Chronology : 16th century 1500-1519
Invented a little more than 2,000 years ago, the astrolabe is the computer of the sky. This ancient star tracker measured the time by locating the position of the sky, provided you know the latitude and, to a lesser extent, the altitude.
The astrolabe was described for the first time around 550 CE in Alexandria but its improvement is essentially the work of the Muslim astronomers. Nearly all celestial phenomena were used as references or studied : solstices, equinoxes, eclipses, planet motions. The precision was so high that the error brought by the precession of the equinoxes can now be used to date the instrument.
In the 10th century an enthusiastic theorist listed about 1,000 different uses of this truly universal instrument, in the etymological meaning of 'universal'. In seeking the knowledge of the sky, astronomers also aimed at astrology and watched the zodiacal signs.
This instrument of very high complexity in its geometrical design and of remarkable sharp engraving reached an angular accuracy around one degree.
1020 made in Cordoba
2017 SOLD for £ 610K by Sotheby's
The ibn al-Saffar brothers worked in Cordoba at the beginning of the 5th century of the Hegira. Ahmed is a very important teacher whose writings will be used for four centuries. Muhammad makes the instruments.
Three astrolabes signed by Muhammad ibn al-Saffar are known. The earliest, dated 411AH corresponding to 1020/1021 in our calendar, is estimated £ 300K for sale by Sotheby's in London on April 26, lot 170. It is a big piece 19 cm overall including the suspension loop.
This astrolabe is complete but not entirely original, for a valid reason. Indeed the rete which simulates the map of the sky becomes obsolete after a few decades due to the precession of the equinoxes. The ancient users were aware of this phenomenon and the rete of this instrument was changed in Ottoman Turkey. The position of one of its star pointers suggests a date around 1550 of our calendar for this replacement part.
The mater is the rear side of the instrument. This one is set to the 66° latitude corresponding to the longest day time known by the astronomers in the Antiquity. Six original double-sided removable plates are joined with the indication of latitudes and cities, inviting for a fabulous journey into the medieval Muslim world. From South to North : Yemen, Mecca, Medina, Cairo, Qairawan, Damascus, Malaga, Cordoba, Toledo, Zaragoza.
The link in Sotheby's tweet below leads to photos of this instrument after disassembly to explain the mater, the loop, the plates, the alidade or sight rule and the rede.
2019 SOLD for £ 730K by Christie's
1336 for the use of Cordoba
2021 SOLD for £ 740K by Sotheby's
The instrument is dated 737 AH corresponding to 1336-37 CE. It is signed by a craftsman who is not known elsewhere but whose name is significant, Ahmad ibn Abi 'Abdallah al-Qurtubi al-Yamani, located in Tudela, a Navarrese town between Pamplona and Zaragoza. The author's name means that he is of Yemeni origin but had resided in Cordoba, thus combining two of the main centers of production of the astrolabes.
The 12 cm diameter instrument is made of brass. All components except the mater have been gilded, probably later. The alidade, which is used to measure the position of the stars, is missing.
Only one plate has survived. It is for the use of Cordoba with a latitude of 38° 30'. The gap under the rete leaves a place for a second plate. The rete is ornamental although its star pointers are in the pragmatic comma shape, according to Eastern practice.
The throne which carries the suspension holes is in Sevillian style. The structure of the rete seems to be of European inspiration. The choice of the star catalog is Western. The inscriptions are in an elegant mixed Andalusi Kufic script.
2014 SOLD for £ 960K by Sotheby's
This brass instrument of 9.5 cm diameter is complete with all its fixed and rotating parts. The knob for the rotation on the central axis is later.
This astrolabe is indeed a masterpiece of Ottoman science, with numerous engraved inscriptions and reduced decoration. The choice of the reference star is made by the user among no less than fifteen star pointers.
It is signed and dated 911 AH, corresponding to 1505 to 1506 CE. The fact that the author is not otherwise recorded just means that he did not write a treatise.
second half 10th century The Archimedes Palimpsest
1998 SOLD for $ 2.2M including premium by Christie's
narrated in 2020
Sometimes the deleted text reappears after several centuries because its ink has permeated the parchment. The original writing of a palimpsest on vellum which was kept in a religious library in Constantinople is correctly identified in 1906 as a scientific treatise by Archimedes.
The upper manuscript is a liturgical work in Greek copied in the 12th century. The scribe has carefully reused the leaves from a thick codex on which he has written his text at 90° to the original text before folding each page into a bifolium for a total of 177 sheets 20 x 15 cm.
The photo below gives the example of an unfolded bifolium on which the two writings are perfectly visible at 90° to each other. The copyright of this image shared by Wikimedia is held by the Walters Museum of Baltimore with a reference to their site dedicated to the palimpsest.
The Archimedes palimpsest resurfaced in 1996 in fairly poor condition, with three missing pages and four pages made illegible by modern illustrations. It was sold for $ 2.2M including premium by Christie's on October 29, 1998, lot 1.
The original texts were studied in detail before the sale, and still more since the sale with the most modern imagery techniques by a team from the Walters Art Museum where the new owner deposited the book.
Written in Greek most probably in Constantinople in the second half of the 10th century, they consist of seven scientific treatises by Archimedes, two of which were previously unknown, plus a few pages from an antique Greek orator.
The previously unpublished texts provide a new and incomparable vision on the scientific method of Archimedes, specifically when he compares volumes and surfaces, constituting didactic puzzles which anticipate by nearly two millennia the modern methods of analysis.
1476 The Old Story of the Animals
2016 SOLD for $ 940K including premium
All types of knowledge are now welcomed. In animal biology, the three books of Aristotle make the reference. Famous as a philosopher and as tutor of Alexander, Aristotle was also along with Euclid, Ptolemy and Hippocrates one of the best scientific compilers of antiquity. In three successive books, he provides the name and description of 500 terrestrial and marine animals and describes the mechanisms of reproduction and embryology.
Nicholas V commissioned to Theodorus Gaza a new Latin translation of the De animalibus grouping these three books of Aristotle. It is significant that Theodorus also translated the Botany by Theophrastus.
Twenty years later, Venice specializes in the printing of deluxe books with a superb typographical clarity developed by Jenson and the use of great papers that may compete with the illuminated manuscripts.
The princeps edition of the complete translation of the De animalibus by Theodorus is organized in Venice in 1476. The publisher is Ludovico Prodocator and the printers are Johannes de Colonia and Johannes Manthen de Gheretzem.
Two copies on vellum are known. One of them was acquired in 1784 by the French Royal Library, later Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
The other copy resurfaced a few months ago in Tennessee. A previous provenance was unambiguously re-established through its binding adorned with the coat of arms of a collector in the early nineteenth century. It is a great example of the extreme care applied to books in Venice just two decades after the invention of printing. The book is not illustrated but the initials are illuminated.
This only example on vellum in private hands is estimated $ 300K for sale by Bonhams in New York on June 8, lot 1.
The first Italian edition of the Natural History by Pliny was printed in the same year in Venice by Jenson. A copy was sold for € 195K before fees by Reiss on 1 November 2011.
1502 Summa by Pacioli
2019 SOLD for $ 1.21M by Christie's
Luca settles permanently in Venice in the 1470s as a Franciscan friar. Venice is a city of merchants. He reads the works of his most important predecessors including Fibonacci. He continues to teach and prepares a compilation of the whole knowledge in terms of arithmetic, geometry and study of proportions, to which he adds the best accounting practices of the Venetian trade.
In the best tradition of the antique and Arabic science which includes for example Euclid, Aristotle, Ptolemy and Avicenna, Pacioli is a compiler. He relies among other sources on the Liber Abaci prepared in 1202 by Fibonacci, which demonstrated that the Indo-Arabic numbering system is much better than the Roman numerals.
Pacioli does not omit anything about arithmetic and its applications. He promotes the double entry bookkeeping already practiced by some merchants, separating the recordings of debit and credit. He illustrates the position of fingers to identify high numbers in the decimal system. He defines the perfect proportions in the arrangements of elementary geometrical figures.
Luca writes his textbook in Italian and not in Latin, to ensure that it will be well understood by the merchants. His book titled Summa di arithmetica, geometria, proporzioni e proporzionalita, published in Venice in 1494, is the first arithmetic treatise in the vernacular. Of middle class origin, Pacioli wants above all to provide a guide of good practices for the merchants.
He succeeded beyond all hope. Merchants follow his recommendations, constantly maintaining a situation analysis of their business. The clarity of their accountings puts an end to the mistrust of their clients.
A copy announced in superb condition of the first issue of the first edition in its original binding was sold for € 550K by Finarte on June 20, 2019. lot 507. Please watch the video shared by the auction house.
Leonardo da Vinci buys in the following year a copy from the same issue. Without doubt at his request, Luca joins the court of Ludovico Sforza in Milan in 1496. The collaboration of the mathematician and the artist is early interrupted by the wars of Italy but it is fruitful, deepening and applying the concept of golden ratio. Paganinus publishes their joint work in 1509 in Venice under the title Divina proporzione. Leonardo reuses in his Last Supper the geometrical principles proposed by the mathematician. A direct influence by Pacioli on Dürer is also very likely.
On June 12, 2019, Christie's sold for $ 1.21M at lot 1 a complete copy of the second issue of the first edition, printed circa 1502 by Paganinus after a few typographical reworks. This book is in its original state : it was not trimmed and has kept its period vellum wrapper. Please watch the video shared by the auction house.
This June 12 we will offer at auction Luca Pacioli’s Summa de Arithmetica: The Birth of Modern Business in #NewYork. Known to represent "the pinnacle of mathematical knowledge in the Renaissance" Pacioli's book is considerably an icon of the history of all human knowledge. pic.twitter.com/RYSyANDl4V— Christie's (@ChristiesInc) February 21, 2019
1510 The Codex Leicester of Leonardo da Vinci
1994 SOLD for $ 31M including premium by Christie's
narrated in 2020
Leonardo is neither a scientist nor an engineer in the modern meaning of these terms. He does not waste his time analyzing the consequences of his theories or conceiving the realization of his inventions. In his swarming of ideas, he could be wonderfully right and naively wrong, and he was certainly unable to distinguish between these two extremes.
For this left-hander, the mirror writing is the way he has found so that his thinking is not slowed down by his hand. The use of numerous abbreviations, which makes these texts extremely difficult to decipher, is consistent with this hypothesis. We will never know how he desired exploiting such a unique mass of informations.
These writings were later assembled into notebooks, identified under the more technical term of codex. The Codex Leicester is the only one remaining in private hands. It was sold twice by Christie's, for $ 5.1M on December 12, 1980 and for $ 31M including premium on November 11, 1994. Between these two sales it was named the Codex Hammer. It was bought by Bill Gates at the last auction. The image is shared by Wikimedia.
The Codex Leicester is made up of 18 double sheets of parchment for a total of 72 pages 22 x 30 cm. It brings together his notes written around 1510 on the theme of the water movements. The author imagines that his ideas could be used for the design of bridges.
His observation on the presence of fossils in the mountains brings an explanation far ahead of his time : they were originally in a seabed which was raised by a geophysical phenomenon. This hypothesis is all the more remarkable since the monotheistic religions of his time do not question the creationism.
In the same notebook, he explains the luminosity of the Moon by the reflection of sunlight on its surface entirely covered with water.
1540 Visit to an Old Canon
2016 SOLD for £ 1.8M including premium
Georg Joachim Rheticus was fond of astronomy, perhaps as a result of the appearance of the comet of 1531. He enrolled at the University of Wittenberg led by Melanchthon, the theoretician of Lutheranism.
As early as 1536, Rheticus was appointed professor of mathematics. Barely released from astrology, astronomy was at that time a branch of mathematics. The learned calculations made by Regiomontanus in the previous century had fruitfully revived the speculation about the true movements of the planets.
Two years later, Melanchthon allows Rheticus to suspend his teaching for a tour of Europe where he will visit the humanists. He hears of an old canon who spent his lifetime improving his astronomical calculations at such a point to solve the old issue of the motion of Earth, discussed since antiquity.
Rheticus so becomes the assistant to Copernicus in Frauenburg (Frombork). For nearly thirty years, the canon had refined the text of his demonstration of the heliocentric system, sometimes sending manuscripts to the very few scholars able to understand it. He does not think to edit because of an obvious difficulty to print his figures.
Rheticus supports Copernicus with enthusiasm. The younger scientist prepares a comprehensible summary with the agreement of the master. Printed in Gdansk in 1540, that 'De libris revolutionum ... narratio prima' is the first report ever published on heliocentrism. The theory is clearly and fully attributed to Copernicus without indicating the name of his efficient collaborator.
This first edition is extremely rare. A copy is estimated £ 1.2M for sale by Christie's in London on July 13, lot 87.
1543 That Copernicus book revolutionized the science
2008 SOLD 2.2 M$ including premium
Of relatively small size (20 x 27 cm, 202 pages), this book that forever changed the design we had of the universe is decorated with woodcuts and tables of calculations.
A copy of the original edition is now for sale at Christie's, lot 60 of the sale of New York on June 17. It is nicely printed, and remained extremely clean. In its flexible binding of same period, it was part of a prestigious library during the seventeenth century.
Its estimate? 900 K $.
One of my previous articles made me review the fate in two April auctions of books by other big names in science, including De humani corporis of Vesalus, also of 1543. This very important book did not find a buyer in Paris on April 23 for 140 K €, at Pierre Bergé et Associés.
New York is not Paris, but I am afraid that Christie's get some difficulties to sell this book.
POST SALE COMMENT
After revolutionizing science, this book has just revolutionized the auction world: $ 2.2 million fees included. It is a very important result for a an exceptional specimen of one of the most significant books in the history of our civilization.
1543 De Humani Corporis Fabrica by Vesalius
1998 SOLD for $ 1.65M including premium by Christie's
narrated in 2012 before the sale of another copy by Heritage (see below)
Born to a family of doctors, he observed the decomposed corpses on the gibbet of Brussels, in front of his home. He early appreciated that only direct observation could lead to the relevant understanding.
Not only he refuted all the errors of Galen which had prevented the progress of medicine and surgery, but also he explained the reason why : in order not to defy the taboos of the Roman Empire, Galen had dissected monkeys. I give only one example among so many, but it is spectacular : analyzing breathing, Vesalius paves the way for life saving ventilation.
His drawings are plagiarized and challenged. Vesalius therefore decides that he must collect his observations and figures in a masterly work. After four years of preparation, De Humani Corporis 'libri septem' is published in Basel in folio format 43 x 28 cm in 1543. The anatomical drawings were prepared in Venice by an anonymous artist, probably from Titian's studio.
A copy owned by the Emperor Charles V, considered to be his dedication copy, was sold by Christie's on March 18, 1998 for $ 1.65M including premium from a lower estimate of $ 400K, lot 213. All illustrations including initials had been colored with highlights in liquid gold and silver.
I previously narrated two other copies in this column. One was sold for $ 122K including premium by Heritage on October 4, 2012, and the other for £ 255K including premium by Christie's on December 1, 2015.