Provenance Mysteries: De revolutionibus orbium coelestium

This week’s provenance mystery features De revolutionibus orbium coelestium by Nicolaus Copernicus, printed in Basel in 1566.

As this blog post is about the potential provenance of this item, rather than its content, we will not go into great detail about this seminal work, apart to point out that this is the second ‘edition’ of the book; the first was published in 1543. The blog post author will hold her hand up and admit, as Arthur Koestler suggested in 1959, that I have never read the book. However, as Owen Gingerich’s work showed, many Renaissance readers did read this book and, in many instances, left behind evidence of their reading (see: r

The copy held at Middle Temple Library is an example of a copy which was read, and more importantly, annotated. In the images here we can see two pages (at least) have been annotated in the margins by a Renaissance reader. This reader has also underlined relevant passages and ordered the points by numbering them in the margins. The annotator has also outlined Copernicus’s queries and solutions.

1.    Marginalia on folio a1r
1.    Marginalia on folio a1v

This is a provenance mystery because this is not Robert Ashley’s hand: it is far too elegant and neat. The book was in Ashley’s collection, however, and formed part of his 1641 bequest. During the lockdown, we are reliant on photographs that were taken at an earlier date, hence there are only two from the book currently available. According to the catalogue record, however, there are two different hands represented in the book. These photographs only show one of those hands.

According to Sachiko Kusukawa, “extant copies with identical annotations have revealed the existence and teaching activities of itinerant mathematical tutors such as Jofrancus Offusius and Paulus Wittich.”. There is no evidence present in these two photographs to show if that is the case here, unfortunately. Whoever the annotator of this copy was, they were in good company, as we know that Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler did read the book.

The English mathematician and astronomer Thomas Digges was also familiar with Copernicus’s work. According to Pietro Daniel Omodeo, Digges’s A perfit description of the caelestial orbes, which was included in his father Leonard’s book, Prognostication of 1576 was “mainly a paraphrase of the cosmological chapters of De revolutionibus.

If you recognise the handwriting on show here, or have further comments about the annotations found within this copy, please do get in touch:

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