Lezioni elementari di astronomia ad uso del Osservatorio d. Palermo.

Palermo: Stamperia Reale, 1817.

First edition, very rare, of Piazzi’s Palermo Observatory handbook. Having obtained a grant from the Viceroy of Sicily, Piazzi set up the observatory in 1789; as the southern-most European observatory, it offered unequalled access to the southern skies. Piazzi was able to acquire a great masterpiece of 18th century technology, the five-foot vertical circle completed for him by the English instrument maker Jesse Ramsden, for the observatory (illustrated on Tav. II of the present work). It was here that Piazzi discovered the first minor planet, Ceres, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. This, together with the great star catalogue he published at Palermo in 1803 (Praecipuarum Stellarum Inerrantium Positiones), listing 6,748 stars, established his reputation. Using this catalogue, he was able to show that the majority of stars exhibit proper motions relative to the Sun. The present work, a detailed technical handbook intended for the use of astronomers at the Palermo Observatory, became the leading astronomical textbook of the period, considered sufficiently important to be translated into German with a preface by Carl Friedrich Gauss (Lehrbuch der Astronomie, Berlin: 1822). This is a very rare book: no copies are listed on ABPC/RBH, and OCLC.

“Gioacchino Giuseppe Maria Ubaldo Nicolò Piazzi (1746-1826) was born in Ponte, Valtellina, July 16, 1746, to one of the wealthiest families of the region. The penultimate of 10 sons, most of whom died as children, his parents worried about his health and for this reason quickly baptized him at home. The register of baptisms of St. Maurizio Church clearly specifies “ob imminens vitae periculum,” or “because of impending danger of death”.

“Following the tradition that encouraged younger children of wealthy and noble families to take holy orders, Giuseppe joined the Teatine order at the age of 19. We do not have firsthand documents about his early studies, but we know from documents preserved in the Archive of the Palermo Observatory that between 1770 and 1780 he was requested by his superiors to teach philosophy and mathematics in many different Italian cities, including Rome, Genoa, and Ravenna. In 1781, he was appointed to the Chair of Mathematics in the newly established Accademia dei Regi Studi of Palermo (which became the University of Palermo in 1806); a few years later, in 1787, he was named to the Chair of Astronomy even though he was not yet even an amateur astronomer. In a matter of only a few years, however, he was to become one of the most respected astronomers of his time.

“In March 1787, soon after he was charged with overseeing the construction of a new observatory at Palermo, Piazzi departed for a three-year stay at the major astronomical centers of Paris and London. During his travels he gained the esteem and friendship of some of the most reputed astronomers of the time, including Lalande, Messier, Mechain, Cassini, Maskelyne, and Herschel. Moreover, he succeeded in securing for the new observatory a unique instrument: the famous 5-foot circular-scale altazimuth telescope made by Jesse Ramsden of London. Returning to Palermo in November 1789, Piazzi was able, in a matter of months, to have the new observatory built on top of the tower of Santa Ninfa at the Royal Palace.

“Encouraged by the possession of the 5-foot Palermo Circle, whose accuracy was regarded to be much superior to that of any other existing instrument, Piazzi centered his scientific program on the accurate measurements of stellar positions. His observational technique required that each star had to be observed for at least four nights before its position could be established. This painstaking work resulted in the publication in 1803 of his first star catalog. For this highly regarded work, he was awarded the prize for mathematics and physics at the Institut National de France, Fondation Lalande, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. It was while working on this catalog that Piazzi, on January 1, 1801, unexpectedly discovered Ceres, the “missing planet” between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter” (Serio et al, pp. 17-18).

On the night of 1 January 1801, Piazzi was engrossed in updating a star catalogue by the English astronomer Francis Wollaston which was replete with inaccuracies. The catalogue had to be checked star by star, a task Piazzi was performing with a 1.5-metre vertical circle to determine star positions. At 8.43pm he saw a ‘star’ in Taurus that was not in the catalogue. The next night, he found that the star had shifted position about 4 minutes of arc to the west and slightly less to the north. He saw it again on 3 and 4 January, and continued following its movement until 11 February. His next step to notify the astronomical community of the discovery was to send letters to just two astronomers on 24 January, his closest friend Barnaba Oriani and the German astronomer Johann Bode. These letters gave no times of observation, a vague reference to a change of direction from retrograde to direct, and the wrong declination for 1 January. Piazzi was heavily criticized for not sharing his full set of observations with other astronomers, who were unable to locate the planet. Over the next few months Piazzi developed a corrected set of observational data, which he sent to the French astronomer Jérôme Lalande on 11 April. These new observations reached Baron Franz von Zach, editor of the world’s only astronomical journal, on 6 June. They were finally published in the September issue of the Monatliche Correspondenz where, shortly after their appearance, they were seen by the 24-year old Gauss, who set himself the task of computing the orbit of Ceres from Piazzi’s observations. This he accomplished in a little more than a month, and on 7 December von Zach directed his telescope at the position predicted by Gauss and immediately observed the planet. This sensational result established Gauss’s reputation as a universal genius.

After the Ceres affair, Piazzi undertook to determine the right ascension of a number of basic stars, relating them directly to the sun, in order to improve on earlier observations (including those made at Greenwich). Since he was at that time in poor health, he enlisted the aid of Niccolo Cacciatore as his collaborator. Piazzi’s new star catalogue, published at Palermo in 1813, catalogued the mean position of 7,646 stars. It was widely esteemed among astronomers, and the Institut de France again awarded Piazzi a prize. Following the publication of the present wor in 1817, Piazzi was summoned to Naples by King Ferdinand I, who wished him to supervise the completion of the observatory already under construction on the hill at Capodimonte. He was appointed director general of the observatories of both Sicily and Naples, and Piazzi subsequently divided his time between the two. Piazzi returned to settle in Naples in 1824, his health weakened, and he died there two years later.

Piazzi’s Lezioni consists of seven chapters: Vol. I: First observations and results; Basic facts of modern astronomy; On stars; Vol. II: Theory of the motion of the planets; The solar system; Eclipses; Comets. Detailed information about the discovery and orbit of Ceres is included in vol. II (pp. 198-204). Many problems with their solutions are included to assist the reader.

Foderà Serio, G., Manara, A. & Sicoli, P. ‘Giuseppe Piazzi and the Discovery of Ceres’, pp. 17-24 in W. F. Bottke Jr., A. Cellino, P. Paolicchi & R. P. Binzel. Asteroids III. Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 2002.

Houzeau & Lancaster 9275.



Two vols., large 8vo, pp. xviii, [1], 240; xxvi, 446, with 11 engraved plates (9 folding). Engraved illustration of the observatory on each title. Contemporary half-calf.

Item #4360

Price: $4,500.00

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