[Incunabula] [Aldine Press] [Greek Classics] [Early Astronomy & Astrology]

ARATUS. Phaenomena (in Greek and Latin),
with THEON. Commentaria in Aratum (in Greek).
ps.-PROCLUS. Sphaera (in Greek, and Latin tr. by Thomas Linacre

Venice: Aldus Manutius, October 1499.


Text in Greek and Latin.
FIRST EDITION IN GREEK of Aratus's Phaenomena and of ps.-Proclus's Sphaera.

"There are few Aldine publications more beautiful and interesting." (T. F. Dibdin, Bibliotheca Spenceriana, III, 525).

A REMARKABLE COPY, WITH A NOTABLE HUMANIST PROVENANCE, of the two parts of Aldus' magnificent collection of sidereal knowledge from antiquity (known as Scriptores astronomici veteres), which "represents the most ambitious humanist attempt to reconstruct ancient astronomical wisdom. [...] The Aldine edition of the Scriptores Astronomici was produced with the declared goal of presenting the astronomical heritage of Greek and Latin antiquity, and of giving it a place in the debate on astronomy and astrology that had been on-going since the late Middle Ages." (F. Pontani & E. Lugato: On Aldus' Scriptores astronomici (1499), in Certissima signa: A Venice Conference on Greek and Latin Astronomical Texts', ed. by F.Pontani).

Aldus's bilingual compendium of ancient astronomical works was published on the heels of Aldus's monumental editio princeps of Aristotle, bringing together standard texts of the Byzantine schoolroom for use by European students and scholars. "

Our copy has a REMARKABLE RENAISSANCE PROVENANCE having been owned (and annotated) by JOHANNES ALEXANDER BRASSICANUS (1500 - 1539), and bears his ownership signature on the title-page of Aratus, and numerous marginal notes in his hand. He was a Tübingen-born humanist, graecist and neo-Latin poet (crowned Poet Laureate in 1518 by Emperor Ferdinand I), author of (inter alia) Omnis (1519) and Proverbiorum symmicta (1529), prolific editor, discoverer of ancient manuscripts and a noted bibliophile. He was a friend of Erasmus before their falling out over accusations in plagiarism.

This self-contained and complete in itself volume comprising Parts III & IV (of four) of the Aldine was Scriptores astronomici veteres clearly circulated as a separate entity probably since publication, and was clearly bought by Brassicanus ca. 1530 as a freestanding separately bound volume. It has long been known to bibliographers that the the individual parts of this collection were sometimes sold separately.

"Structurally, the incunable is constituted of four different parts that were SOLD SEPARATELY as late as 1503, and that STILL CIRCULATE SEPARATELY in several modern libraries. [Our volume contains:]

Other parts of the Scriptores astronomici veteres (not present here) included only Latin works, namely: Firmicus Maternus' Mathesis, Manilius' Astronomica and the three Latin Aratea by Germani- cus, Cicero and Avienius.

Interestingly, Dibdin also notes that many copies lack precisely the part found in our volume: "Renouard remarks that the Greek texts of Aratus and Proclus are sometimes wanting in copies of this impression." (Bibl. Spencer. III, p.9).

Our volume opens with "the two short Greek excerpts on the construction of Aratus' sphere and on the constellation of Ophiuchus (N1v - N3r) [which] are, in fact, two consecutive parts of one and the same work, which according to Jean Martin belongs to a series of exegetical materials on Aratus' poem, collected under the guidance of the Byzantine scholar Demetrius Triclinius in the early 14th century. [...] What is perhaps most striking is that, apart from the Aldine edition, this text appears only in one other manuscript, namely Par. gr. 2381, a miscellany of arithmetical, mechanical, and alchemic content. [...] Nonetheless, philological analysis shows beyond doubt that it cannot be the direct model of the Aldine edition, and that both the Aldine and the Parisinus [MS] must derive from a now-lost, common archetype." (Pontani & Lugato, p.281)

The Greek text of Aratus cum scholiis in our incunable was based on the manuscript known as Mutinensis α.T.9.14 (gr. 51). This codex, datable to around 1465 and preserved today in Modena, was written by Andronikos Kallistos, one of the most outstanding Greek scribes of Italian humanism and carries many annotations by its former owner, the humanist Giorgio Valla.

"The fact that the Mutinensis must have been the model of the Aldine edition [is] significant since this text of the Aratus scholia was not superseded until the late 20th century. In both the Mutinensis manuscript and the Aldine edition, we have a unique combination of text and scholia belonging to different branches of the textual tradition. The main difference being that the Aldine edition ‘heals' the omissions that one finds in the Mutinensis manuscript, probably by means of the collation (possibly carried out by Mousouros?) of ms. Scorialensis Σ.III.3, a manuscript owned by the other great Cretan scholar George Gregoropoulos.

The only problem is represented by the occurrence of Theon's name as the author of the scholiastic corpus to Aratus. His name does not appear in the Mutinensis manuscript, but it does appear in ms. Par. gr. 2842 [...] and in the later codices of the Triclinian branch. This fact suggests that Aldus had retrieved the name of Theon in some way perhaps from a currently unknown manuscript witness." (Pontani & Lugato, p.283)

The influential 3rd century BC hexameter poem Phaenomena ("Appearances") by the ancient Greek didactic poet Aratus, dealing with the constellations, celestial phenomena and weather lore, is printed here for the 1st time in its original Greek with the Greek scholia attributed to Theon of Alexandria. The poem appears to be based on two prose works: Phaenomena and Enoptron (i.e. "Mirror") by Eudoxus of Cnidus, written about a century earlier. The purpose of the Phaenomena is to give an introduction to the constellations, with the rules for their risings and settings; and of the circles of the sphere, amongst which the Milky Way is reckoned. The positions of the constellations, north of the ecliptic, are described by reference to the principal groups surrounding the north pole (Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Draco, and Cepheus), whilst Orion serves as a point of departure for those to the south. The immobility of the earth, and the revolution of the sky about a fixed axis are maintained.

Aratus (ca. 310 BC – 240 BC) was probably a native of Soli in Cilicia (now in southern Turkey). He is known to have studied in Ephesus and in Cos, and was a disciple of the Peripatetic philosopher Praxiphanes. About 276 BC he was invited to the court of the Macedonian king Antigonus II Gonatas. Here he wrote his most famous poem, Phaenomena. He then spent some time at the court of Antiochus I Soter of Syria, but subsequently returned to Pella in Macedon, where he died.

The other text included in this volume is the popular introductory textbook on spherical astronomy De sphaera ascribed (spuriously) to Proclus Diadochus, printed he for the first time in both the original Greek text and the acclaimed Latin translation by the great English Tudor humanist, Greek scholar, and the founder (In 1492) of London College of Physicians, Thomas Linacre.

De sphaera has been traditionally (but incorrectly) attributed to the Neoplatonic philosopher Proclus of 5th century A.D. It is now established that the work is, in fact, an excerpt from the treatise of Geminus, a 1st century BC Greek author, probably from Rhodes, whose only surviving work is the elementary survey of astronomy known in Latin as Elementa astronomiae, which was based on the works of earlier astronomers such as Hipparchus. The pseudo-Proclan Sphaera comprises four chapters of the Geminus' Elementa astronomiae which deal with the general description of the celestial sphere, terrestrial zones and the constellations.

"Four chapters excepted from the Elementa [by Geminus] first appeared in manuscript written in Italy in about the last quarter of the fifteenth century. The chapters (4, 5, 15, 3) [...] were probably deliberately rearranged to create a short manual. In the process they lost their link with Geminus and were mistakenly attributed to Proclus, the Athenian Neoplatonist of the fifth century and entitled "Sphaera". This transformation seems to have been completed by the middle of fifteenth century. The first Latin translation was a partial one mede before 1491 by Georgio Valla. Thomas Linacre did the first complete Latin translation; it was published by Aldus Manutius in Venice in 1499 and became by far the most popular Latin version of the Sphaera, with fourty-four printed editions by early seventeenth century. [...] Later in the 16th and the early 17th centuries we can find copies of the ps.-Proclan Sphaera owned by Tycho Brahe and by some English contemporaries. Johannes Kepler used the work in his treatise on optics. [...] When in 1619 Sir Henry Savile established a chair in astronomy at Oxford, he included the ps.-Proclan Sphaera as a required text in a statute that also prescribed the works of Copernicus and Brahe." (P.O. Kristeller, V. Brown (Eds.), Catalogus translationum et commentariorum, VIII, p.12-15)

Thomas Linacre's translation was the first complete Latin translation of the pseudo-Proclan Sphaera; it first appeared in Venice in 1499 as a part of the celebrated incunable compilation Scriptores astronomici veteres published by Aldus Manutius. In his dedicatory preface to the 1st edition Aldus wrote: "I thought it well to add the Sphaera of Proclus, more especially because the Briton Thomas Linacre had of late translated it into learned and elegant Latin, and sent it to me to be set up in our type. For the treatise is very useful for those who wish an introduction to the study of astronomy...".

"Thomas Linacre learned Greek in Italy and came back to Oxford imbued with the spirit of the Renaissance, and formed one of that group of scholars who are mentioned with high praise by Erasmus. He had studied medicine in Padua, and was appointed physician to Henry VIII. He was the means of organizing the Royal College of Physicians in London, and also translated into Latin from the Greek some medical works of Galen, as well as the astronomical treatise of Proclus, De Sphaera. But the chief influence of this learned scholar and philosopher was in being the teacher in Greek of [Thomas] More, Erasmus, the lamented Prince Arthur, Queen Mary, and the helper of Erasmus, More, Grocyn, Colet, William Lilye, Latimer, and others, in bringing in the new learning, and rolling back the tide of medieval obscurantism from England." (J. Fletcher Hurst, History of the Christian Church, II, p.369)

A few years prior, Linacre had also assisted with his celebrated editio princeps of Aristotle's complete works in Greek (1495-8). Aldus here praises his learning and emphasizes his Englishness — proof of the Aldine press's truly global scope. "The most noteworthy feature of this book is its international dimension, [including] the enrolment of the Englishman Thomas Linacre, whose translation of the Sphaera had been sent to Venice shortly before the date of the incunable's publication and was perceived by many as the founding act of English humanism." (ibid)

"Two interesting epistles precede Linacre's version. One is by Aldus, to his friend Alberus Pius Carpus, in which Linacre and Grocin (names for ever dear to Englishmen!) are strenuously extolled. The Latinity of Grocin is held up as a model of imitation for contemporaneous writers; and Aldus calls upon his countrymen 'to emulate the British' in this particular. His epistle bears date October, 1499. The other letter is by Grocin, who displays great enthusiasm in the cause of literature and philosophy, and tells Aldus that his friend Thomas Linacre had first made him acquainted with the labors of his press." (Dibdin, op. cit. p.9)

Physical description:

Folio, textblock measures 313 mm x 210 mm, with very wide margins. Bound in 17th- or early 18th-century full calf, spine with raised bands, richly gilt-tooled and gilt-lettered in compartments. Marbled endpapers. All edges rouged.

68 leaves (forming 136 pages); Signatures: N-S10 T8. Complete and self-contained Parts III & IV (of 4) of the Scriptores astronomici.

Printed in single column; in Greek and roman letter; Type: 2:114R; 2**:115R; 7:114Gr. Aratus' Greek text surrounded by scholia: 40 lines of commentary per page. 2- to 10-line initial spaces with guide-letters.

Contents; divisional title for Aratus' Phaenomena: Ν1r; Leontius Mechanicus: De statu Arati spaerarum, and Life of Aratus (Gr.): N1v-4v; Aratus' Phaenomena with Theon's scholia (Gr.): N5r-S7r; ps.-Proclus Sphaera (Gr.): S7v-10v; divisional title to Linacre's translation: T1r; Aldus's letter to Alberto Pio, and William Grocyn's letter to Aldus: T1v-2r; preface by Linacre to Arthur, prince of Wales: T2v; ps.-Proclus Sphaera in Linacre's translation (Lat.): T3r-6v.

Register of quires on T7r,v; Colophon on T8r (blank verso).


With early 16th-century ownership inscription by Johannes Alexander Brassicanus to the divisional title of Aratus (N1r): "Ioannis Alexandri Brassicani philosophi ac Iurisconsulti", as well as numerous manuscript marginal notes in his hand, in Greek and Latin.

Johann Alexander Brassicanus (1493 - Wien), was a prominent German humanist scholar, graecist and neo-Latin poet, author of Omnis (1519) and Proverbiorum symmicta (1529), discoverer of ancient manuscripts, and prolific editor of classics church fathers and contemporary humanist works. He was a friend of Erasmus's before they accused each other of plagiarism. Brassicanus is also known to have a been a noted bibliophile (a copy of rare 1531 edition of Alciatus' Emblemata with Brassicanus signature was in the Vershbow collection, sold at Christie's in 2013). Brassicanus also wrote an important report on the contents of the famous library of king Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, particularly valuable since the library was destroyed by the Turks a few years after Brassicanus inspected it.

“Erasmus had known the humanist Johannes Alexander Brassicanus of Tübingen since September 1520 when he called on Erasmus in Antwerp. The emperor Ferdinand I had crowned Brassicanus poet laureate early in 1518, and in 1522 he succeeded Reuchlin as professor at Ingolstadt. In 1523 the emperor appointed him to the chair in rhetoric at Vienna, where he died in 1539.” (J. Van Gulik, Erasmus and His Books).

“Personal contacts between him and Erasmus began in September 1520, when Brassicanus visited Erasmus in Antwerp, obtaining a letter of recommendation. They met again in Louvain and Cologne [later that year]. Erasmus honoured him in the colloquy Apotheosis capnionis (1522) where Brassicanus appears as one of the speakers. Friendly relations continued intermittently until 1531. Brassicanus sent Erasmus his book of proverbs Brassicani proverbiorum symmicta (Vienna, 1529) which annoyed Erasmus who claimed that material was taken from [his] Adagia.” (Contemporaries of Erasmus, I, p.192)


Very Good antiquarian condition. Binding slightly rubbed, with some wear to edges and repairs to joints and the ends of spine (hinges solid, boards firmly attached). Internally near fine, with only very light occasional soiling; first 3 leaves with very minor marginal worming at bottom of the gutter (very far from text). Several neat manuscript marginal notes in Brassicanus' hand. A very attractive, clean, bright, genuine, wide-margined example of this rare and beautifully printed Aldine incunabulum with a stellar humanist provenance.

Bibliographic references:

Renouard 20:3; Goff F-191; Hain-Copinger 14559; GW 9981; BMC V, 560; GW 1596; Klebs 405.1; Ahmanson-Murphy/UCLA 34; Dibdin, Bibliotheca Spenceriana, III, 525; Clemons and Fletcher 15; Houzeau & Lancaster 749.

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