Special Collections & Archives Blog

Complete Book on the Judgment of the Stars, by ʻAlī ibn Abī al-Rijāl (1485 Erhard Ratdolt edition)

Monday, March 31, 2014 4:49 pm

Liber in iudiciis astrorum incipit

Preclarissimus liber completus in iudicijs astrorum, a Latin translation of Alī Ibn Abī al-Rijāl’s principal scientific work, Kitāb al-bāriʻ fī aḥkām al-nujūm.

One of the oldest printed books in ZSR’s Rare Books Collection is a Latin translation of Alī Ibn Abī al-Rijāl’s principal scientific work, Kitāb al-bāriʻ fī aḥkām al-nujūm. The text, commonly known as Liber in iudiciis astrorum,  is a treatise on astrological methods by an 11th century Arab mathematician, printed in 1485 by a German printer working in Venice. The book is featured in the Special Collections exhibit Letters in Lead: Moveable Type and the Books It Created. Its history is a fascinating anecdote in the story of how print culture developed in Renaissance Europe.

Around 1450 a goldsmith in Mainz named Johannes Gutenberg developed a viable method for casting moveable type out of metal. The invention made mechanical printing feasible and gave rise to an entirely new profession in Renaissance Europe. Many aspiring printers learned the craft of printing from Gutenberg’s successors, and within a few years a coterie of printers had formed in Mainz. In 1462, however, warfare between rival sects of German Catholics led to the sack of Mainz and a diaspora of its printers around Europe. One of these displaced printers was Erhard Ratdolt, who transplanted his fledgling business to Venice.

Ratdolt flourished in his new location and quickly gained a reputation as an innovative printer of scientific texts. He experimented with multicolor printing and invented techniques for integrating woodcut illustrations and diagrams into pages of text. Ratdolt is particularly famous for producing the first printed text of Euclid’s Elements in 1482, and he specialized in printing editions of classic works of science and mathematics.

In 1485 Ratdolt printed the book in ZSR’s collection, a work on astronomy by the 11th century Tunisian court mathematician Alī Ibn Abī al-Rijāl, whose name was Latinized to Albohazen Haly or Haly Abenragel in European publications. Ratdolt’s volume bore the Latin title Preclarissimus liber completus in iudicijs astrorum ( The Complete Book on the Judgment of the Stars).

Liber in iudiciis astrorum colophon

Colophon (a printer’s statement found at the end of a text) from Erhard Ratdolt’s 1485 edition of Liber in iudiciis astrorum, indicating that printing was completed in Venice on July 4, 1485.

This astrological text was already well known to scholars in Renaissance Europe. It had been translated from Arabic into Castilian Spanish by astronomer Jehuda ben Moses Cohen in the 13th century, and from Spanish into a number of Latin translations.

In the world of the Renaissance, there was no sharp division between what we would call astronomy (the study of celestial bodies)  and astrology (the influence of those celestial bodies on terrestrial events). Medieval astrology was based on an Aristotelian concept of the universe, as interpreted by Claudius Ptolemy , which posited a universe with a stationary Earth at its center, surrounded by concentric spheres containing stars, planets, and other celestial bodies.

nuremburg ptolemaic universe 2

A woodcut illustration of the Ptolemaic universe from ZSR’s copy of the Nuremburg Chronicle (1493)

Medieval and Renaissance astrologers used mathematical formulas to predict the movement of objects in the sky. These calculations were used to create calendars, to determine propitious times for various activities, and to predict eclipses and other unusual events. Astrology was an important scientific pursuit, and Renaissance scholars eagerly sought to recover Arab and Byzantine astrological texts. The eastern astrologers had developed advanced techniques that were of great interest to scholars in western Europe.

Liber in iudiciis astrorum t8r

A page from ZSR’s 1485 Liber in iudiciis astrorum, with handwritten notes and astrological symbols in the margin.

Erhard Ratdolt’s Venice edition of Liber in iudiciis astroroum made this text available in print for the first time. As an example of incunabula (books printed in Europe before 1500), it is both typical and innovative.

Fifteenth century books share many attributes of the manuscript volumes that existed for centuries before the invention of moveable type.

MS oxford 1240

A page from a 13th century manuscript in ZSR’s collection

Like most early books, Ratdolt’s volume has no title page or table of contents. Its text was printed in  black letter type, which reflected the manuscript handwriting prevalent in 15th century Europe.

Liber in iudiciis astrorum q7r

Another page from the Liber in iudiciis astrorum; notes in red were added by hand by a 15th century reader.

As in manuscript volumes, the text is printed in two columns with minimal punctuation. Medieval and Renaissance manuscript texts, like the one pictured above, relied on rubrication – initial letters and other text in colored ink—to indicate section breaks and other textual navigation. Early printed books often left space for rubrication to be added by hand to printed text, since multicolor printing was difficult and time consuming. Erhard Ratdolt hit upon the idea of using decorative woodcut initials in place of color.

Liber in iudiciis astrorum q5r

Page from Ratdolt’s Liber in iudiciis astrorum, with various large, decorative initials denoting section breaks.

Liber in iudiciis astrorum initial d

Detail of one of Erhard Ratdolt’s decorative woodcut initials.

Ratdolt also pioneered techniques for including tables and woodcut charts in his pages of text, which was particularly important for scientific and mathematical books.

Liber in iudiciis astrorum chart

Page from Liber in iudiciis astrorum with woodcut diagram integrated into the text block.

In the 1480s Erhard Ratdolt also printed editions of several other important astrological works.  As historian Jonathan Green observes, Ratdolt “achieved a near monopoly during that decade for many astronomical and astrological works” [Printing and Prophecy (Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan Press, 2012) 135].  

Ratdolt’s edition of Liber in iudiciis astroroum was a large and probably expensive book. But the original purchaser of ZSR’s copy obviously make good use of the volume. It was heavily annotated by its 15th century owner(s), with pages full of manuscript notes, underlinings, added headings, and astrological symbols.

Liber in iudiciis astrorum b3r

Annotated page from ZSR’s Liber in iudiciis astrorum.

Erhard Ratdolt’s Liber in iudiciis astroroum embodies the cultural exchanges and the technological innovations taking place in Renaissance Europe. ZSR’s copy of this book was purchased in 1964 with funds from the Oscar T. Smith endowment. It is on view in ZSR Library’s Special Collections and Archives Reading Room through April 30, as part of the Letters in Lead exhibit, which traces the development of printing type and book design in Europe from its beginnings through the 21st century.

Divina Commedia, by Dante Alighieri (Aldine Press, 1502)

Monday, November 12, 2012 1:33 pm

From the title page verso of the 1502 first edition

The Renaissance scholar Aldus Manutius (ca. 1451-1515) began his career in typical fashion, as a tutor to an aristocratic Roman family. We don’t know what prompted him in 1490 to move to Venice and try his hand at a business venture involving the exciting new technology that was spreading across Europe: printing with moveable type. But over the next 25 years Aldus became the most important scholar/printer of the Italian Renaissance.

The Aldine Press, as it became known, began by printing editions of Latin and Greek classics that were in demand by scholars. But Aldus also published works in the Italian vernacular, and in 1502 he undertook an edition of the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321).

Title page from the Aldine Dante

Dante wrote his epic poem between 1308 and 1321. There are no surviving manuscripts in Dante’s own hand, but the work was widely copied  and over 400 manuscript copies from the 14th century are known to exist. Dante’s popularity continued unabated into the 15th century, and several Italian printers issued editions of the Divine Comedy between 1472 and 1500. Most of these early editions included the extensive commentary by Florentine scholar Cristoforo Landino. In many of them the commentary almost overwhelmed the text, and little attention was given to accurate editing of the poem itself.

In this page from a 15th century edition of Vergil's works, seven lines of text from the Aeneid are surrounded by extensive commentary. The Dante editions with Landino commentary would have looked similar.

Aldus’s edition, by contrast, dispensed with all commentary and presented the unadorned text of the poem in a small octavo format.

First text page of the Aldine Dante

The text itself was a new version edited by Aldus’s friend and frequent collaborator, Pietro Bembo. Its origin was an early manuscript version of the Divine Comedy from the library of Bembo’s father (though it was not, as Bembo claimed, in Dante’s own hand).

Bembo was a Renaissance humanist and an accomplished scholar. Rather than writing a lengthy gloss on the poem, as Landino had done, he concentrated on making the text itself understandable for his 16th century Italian readers. After the publication of Aldus’s 1502 edition, Bembo’s version became the standard Dante text until well into the 19th century.

Title page from Bembo's History of Venice, 1551

One of Aldus’s and Bembo’s major innovations was the liberal use of punctuation, a feature often missing from manuscripts and earlier printed texts.

First page of the Purgatorio section

The Aldine Press Dante was typical of many of Aldus’s imprints in that it was a small octavo volume, affordable and easily portable. Many 15th century editions of the classics were large folio volumes, impressive but unwieldy and extremely expensive, with text often buried under centuries of accumulated notes. Aldus realized that there was a market in the scholarly community for well-edited and reasonably priced texts. His Dante is one of many small volumes, printed in his trademark italic font. Aldus was an innovator in typeface design, and his italic type was based on the handwriting of two highly accomplished Italian scribes.

Detail from a page of the Paradisio section

The 1502 Divine Comedy was the first book in which Aldus Manutius used his famous dolphin and anchor printer’s device. The emblem was taken from a Roman medal given to Aldus by Pietro Bembo. The swift dolphin and the immovable anchor are a visual representation of the motto “festina lente” or “make haste slowly.” This quote from Emperor Augustus was an appropriate motto for Aldus, whose painstaking scholarship and editing underpinned his prolific output as a printer.

An example of the dolphin and anchor printer's device from a 1563 Aldine Press edition of Cicero

However, not all copies of the 1502 Dante have the Aldine device. The engraved illustration was apparently not ready when the first copies of the Divine Comedy went to press, so the earliest issues (of which ZSR’s copy is one) do not have the device.

Colophon (printer's statement at end of text) of ZSR's 1502 Dante, without the printer's device

ZSR Library’s copy of the Aldine Press Divina Commedia contains bookplates from three former owners. One of these was famous in his own right: the Victorian artist and critic John Ruskin (1823-1900).

Ruskin was one of the most influential writers on art and society in 19th century England,  and he was a great admirer of Dante. In his Stones of Venice Ruskin wrote

I think that the central man of all the world, as representing in perfect balance the imaginative, moral, and intellectual faculties, all at their highest, is Dante.

Ruskin made his first visit to Italy in 1845, spending time in Venice and Florence.  It is  possible that he acquired the Aldine Press volume during this trip. It is also possible that Ruskin was responsible for having the volume rebound in blue velvet, with yellow silk endpapers and gauffred edges.

The blue velvet binding on the ZSR copy was added by a later owner.

The edges of the ZSR volume are gilded and decorated.

In any case, it is clear that this copy of the Aldine Press Dante has been a treasured possession of many owners over the past 500 years. ZSR Library purchased the book from bookseller William Salloch in 1986. All of the images above are from volumes in the ZSR Rare Books Collection.


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