Behold the Astronomicum Caesareum, “Perhaps the Most Beautiful Scientific Book Ever Printed” (1540)

Art, sci­ence, and mag­ic seem to have been rarely far apart dur­ing the Renais­sance, as evi­denced by the elab­o­rate 1540 Astro­nom­icum Cae­sareum — or “Emperor’s Astron­o­my” — seen here. “The most sump­tu­ous of all Renais­sance instruc­tive man­u­als, ” the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art notes, the book was cre­at­ed over a peri­od of 8 years by Petrus Api­anus, also known as Api­an, an astron­o­my pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ingol­stadt. Mod­ern-day astronomer Owen Gin­gerich, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, calls it “the most spec­tac­u­lar con­tri­bu­tion of the book-maker’s art to six­teenth-cen­tu­ry sci­ence.”

Apian’s book was main­ly designed for what is now con­sid­ered pseu­do­science. “The main con­tem­po­rary use of the book would have been to cast horo­scopes,” Robert Bat­teridge writes at the Nation­al Library of Scot­land. Api­an used as exam­ples the birth­days of his patrons: Holy Roman Emper­or Charles V and his broth­er Fer­di­nand I. But the Astro­nom­icum Cae­sareum did more than cal­cu­late the future.

Despite the fact that the geo­cen­tric mod­el on which Api­an based his sys­tem “would begin to be over­tak­en just 3 years after the book’s pub­li­ca­tion,” he accu­rate­ly described five comets, includ­ing what would come to be called Halley’s Comet.

Api­an also “observed that a comet’s tail always points away from the sun,” Fine Books and Col­lec­tions writes, “a dis­cov­ery for which he is cred­it­ed.” He used his book “to cal­cu­late eclipses,” notes Gin­gerich in an intro­duc­tion, includ­ing a par­tial lunar eclipse in the year of Charles’ birth. And, “in a pio­neer­ing use of astro­nom­i­cal chronol­o­gy, he takes up the cir­cum­stances of sev­er­al his­tor­i­cal eclipses.” These dis­cus­sions are accom­pa­nied by “sev­er­al mov­able devices” called volvelles, designed “for an assort­ment of chrono­log­i­cal and astro­log­i­cal inquiries.”

Medieval volvelles were first intro­duced by artist and writer Ramón Llull in 1274. A “cousin of the astro­labe,” Get­ty writes, the devices con­sist of “lay­ered cir­cles of parch­ment… held togeth­er at the cen­ter by a tie.” They were con­sid­ered “a form of ‘arti­fi­cial mem­o­ry,’” called by Lund University’s Lars Gis­lén “a kind of paper com­put­er.” Api­an was a spe­cial­ist of the form, pub­lish­ing sev­er­al books con­tain­ing volvelles from his own Ingol­stadt print­ing press. The Astro­nom­icum Cae­sareum became the pin­na­cle of such sci­en­tif­ic art, using its hand-col­ored paper devices to sim­u­late the move­ments of the astro­labe. “The great vol­ume grew and changed in the course of the print­ing,” Gin­gerich writes, “even­tu­al­ly com­pris­ing fifty-five leaves, of which twen­ty-one con­tain mov­ing parts.”

Api­an was reward­ed hand­some­ly for his work. “Emper­or Charles V grant­ed the pro­fes­sor a new coat of arms,” and “the right to appoint poets lau­re­ate and to pro­nounce as legit­i­mate chil­dren born out of wed­lock.” He was also appoint­ed court math­e­mati­cian, and copies of his extra­or­di­nary book lived on in the col­lec­tions of Euro­pean aris­to­crats for cen­turies, “a tri­umph of the printer’s art,” writes Gin­gerich, and an astron­o­my, and astrol­o­gy, “fit for an emper­or.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

16th Cen­tu­ry Book­wheels, the E‑Readers of the Renais­sance, Get Brought to Life by 21st Cen­tu­ry Design­ers

A Medieval Book That Opens Six Dif­fer­ent Ways, Reveal­ing Six Dif­fer­ent Books in One

160,000+ Medieval Man­u­scripts Online: Where to Find Them

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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