Elucidatio fabricae usuque astrolabii.

Oppenheim: Jakob Köbel, 1513 [colophon: 1512].

First edition, an exceptionally fine copy, of the most influential Renaissance work on astrolabes, and also the first German work on astrolabes, by leading astronomer and mathematician Johannes Stoeffler. This work, “the first book of original astronomy published in the 16th century” (mhs.ox.ac.uk/exhibits/the-renaissance-in-astronomy/panels/3-stoeffler-astrolabe/), is divided into two parts, describes both the construction and uses of the instrument, and includes 40 woodcut illustrations of which 24 are full-page, with all the required extended folding parts present (see below). Vital to astronomers, navigators, and astrologers, the astrolabe could be used to locate or predict the position of the sun, moon, planets and stars, to determine local time given local latitude (or vice-versa), to calculate daylight hours (and prayer times) for any given date, as well as for surveying, triangulation, and casting horoscopes.

Johannes Stoeffler (1452-1531), Professor of Mathematics at the University of Tübingen and an accomplished astronomer and cosmographer, counted Philipp Melanchthon and Sebastian Münster among his students. A key member of the generation who considered Regiomontanus the paragon of Renaissance astronomers, Stoeffler adopted a program of astronomical observation and publication of tables, and promoted the importance of precision instruments and practical accounts of how they worked. His calendars, almanac, and astronomical tables were known throughout Europe, while his work on the astrolabe led him to be considered a leading authority on methods of defining latitude and longitude. “Johann Stoeffler was a leading authority on the methods of defining latitude and longitude in vogue in the beginning of the new era; cf. his Elucidatio fabricae ususque astrolabii, Oppenheim, 1513 (colophon 1512)” (Winsor, Narrative and Critical History of America, Vol. II, p. 99). “Stoeffler recognized that, in mapping, computation of the distance between two places whose latitude and longitude were known failed to take into account the convergence of the meridians” (Stillwell). The astrolabe was an inclinometer, a device invented in c. 150 BC by the Ancient Greeks. It had a variety of uses such as locating and predicting the positions of the sun, moon, planets, and stars, determining local time given local latitude and vice-versa, and in surveying and triangulation. Used in Europe from the Middle Ages onwards, Stoeffler’s work was a comprehensive manual of the instrument. The first part concerns the construction of the astrolabe. The full-page woodcut illustrations are extended by paper strips to almost double the page size and clearly show the various stages in the construction process. The second part explains the use of the astrolabe with equally remarkable woodcut illustrations. Stoeffler ends his work with a discussion of perspective and measurement. This work was printed at the first press at Oppenheim and is one of the rarest books from that press. The poem by Melanchthon on **6v is probably the reformer’s first appearance in print.

Provenance: Large engraved exlibris (signed by Lucas Kilian) of Ferdinand Hoffman (1540-1607), director of the Hofkammer (Minister of the Treasury) of Emperor Rudolf II.

The planispheric astrolabe, the type described by Stoeffler, enabled astronomers to calculate the position of the Sun and prominent stars with respect to both the horizon and the meridian. It provided them with a plane image of the celestial sphere and the principal circles—namely, those representing the ecliptic, celestial equator, and tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Because of such features, the planispheric astrolabe can be regarded as a rudimentary kind of analogue computer. It had several principal parts: a base plate (the ‘mater’) with a network of lines representing celestial coordinates; an open-pattern disk (the ‘rete’) with a ‘map’ of the stars, including the aforementioned circles, that rotated on the mater around a centre pin corresponding to the north celestial pole; and a straight rule (the ‘alidade’), used for sighting objects in the sky. The alidade made it possible to use the astrolabe for surveying applications—e.g., determining the height of a mountain. Most astrolabes also had one or more plates (called climates) that were engraved with coordinate lines for different latitudes and were placed between the mater and the rete. The majority that remain intact today are made of brass, are very ornate, and are often associated with the educated elite.

“Johannes Stöffler’s treatise on the astrolabe, Elucidatio fabricae ususque astrolabii (Explanation of the Construction and Use of the Astrolabe), while not the most innovative treatise ever written, was certainly the most influential in the Renaissance. It was reprinted 16 times after its original publication in 1513, and virtually every treatise on the astrolabe since has referenced it. In fact, it was common to refer to the normal planispheric astrolabe as a ‘Stöffler astrolabe’ in Renaissance literature.

“Johannes Stöffler (1452–1531) was the first to hold the chair in mathematics at the University of Tübingen (1507). In addition to his treatise on the astrolabe, Stöffler also published books of astronomical tables and wrote on sundials and astrological instruments. He operated an atelier producing instruments and globes. The first edition of his treatise on the astrolabe was published in Oppenheim in 1513, with later editions from Mainz, Frankfurt (in German), Paris (10 editions), and Cologne.

“Clearly, this success stems from the fact that the treatise is clear, concise, and complete for its time; and that it requires only a modest background to understand. It contains detailed instructions on how to lay out the components of a planispheric astrolabe and how to use this astrolabe for common problems. Then or now, any interested person with moderate drawing skills could make a perfectly useable astrolabe with nothing more than this book, drawing tools, and a few sources giving current star positions, a modern calendar, and latitudes for places of interest.

“The history of treatises on the astrolabe is rich. The first known treatise devoted strictly to the astrolabe was by Theon of Alexandria (Hypatia’s father) in about 375. The treatise itself has been lost except for the table of contents which is included in a later work. The first treatise describing actual instruments is by John Philoponus of Alexandria (Johannes Grammaticus) in the sixth century (ca. 530). The earliest treatises concentrated on how to draw the astrolabe plate and how to use it to solve common problems. Islamic astronomers added a solid theoretical foundation. Al-Farghani was the first to establish the mathematical theory of the astrolabe. In the mid-ninth century, al-Khwarizmi applied analytic methods to the astrolabe’s design. However, most medieval Islamic astrolabes were designed using tables prepared for that purpose rather than from first principles.

“Later, such notable Persian scholars as al-Biruni (973–ca. 1048) and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201–1274) wrote detailed treatises on the astrolabe. In 986–987, Abdal-Rahman ibn Umar al-Sufi wrote an amazing treatise of 386 chapters presenting 1,000 uses for the astrolabe.

“The astrolabe followed the expansion of Islam into Moslem Spain (al-Andalus, Andalusia). Knowledgeable treatises from Spain date from around 1025, but clearly the astrolabe was known earlier in Western Islam. A treatise on the use of the astrolabe by ibn al-Saffar (1026) became very influential in Europe in a Latin translation made by John of Seville during the middle of the 12th century. This translation, which incorporated both an account of the astrolabe’s construction and instructions for its use, was reedited, copied, and expanded many times, eventually becoming the most widely used text on the astrolabe. All the early treatises on the astrolabe were based in some way on earlier Western Islamic treatises and contributed to the adoption of Arabic names for stars and other astronomical elements.

“Transmission to Christian Europe of Islamic scientific knowledge in general and of the principles of the astrolabe in particular was aided by Christian monasteries on the border with Andalusia. Notable was Santa Maria de Ripoll, a Benedictine monastery near the Pyrenees whose monks translated many Arabic documents for their own use in the 10th and 11th centuries. One manuscript includes at least 11 sections concerning astrolabes. The rapid movement of this knowledge is demonstrated by the fact that Hermann Contractus (Hermannus, Hermann the Lame) (1012–1054), a student at the Reichenau monastery school in Germany, wrote a treatise on the astrolabe based on a Latin translation of the Ripoll manuscripts by Llobet of Barcelona.

“The earliest Latin astrolabe treatises were based on Arabic translation; they were not very well organized and often contained meaningful errors (such as incorrect instructions on how to divide the ecliptic). Adelard of Bath (ca. 1080–ca. 1160), who traveled extensively in the Middle East, where he learned Arabic and the basics of Islamic science and astronomy, dedicated a treatise on the astrolabe to Henry Plantagenet (Henry II) in 1147. Newer and better treatises evolved in the 13th century as more experience was gained. The most widely used treatise was compiled from several texts, mainly the translation of ibn al-Saffar mentioned above. This translation became the standard text for the astrolabe’s construction and use, and is referenced often by Stöffler. One notable, entirely European contribution was the De plana spera in the early 13th century by Jordanus de Nemore, which presented the theoretical foundation for the stereographic projection.

“The first European treatise in the vernacular on the use of the astrolabe was written in French by Pèlerin de Prusse in 1362 at the request of the Dauphin Charles, later Charles V (reigned 1363–1380). In about 1390, no less of a literary figure than Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a treatise on the astrolabe in vernacular English for his 10-year-oldson, Lewis, which a later scribe with a sense of humor apparently subtitled Bread and Milk for Children. This work, which is hard going for an informed adult much less a child, demonstrates a high level of astronomical knowledge and, as a vernacular work, received fairly wide circulation.

“Meanwhile, back in the Islamic world, treatises on astronomical instruments continued to develop and, perhaps, reached their peak in the 13th century. Texts and tables covered the entire range of practical Islamic astronomy and led to a rich literature in instrumentation that included astrolabes, sundials, and quadrants. For example, a14th century Mamluk treatise by Najm al-Din al-Misri includes detailed illustrated descriptions of over 100 variants of the astrolabe, sundial, and quadrant.

“Given this long history of treatises on the astrolabe, what sets Stöffler’s apart? The answer seems simple: Stöffler’s treatise was a printed book, whereas the older treatises existed only as handwritten copies. As a printed book, it could enjoy wide distribution at a reasonable price. That is not to say it is not a very good book, because it is; but it did hit the market at exactly the right time with exactly the right information as the popularity of the astrolabe was nearing its peak in Europe. The practice of astrology was almost universal in 16th century Europe and the astrolabe was a convenient astrological tool for constructing horoscopes. The popularity of the astrolabe was directly related to the cultural importance of astrology. For example, the conjunction of the Moon and all the planets in Pisces in February 1524 was considered an omen of terrible catastrophes and prompted tracts by no fewer than 56 different authors, including Stöffler” (Morrison).

“Stoeffler devotes Part one to the construction of the components of an astrolabe, including marking the lines on the latitude plates; setting out the rete (with the star positions in Latin and Arabic); applying the calendar scale, the shadow square and the unequal hours lines to the back; making the rule, alidade, axis and suspension shackle. Stoeffler also discusses an horary quadrant for equal hours, the use of the shadow square in surveying, and the astrological applications of the astrolabe. Such was the currency of his account that ‘Stoeffler’s astrolabe’ came to stand for fixed-latitude astrolabes, as distinct from the universal ones” (Bennett & Meli, Sphaera Mundi: Astronomy Books in the Whipple Museum 1478-1600).

The part on usage begins with instructions for such basic uses of the astrolabe as finding the time from the altitude of the Sun or a star and describes several methods of timekeeping. It also provides some instruction on astrological topics such as house systems, planetary influences, ascensions, and revolutions. This part finishes with some very interesting material on using the astrolabe to solve surveying problems” (Morrison).

Absent a reliable published collation for the volvelles, the present copy has been collated against the scanned Münich copy online for the extensions/flaps as well as the copy of Professor Owen Gingerich. It matches, save that the Münich copy contains an interpolated alidade from the 1551 astrolabe kit of Georg Hartmann (following Aiiii) in the BSB copy. With thanks to Dr Suzanne Karr-Schmidt for pointing out the Hartmann interpolation as well as other assistance, and to Professor Gingerich for checking his copy.

VD 16 S9191; Adams S1886; Benzing, Köbel 27; Houzeau & Lancaster 3256; Macclesfield 1950; Stillwell Awakening, 892; Wellcome 6099; Zinner 991. Morrison, Review of Stöffler’s Elucidatio: The Construction and Use of the Astrolabe, edited and translated by Alessandro Gunella and John Lamprey, Aestimatio 4 (2007), pp. 155-61.

Small folio (275 x 205 mm), ff. [12], LXXVIII, with woodcut architectural title-page and 40 large woodcut illustrations in text, 4 with extensions and moveable parts (A6v, Biiv, Ciiiiv, Diiir), 24 full-page, numerous 3-12 line woodcut initials. Contemporary German vellum, with an original stitched repair to a cut in the vellum, titled in ink on a small vellum label on upper cover. An exceptionally fine, unpressed copy.

Item #5236

Price: $50,000.00

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