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Provenance, Paleography, and Planetary Motion

This story begins as many of the best Lilly Library stories do—with a predicament. Late in the spring semester of 2024, I led a class session at the library for students in General Astronomy II, a required course for astronomy and astrophysics majors. The Lilly Library hosted 155 sessions of this type over the past academic year. Librarians work with IU faculty members to select primary source materials related to students’ coursework. It’s a great way to contextualize the concepts that students are learning and showcase the valuable opportunities for archival research that the Lilly Library provides.

For this particular class session, the instructor requested a list of some of the most important works in the history of astronomy, including first editions of works by Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton. There was only one problem—every single item on the list is currently on exhibition as part of “Receding Horizons: A Celebration of Astronomy at the Lilly Library.” Planned in conjunction with April’s total solar eclipse, this exhibition will remain installed in the North Gallery until July 22, 2024. While it is helpful to have all these materials in one convenient location, the true magic of a class visit to the Lilly Library involves students getting to physically interact with special collections materials. This simply isn’t possible when those materials are under glass, so I had to get creative. As one of the curators of the “Receding Horizons” exhibition and the new Silver-Norman Curator of Dermatology, General Medicine, and Science, this is just the kind of challenge that I enjoy.

I found a number of suitable and interesting alternatives for the visiting astronomy students. We marveled at the intricate intact volvelles in Peter Apian’s Cosmographia (1574) and puzzled at the symbolism in the frontispiece of Galileo’s Systema cosmicum (1635). But the volume that proved most exciting was the second edition of Nicolaus Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium or On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. I have worked with the Lilly Library’s copy of the first edition of this work many times. In it, Copernicus outlines his heliocentric model for the first time in print. Chapter 10 contains the famous diagram showing the order of the heavenly spheres wherein the earth and the other planets are shown orbiting the sun. Copernicus writes “In medio vero omnium residet Sol” or “But the Sun resides at the centre of everything.”

A series of concentric circles representing the heavenly spheres.
Closeup of the order of the heavenly spheres from Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, printed in 1543 by Johannes Petreius of Nuremberg.

I found the second edition of the Copernicus almost by chance. I recalled first seeing it on the shelf in the summer of 2023 while I was trawling through the Lilly Library stacks in search of astronomy materials for the exhibition. Upon tracking it down this past April, I realized a few peculiar things about this volume. Somehow, when the library’s original card catalog system was converted into an online catalog, this book was left out. No amount of search terms, no matter how creative, could summon its online catalog record. Furthermore, the cards from the original card catalog revealed nothing of particular interest about the 1566 Copernicus beyond its place and date of publication. Upon unearthing its call number, I expected nothing out of the ordinary as I retrieved the book from the shelf. But when I located the book in the stacks, I discovered that this book has lived a very interesting life! Imagine my surprise to find that the book was full of handwritten inscriptions. Additionally, every other leaf was completely blank. At some point, a former owner had the book rebound this way, presumably to facilitate note taking. Suffice it to say, the astronomy students, their professor, and I had a lovely time pouring over this volume and puzzling over the inscriptions. It was certainly a star of the show that day.

After the class session, at the suggestion of the library’s Director, I handed the 1566 Copernicus off to Rare Materials Cataloger, Craig Dethloff, so that it could be properly cataloged and described. Rare books cataloging is truly an art. A talented cataloger can trace the winding history of an object, condensing that information into a record that conveys all its special qualities to an interested user like you or me. This kind of work takes patience, tenacity, and a great deal of subject knowledge. What Craig was able to find out about the Lilly Library’s copy of the 1566 Copernicus is absolutely fascinating. I’m delighted to be able to share it with readers here and with visitors to the library for years to come.

First, Craig identified some provenance information, or clues about the book’s former owners, via manuscript markings on the endpapers. The earliest is written on the lower half of the title page. The inscription reads:

Ex dono Georgii filii / As a gift of Georg, son

Johannis Hartmanni / of Johannes Hartmann

possidet Hermannis / possession of Hermann,

Hessia Landgravius / Landgrave of Hesse

a(nn)o 1636. / in the year 1636.

M. Joannes Hartmanni. / [Property of] M[eister] Joannes Hartmann.

Printer's device showing a mountain being struck by a hammer held by a hand emerging from clouds in the sky. Under the printer's device is the book's title. The owner's name is written in ink below, and a note in Latin is on the right.
Title page of the 1566 Copernicus with ownership marking of Joannes Hartmann

From his translation of the inscription, Craig surmised the attested owner of the item to be Johannes Hartmann. A former bookbinder, Hartmann became the “first professor of chemistry in Germany” in 1608, when he was appointed director of the College Chymicum at the University of Marburg by Maurice, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel (“Maurice the Erudite”). Hartmann’s son, Georg Eberhard Hartman, followed his father into the sciences and edited his father’s works, but appears far less accomplished. He inherited this book upon his father’s death in 1631, and gave it to Hermann IV, Landgrave of Hesse-Rotenburg, the son of his father’s patron, who was an accomplished scientist in his own right.

We suspect that it was during its time in the Landgraviate of Hesse that the volume was disbound and interleaved. Elaborate watermarks on the interleaves present the elements of the coat of arms of the Landgraviate of Hesse.

Left: line drawing of a coat of arms. Right: photograph of watermark coat of arms.
A side-by-side comparison of the coat of arms found on the interleaves of the 1566 Copernicus and the coat of arms of the Landgraviate of Hesse

Craig also translated two notes that a previous reader had written on the interleaves. One passage references the Sicilian mathematician Francesco Maurolico’s writings on the first principles of astronomy. Another refers to French cardinal Pierre d’Ailly and his thoughts on the center of gravity.  Judging by the handwriting, both sets likely derive from the 17th century.

Hermann IV died in 1658 and his estate—the Landgraviate of Hesse-Rotenburg—fell to his brother Ernest, the Landgrave of Hesse-Rheinfels, until his death in 1693 when the combined estate was divided again between Ernest’s two sons, William I Landgrave of Hesse-Rotenburg and Charles, Landgrave of Hesse-Wanfried. The next datable marking is a price at the top of the title page from roughly the time of this division.

“1703 8 Schilling” found on title page

One of the most striking elements of this volume is a long manuscript inscription on the front pastedown endpaper. Craig both transcribed the Latin text and translated the passage into English. Fairly often, a manuscript inscription of such length will be a section of a related work that a reader has copied into the book. In this case, however, the text of the inscription appears to be original. You can read Craig’s translation below:

Upon reading the inscription for the first time, I found myself moved almost to tears. A lengthy personal account such as this is a rare and thrilling thing to find inside of a printed book. What’s even more beautiful is the relationship between the text and the reader’s point about the utility of scientific observation. As Craig notes, “It’s a pastoral narrative where folkloric and superstitious ideas around nature and of spiders, as are held by witches and fortune-tellers, are cast aside in favor of scientific methods (observation, measurement) and ideas (regarding the sun, heat, and the wind), which for the author actually serve to increase a sense of wonder and appreciation of nature rather than detract from them.” I imagine this early 18th-century observer was so struck by what they had witnessed that they decided to record it in the 1566 Copernicus—a book which by that point was already nearly 150 years old. How fitting that they chose to document the virtues of scientific observation in one of the most consequential and enduring works on that topic.

There are just a few more bits of marginalia within the Lilly Library’s copy of the 1566 Copernicus. Dating from the mid-18th century a reader has noted a reference to Historia astronomiae: sive De ortu et progressu astronomiae liber singularis by Johann Friderich Weidler, the first edition of which appeared in 1741.

Handwritten note in Latin

Just after that, there is another note in a similar hand regarding the preface of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. The remark rightly declares the preface to be the spurious work of Osiander.

A handwritten note is to the right of text printed in Latin.

One final interesting characteristic of the volume is hidden within the book’s limp vellum binding. The spine of the book has been cut away at one point, revealing the stitching and paper waste within. The visible manuscript fragments are from a medieval copy of Psalms 36:2-6, as shown below.

The spine of the book has been removed to show the inner sewing and structure of the book's binding. A fragment of a medieval manuscript has been used to help support the spine, and some Latin words are visible.

It is a great privilege to be entrusted with sharing and preserving the life stories of the many books and manuscripts in the Lilly Library’s collections as well as the contributions of their countless readers over time. If you would like to become one of those readers, the Lilly Library’s copy of the 1566 Copernicus is available for use in the library’s Reading Room. You can read the updated catalog record for the book here:

Note: This blog post would not be possible without the brilliant work of my colleague, Rare Materials Cataloger Craig Dethloff. Many thanks to Craig for his efforts to catalog and describe the Lilly Library’s dermatology, science, and medicine collections.

Erin Chiparo, Silver-Norman Curator of Dermatology, Science, and General Medicine

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