This post was written by Claire D’Mura, Reference and Research Specialist in the Science, Technology and Business Division.
Humans have long gazed at the stars with curiosity and wonder. We have used the stars to tell time, mark seasons, navigate the globe, and contemplate our place in the universe. Cultures from all corners of the world have watched and studied the movement of stars over time, and learned and recorded what they saw.
Our quest to know the sky has led to philosophical debates, historical turns in thinking and advances in technology that have allowed us to look deeper into the cosmos than ever before. In school we learn about Galileo and his observations using a new technology of the telescope, in the 1600s, and that Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the moon in 1969. But, of course, there are many smaller historical turns that happened in between that are less known.
Recently, the Library of Congress acquired one piece of this in-between history. The Library added Alessandro Piccolomini’s 1566 edition of his works La Sfera del Mondo (The Sphere of the World), and bound with the 1570 De le Stelle Fisse (On the Fixed Stars), the latter of which is often regarded as the first printed star atlas.
What made these works, here published together in one volume, notable for us amateur astronomers is that Piccolomini wrote this work in Italian. At the time, Latin was the language of scholarly publishing, so being in the local language made this the first work of its kind that could be understood by non-scholars. Due to this accessibility, the work ended up being quite popular for the time, and at least 12 editions were published between 1540 and 1595 (Kanas, 2006).
There are several more features that make this star atlas stand out from those that came before, and distinguish it from ones that came later. Notably, it is not as artistically embellished as many of the more famous star charts. Instead, it shows individual stars on a plain page, more similarly to star charts used today. Predecessors, as well as many that came later, often included lavish illustrations to outline each constellation.
Another feature that made this work notable and influential is that it had a system for describing the brightness of the stars that make up each constellation, labeling them with Roman letters, starting with “a”. A very similar method of labeling was later used by Johann Bayer in his influential Uranometria (Measuring the Heavens), published in 1603, except he used Greek letters rather than Roman. Scholar and antiquarian book collector Nick Kanas notes, “It is hard to believe that the parallel arrangement of Piccolomini and Bayer was pure accident, and modern commentators have assumed that Bayer borrowed from Piccolomini” (Kanas, 2006). Both Piccolomini and Bayer were the earliest adopters of an Earth-centric perspective. In both of their works, the constellations are depicted as if they are being viewed from below, as they would be seen by stargazers looking up at the sky, instead from above, as if they were on a globe.
The Library of Congress holds nine editions of Sfera del Mondo and De le Stelle Fisse in its collection, dating from between 1540 and 1573, and they are only a small part of the Library’s excellent history of astronomy collections. Other gems found in the collection include Nicolaus Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger), and Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, aka The Principia).
All the time we see more and more of our universe, thanks to a long history of technological developments, from early telescopes to the moon landing. Piccolomini’s aim was to bring astronomy to the people. Now, 450 years later, stargazing is more accessible than ever. Astronauts are social media sensations, and you can follow the James Webb Space Telescope on NASA’s website or Instagram. There are star charts in apps and stories about astrological phenomena in the news. Thankfully, the notion of astronomy for the people caught on and none of it is in Latin.
- Ashbrook, Joseph. The Astronomical Scrapbook: Skywatchers, Pioneers, and Seekers in Astronomy. 1984.
- Gingerich, Owen. “Piccolomini’s Star Atlas: Astronomical Scrapbook.” Sky & Telescope, vol. 62, Dec. 1981, pp. 532-534.
- Kanas, Nick. Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography. 2012
- Kanas, Nick. “Alessandro Piccolomini and the First Printed Star Atlas (1540).” Imago Mundi 58, No. 1 (2006), pp. 70-76.
- Mendillo, Michael. Saints and Sinners in the Sky: Astronomy, Religion and Art in Western Culture. 2022. Available at LC as an eBook via the Springer Link platform https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-84270-3
- Suter, Rufus. “The Scientific Work of Alessandro Piccolomini.” Isis, Vol. 60, 210–222 (1969).
- Warner, Deborah Jean. The Sky Explored: Celestial Cartography, 1500-1800.
Also of interest from the Library:
- Mapping the Elusive Southern Sky (2016, 50 mins.). Recorded video of Dava Sobel discussing the early history of celestial cartography in the annual Jay I. Kislak Lecture in the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas at the Library of Congress.
- Mapping the Final Frontier Conversation about the Universe, GIS & Copyright. (2020, 59 mins). A panel discussion with Library specialists.
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