fossils to be wittily entitled ‘Dissertation on solids naturally contained within solids’, Steno gave a full account of his conception of geological change, including his decisive suggestion that geological layers could be ‘read back’ as a record of the past. His principle of superposition, as it is now called, marked the beginning of geology” (Cobb, p. 99). ”In this work, a milestone in the literature of geology, he laid the foundations of the science of crystallography. He reported that, although quartz crystals differ greatly in physical appearance, they all have the same angles between corresponding faces. In addition he proposed the revolutionary idea that fossils are the remains of ancient living organisms and that many rocks are the result of sedimentation” (Britannica). Steno’s Prodromus marks a fourfold advance in earth sciences. It established that fossils were the remains of once-living organisms, that rock strata are formed from sedimentary deposits laid down horizontally, with inclined strata being the result of subsequent upheaval, etc., that mountain formation is the result of upheaval of strata through up-thrusting or downfall, and finally that crystals grow through the addition of material to the external planes and apex of the crystal. Steno also noted the constancy of interfacial angles in crystals of quartz. This is a book about which volumes have been written; its 78 pages are a potent formulation of the foundations of geological and palaeontological science. Steno’s Prodromus established the defining principles of the science of stratigraphy: I. The law of superposition: ‘At the time when any given stratum was being formed, all the matter resting upon it was fluid, and, therefore, at the time when the lower stratum was being formed, none of the upper strata existed’; II. The principle of original horizontality: ‘Strata either perpendicular to the horizon or inclined to the horizon were at one time parallel to the horizon’; III. The principle of lateral continuity: ‘Material forming any stratum were continuous over the surface of the Earth unless some other solid bodies stood in the way’; and IV. The principle of cross-cutting relationships: ‘If a body or discontinuity cuts across a stratum, it must have formed after that stratum’ (paraphrased from Brookfield). ABPC/RBH list only two copies not in modern bindings in the last 35 years, one of which was the Norman-Freilich presentation copy (Sotheby’s New York, January 11, 2001, lot 505, $126,750).

Provenance: This copy contains 11 manuscript corrections, not listed in the printed errata at the end of the volume, and not previously noted, but present in three other copies we have checked. They are clearly authorial but could easily escape notice as they are minute typographical corrections.

“Nicolaus Steno was born to a Lutheran family on New Year’s Day 1638 in Copenhagen as the son of Anne Nielsdatter and Sten Pedersen, a goldsmith with appointment to the Danish Court of Christian IV. As a child Steno undoubtedly became acquainted with the procedures of the workshop and gained an insight into the process of manipulating metals. He suffered continuously from bad health, which in his own words made him appreciate religious conversations and talking with older people rather than playing with other children. Steno attended the grammar school ‘Vor Frue Skole’ at the age of 10, where he received lessons from his later friend, the polyhistor Ole Borch. From him he learned the virtue of the Latin language in the academic world, and was introduced to the world of experimentation and observation through botanical excursions to the countryside during summer. Following his years in Latin School, Steno turned to medicine when matriculating at Copenhagen University. During his years there (1656-60) he was privileged to have the famous Thomas Bartholin (1616-80) as his personal tutor, although Bartholin stopped teaching in 1656. During his final year in Copenhagen, Steno began a notebook, titled ‘Chaos’, in which he excerpted a wide range of medical books and others including Athanasius Kircher’s Magnes sive de arte magnetica and a tiny part of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius

“Following his initial studies, Steno embarked on the obligatory Grand Tour in 1660, with a first stop in Amsterdam and a next stop in Leiden where he obtained his medical degree. At this point his main interest was anatomy, and especially the glands and the nature of muscles. In Amsterdam he was the first to discover the excretory duct of the parotid salivary gland in a calf’s head. The duct was later named ductus stenonianus as evidence of his priority claim to the discovery. He also defended a dissertation named De Thermis dealing with the mineral composition of hot springs …

“Following his stay in The Netherlands, his travels took him through Paris where he gave a lecture on the anatomy of the brain that formed a strong rebuttal of Descartes’ De Homine and his interpretations of the functions of the brain. The lecture was published later as Discourse sur l’anatomie du cerveau (1669). From Paris he travelled to Montpellier where he spent the winter of 1665-6, and met with several natural historians and philosophers including John Ray and Martin Lister.

“During the early spring of 1666 Steno arrived at Pisa and the winter residence of the Medici Court. His reputation had preceded him, and he was welcomed by Grand Duke Ferdinando II and his brother Prince Leopoldo. Ferdinando II had been a benevolent patron to Galileo following his trial and conviction, and had offered support and protection to his students Evangelista Torricelli and Vincenzio Viviani. He had a personal interest in natural philosophy and participated in experiments on a regular basis. Prince Leopoldo was the patron of the Accademia del Cimento, an experimental academy devoted to the testing of theses by natural philosophers including Gassendi and Torricelli. Leopoldo took great personal interest in the academy and spent much time promoting it to intellectuals around Europe. He was appointed Cardinal in December 1667, following which the academy ceased to meet. The most famous member of the academy, Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, chose to retire to Pisa in 1666 but other members, including Viviani and the Court Physician Francisco Redi, were still working at the Court during Steno’s stay.

“While in Tuscany, Steno found the time to tend to his network and expand it with several notable natural philosophers including Marcello Malpighi and Kircher. At the end of 1666, Steno was completing his dissertation on a geometrical explanation of the expansion of muscles when a Great White Shark was caught in the waters near Leghorn. At the command of the Grand Duke, the head was delivered to Steno for dissection. In order to fulfil his patron’s request for knowledge about the shark and probably to satisfy his own curiosity, Steno hurried to complete an appendix to his publication on muscles. This appendix would initiate his period of work on the Earth as he noted the similarity between the glossopetrae (tongue-stones) and shark teeth. His conclusion, against common opinion, was that glossopetrae were, indeed, fossil shark teeth and this later led him to ask in 1669 other questions such as how marine fossils ended up in mountainous areas far away from the sea.

“Following the publication of his myology and treatise on the shark in April 1667, Steno made some life-altering decisions regarding his religion which led him to convert to Catholicism on 2 November that same year. In the following years he would gradually become more interested in religious questions before he finally abandoned his scientific career in 1674 to pursue a life in service of the church. But before turning to religion completely, his commitments to the Medici Court and an inspiration to find evidence of God’s work in nature compelled him to advance his studies of the Earth. This work led to the rather short and clearly hastily written composition of De Solido, which was envisioned as a prodromus (a preliminary work) to a dissertation on solids within solids where Steno proposed a range of principles for determining the existence of different bodies in the Earth” (Bek-Thomsen, pp. 290-291).

“The Prodromus, as it is usually called, is one of the most amazing works in the history of geology and foreshadows many aspects of the subject that did not become established until more than a century after its publication. The book's rather obscure title gives no inkling of the wealth of ideas and observations which it contains. Under the general heading of ‘solids contained within solids’, Steno includes fossils, agates and crystals in rocks and also the strata which form the earth’s crust in Tuscany: a typical bed lies between higher and lower beds and so may be regarded as enclosed. No summary of the Prodromus can convey the concentrated brilliance of the work and Steno’s style of writing is so precise and economical that it is difficult to summarise without significant loss. There are few superfluous words. Steno never indulged in the unsupported speculation so common amongst his contemporaries but went into the country to study the rocks themselves and deserves to be regarded as the first field geologist …

The Prodromus is formally dedicated to The Most Serene Grand Duke (Ferdinand II) and the introductory preamble reveals much of Steno's attitude to geological investigation. After a detailed apology for failing to complete all the work planned, Steno outlines the four parts of the proposed dissertation and discusses some general principles, the first of which defines a general problem:

‘Given a substance endowed with a certain shape, and produced according to the laws of nature, to find in the substance itself clues disclosing the place and manner of its production.’

“Later in the introduction he observes:

‘There seem to me two main reasons underlying the fact that in the solution of natural problems not only are many doubts left undecided but also most often the doubts multiply with the number of writers. The first is that few take it on themselves to examine all those difficulties without whose resolution the solution of the investigation is left marred and imperfect … The second reason, which nourishes doubts, seems to me that in considering the natural world, those things which cannot be determined with certainty are not kept separate from those that can be so determined.’

“In the main text, Steno extends his original proof of the origin of fossils and extends it to include plant remains. He observes that all strata were deposited originally from a fluid medium subject to the effects of gravity and enunciates three principles of stratigraphy. First, in any vertical sequence of beds, the oldest bed must be at the bottom and the youngest at the top (principle of superposition). Second, from the observation that sediments were deposited from a fluid, all beds must have been originally horizontal, so inclined beds must have been tilted after their consolidation (principle of original horizontality) and third, horizontal beds would have extended in all directions, so similar beds separated by a valley must have been originally continuous (principle of original lateral continuity).

“In the following text he distinguishes between marine and fluviatile beds and, in discussing the origin of mountains, shows that they do not grow like trees but classifies them as block or fault mountains, volcanic mountains, mountains of erosion and folded mountains. He points out that sedimentary and volcanic rocks are different because they are produced by different processes.

“The reconstruction of the geological history of Tuscany is presented in the form of a sequence of sketched sections with notes referring to them:

  1. Rocky strata are whole.
    2. Huge cavities have been eaten out by water or fire while upper strata are unbroken.
    3. Mountains and valleys have been caused by the breaking up of upper strata.
    4. New strata have been made by the sea in the valley.
    5. A portion of the new strata has been destroyed while upper strata remain unbroken.
    6. Hills and valleys have been produced by breaking up of upper strata.

“As well as being the first recorded use of stratigraphical sections, Steno’s diagrams and their explanatory notes reveal a huge extension of the accepted timescale and an appreciation of the continuity of geological processes.

“Steno discusses the origins of ores and gems and shows that crystals grow by accretion of fresh material onto the existing planes from outside and not, as many writers then supposed, by organically growing like plants from within. By considering various irregular basal sections of quartz crystals, he established that the interfacial angles were constant. (Although Steno made no claim to the generality of this law, it is always attributed to him. The concept of a crystal as a type of solid was introduced by Höttinger in 1698 but in Steno’s time, the word referred exclusively to quartz. It was not until after the invention of the contact goniometer in 1780 and the comprehensive measurements made by de L’Isle that the constancy of interfacial angles was established as a general law).

“The text of the Prodromus sparkles with insights and ideas of astonishing originality but everything is based upon careful and critical observation … it is probably fair to suggest that the completion of the full work might have advanced the development of geology by at least a hundred years” (Dryburgh, pp. 6-8).

“Today Stensen is considered as the first to have recognized the principle of actualism in geology, i.e., that past events can be explained by forces that are still acting now, unlike the catastrophe theory attributed to Cuvier, which relies on geological forces that are quite unknown to us. Actualism was not widely recognized until the nineteenth century with Lyell and Van Hoff … According to the Danish geologist Hilmar Ødum, ‘the most amazing in Stensen is his perfectly modern concept of the geological forces: his disposition for that is what we now call the principle of actuality … He understood that the forces of the past are the same as those of the present time and that the forces which have produced the mountains and valleys are still always working to change the aspect of the earth’ …

“The publication of the Prodromus took place in the spring of 1669. Stensen had then begun his great travels of November 1668 to July 1670, and it was Viviani who cared for the practical affairs as written in his hand in the manuscript to be printed on the first page: ‘This was printed under my supervision.’ The first review by the censors is dated August 30, and here Viviani explains that the work was worth being dedicated to the name of his eminence. The official permission of printing followed only on December 13, according to the report of Redi” (Kardel & Maquet, pp. 261-265). Malpighi received a copy by the end of April 1669, and on May 7 Riccioli and Montanari received theirs. Viviani sent 10 copies to the surgeon Guglielmo Riva for distribution in Rome; one of these went to Kircher. The work was translated into English in 1671 by Henry Oldenberg, secretary of the Royal Society.

Following the publication of the Prodromus, “Steno spent the next 20 months travelling in Europe with the patronage of Ferdinando II. Most of the work he did was related to his geological theory, and he visited mines and caves to find additional support for it. When Ferdinando II died in 1670, his son Cosimo III continued to support Steno and gave him an opportunity to continue his geological studies by cataloguing the mineral collection of the Grand Dukes. But Steno also spent more and more time with religious contemplation, and gradually began to move away from natural philosophy. Following a brief period in Copenhagen between 1672 and 1674 by summons of the new King Christian V, Steno returned to Florence as teacher of Christian philosophy to Cosimo III’s son. When he left to fill the position of Vicar Apostolic in northern Germany, he maintained his good relationship with the Medici family. Upon Steno’s death in 1686, Cosimo III arranged for his coffin to be transported to Florence and buried in the San Lorenzo crypt, home of the Medici family. Even in death Steno had become a revered part of the closest circle of the Florentine court” (Bek-Thomsen, p. 291).

Dibner 90; Evans 63; Horblit 96; Parkinson pp. 108-9; Norman 2013; PMM 151; Sparrow 185 (with four separate citations); Bek-Thomsen, ‘From flesh to fossils: Nicolaus Steno’s anatomy of the Earth,’ Geological Society, London, Special Publications, vol. 375 (2013), pp. 289-305; Brookfield, Principles of Stratigraphy, 2004; Cobb, Generation, 2006; Cutler, The Seashell on the Mountaintop, 2003; Dryburgh, ‘Nicholaus Steno and the foundations of geology,’ The Edinburgh Geologist, no. 41, Autumn 2003, pp. 3-11; Kardel & Maquet (eds.), Nicolaus Steno: Biography and Original Papers of a 17th Century Scientist, 2nd edition, 2016.



4to (217 x 172 mm), pp. [iv, including blank leaf], 78, [2, errata on recto, verso blank], with large folding engraved plate with diagrams illustrating crystals and stratifications and accompanying text ‘Explicatio gurarum’ (bound as two separate sheets as in the Norman copy, each 234 x 355 mm with lower edges uncut), title in red and black with large engraved armorial device, woodcut initials and tailpiece, type ornament headpiece (title margins a little dusty and spotted, inner margin with traces of old glue stain from original wrapper binding). Eighteenth-century vellum. An exceptionally clean, unpressed copy.

Item #4359

Price: $55,000.00

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