If  ideas were easy, everyone would have them.   The “Poetic astronomy by the most renowned Hyginus, a most useful work,”  Is such an idea that everyone can have, there is nothing so available to everyone as the sky.   In a sense the sky can be the largest blackboard known.  Constellations are arbitrary groupings of stars, it seems as if the ‘connecting of the dots’ dates as far back as anything, there are cave paintings which  have identifiable renderings of stars. There are diagrams of constellations in Egyptian tombs dating back to 1470 B.C.E. The zodiacal constellations  can be dated back to 700 B.C.E.  The sky and the ordering/interpreting of it ( creating and teaching  of Constellations) has been a way to transmit knowledge, lore and myth and even hope.  In the renaissance there was thirst for knowledge . The sky and the oldest of all natural sciences Astronomy, offered pathways out of the darkness.  The (re)creation of the ancient astronomical works by the Greeks and Romans, and the dissemination of these  texts/ideas and traditions.

This brings me (at least) to the first printing of  ‘Roman via Greek’ Constellations; the ordering of Hyginus’  Stars follow those of  Ptolemy’s “Almagest”. The ability to spread these by printing was the breakthrough in Astronomy, Poetics and Mythology. In this wonderful Incunable we have a meeting place for Ideas and the perceived world. This simple book is of greater ‘usefulness’ than Hyginus could have imagined. Today there is hardly a sixth grader who couldn’t recognize what this ancient book is about. More recognisable than say a few Pages of Newton’s Principia this book is a mnemonic start for interpretation of the world around us in the Western Tradition.

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343G   Hyginus, Caius Julius (fl. 2nd century)

Poeticon astronomicon. Edited by Jacobus Sentinus and Johannes Lucilius Santritter.

Venice: Erhard Ratdolt, 14 October, 1482                                                        $SOLD

Quarto: 20 x 14.6 cm. Collation: a-f8 g10 (a1 blank, a2r dedication to M. Fabius [Quintilianus?], a3r text, g9r commendatory poem by Jacobus Sentinus, g10r poem and verse colophon by Johannes Santritter, g10v blank). 58 leaves. 31 lines. Types 3:91G (text), 7:92G (heading on a2r), 91 Gk (a few words). Title on a2r printed in red, 11-, 7-, 5- and 3-line white-on-black woodcut initials. 47 half-page woodcuts, probably designed by Johannes Santritter, of the constellation and planet figures.

This copy is bound  in a fourteenth-century medical manuscript leaf over 19th c. boards. A truly nice copy, complete with photo 2the first blank. With neat contemporary coloring in yellow to some of the woodcuts. (see Virgo below!) There are a few small stains, a few leaves lightly toned, some marginal soiling ( see Orion below). Nice margins.

FIRST ILLUSTRATED EDITION of Hyginus’ “Poeticon Astronomicon”, with the illustrations of the constellations and planets used in Ratdolt’s 1482 edition and an additional full-paged woodcut of an armillary sphere. . The 1482 edition was set in Gothic. The text of Hyginus was first published in an unillustrated edition in Ferrara in 1475.

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The “Poeticon Astronomicon” (more correctly, the “Astronomica”) is an ancient Roman work on the constellations chiefly based on the work of the Greek scientist Eratosthenes (3rd c. B.C.). The work was traditionally attributed to the first century writer C. Julius Hyginus,a freed slave who was named to head the Palatine Library during the reign of Augustus,, but the extant text is now believed, based on stylistic analysis, to be an abridgement of Hyginus’ work made in the late second century. The fact that the order of the constellations in the poem follows precisely that of Ptolemy’s “Almagest” further strengthens the case for a second century date. A remarkable aspect of Hyginus’ text is his insistence on the use of astronomical models, in particular, a celestial globe, as an aid to teaching or explaining astronomical principles and phenomena, particularly for “discussions on the inter-relationships between the constellations and especially between the constellations and the celestial circles.”(Lippincott p.4)

Like Manilius’ “Astronomicon” and Proclus’ “Sphaera” (a text that Hyginus sought to improve upon), the “Poeticon Astronomicon” was of special interest to Renaissance astronomers who desired accurate editions of ancient texts from which they might derive a clear understanding of the astronomical knowledge of the Romans and Greeks, thereby establishing a firm foundation upon which to undertake astronomy’s “renewal”.

Hyginus’ text, which gives detailed accounts of the myths associated with each of the constellations, served as source material for artists in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, one of the most famous examples of the text’s influence being the splendid ceiling painted around 1511 by Peruzzi for Agostino Chigi in the Sala di Galatea of the Villa Farnesina (See Förster, Farnesina-Studien 1880, p. 40).

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One of the chief interests in Ratdolt’s editions of Hyginus (1482 and 1485) lies in the illustrations of the constellations, the first such illustrations to appear in a printed book. These images derive from medieval manuscript and other artistic sources –though a specific source has not been identified. The figures appear in medieval European costume and, in the words of Redgrave, “There is a vigour and quaintness about these woodcuts which merit recognition.” These images proved enormously influential, serving as models for the representation of the constellations in stellar atlases and celestial maps for centuries to come.

Hyginus 343G
Hyginus 343G

“In many instances these medieval European, often mythological, constellation figures differed notably from those used by Ptolemy and his Islamic successors … Several stylistic conventions, first published in Ratdolt’s woodcuts, endured for several centuries, both in the numerous editions of Hyginus and in the various maps derived therefrom … Ratdolt’s figures led directly to those of Jacob de Gheyn (1600) and through him to those of Johannes Bayer (1603).” (Warner, The Sky Explored)

The Contents of Hyginus’ “Poeticon Astronomicon”

Hyginus tells us that he intends to give a better description of the celestial sphere than Aratus had done in his “De Sphaera”. Book I gives a brief overview of the cosmography of the universe, the celestial sphere, the Earth and its zones, and the Zodiac. Book II is a compendium of myths related to the constellations, the five planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter) as well as the Sun, Moon, and Milky Way.

Book III is Hyginus’ star catalogue. It is in this book that Ratdolt’s woodcuts appear. “Each constellation is described (in the same order as in Book II) in terms of its location relative to the surrounding constellations and the celestial circles, with some indications being given as to the overall shape and disposition of the figure. In addition, Hyginus provides a list of the positions of the stars relative to the figure itself, describing the placements in terms of ‘left’ and ‘right’ and ‘above’ and ‘below’, in line with the tradition of descriptive star catalogues. Moreover, he tends to list the stars from the top of a figure downwards (or from the head to the feet, regardless of the orientation of the figure within the sky). This is very different from the way the more mathematically-oriented astronomers, such as Hipparchus or Ptolemy, describe the constellations.

“Book IV returns to the subject of cosmology and to astronomical topics, such as the position of the constellations on each celestial circle, the unequal division of the night and day and the risings and settings of the constellations relative to the signs of the zodiac. He discusses the movements of the Sun and the Moon and the five planets and touches upon Pythagorian notions of the harmony of the spheres.” (Lippincott, Kristen “The textual tradition of the De Astronomia of Hyginus”, pp. 10-11)

BMC V, 286; BSB-Ink H-459; CIBN H-334; Essling 285; Goff H-560; HC 9062*; Hind II, p. 462; IGI 4959; Klebs 527.2; Pollard/Perrins 31; Redgrave 30; Sander 3472

Hand colored woodcuts
Hand colored woodcuts