[Early Printing - Incunabula - Venice] [Early Woodcut Book Illustrations] [Mythology - Greek & Roman]
[Star Atlases] [Constellations] [Astronomy - Ptolemaic]

Printed in Venice by Thomas de Blavis, de Alexandria, 7 June 1488, 7 June 1488.
Text in Latin. Edited by Jacobus Sentinus and Johannes Lucilius Santritter.
THIRD ILLUSTRATED EDITION, closely following the E. Ratdolt's edition of 1485.

A scarce incunable edition of this "INFLUENTIAL SOURCE OF CONSTELLATION MYTHOLOGY” (Ian Ridpath, Star Tales, p.6), richly illustrated with 47 superb woodcuts of the allegorical figures representing the constellations and planets and a diagram of a sphere. Offered here is A SUPERB, COMPLETE EXAMPLE OF THIS SCARCE ILLUSTRATED INCUNABULUM IN EXCELLENT CONDITION, with fine contemporary HAND-COLORING, and manuscript captions to the woodcuts added in red ink in an elegant contemporary hand.

This fascinating series of woodcuts (which first appeared in the 1482 Ratdolt edition) constitutes THE EARLIEST PRINTED PICTORIAL REPRESENTATION OF THE CONSTELLATIONS, and served as a pictorial model for all later celestial portrayals.

The Poeticon Astronomicon is a classical handbook of popular astronomy, blending myth and science, likely written in the 2nd century A.D. The work, which is based on Greek sources (particularly Aratos' Phaenomena) explains the basics of astronomy, describes forty-two of the Ptolemaic constellations and the Zodiac, as well as the Greek and Roman mythology surrounding them.

It is traditionally ascribed to Gaius Julius Hyginus (c. 64 BC - 17 AD), a Latin author, a pupil of the famous Alexander Polyhistor, and a freedman of Caesar Augustus, who was elected superintendent of the Palatine library by Augustus. This attribution is, however, probably spurious. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the work, "usually called Poetica Astronomica, containing an elementary treatise on astronomy and the myths connected with the stars, chiefly based on the Καταστερισμοί of Eratosthenes. Both are abridgments and both are by the same hand; but the style and Latinity [...] are held to prove that they cannot have been the work of [...] C. Julius Hyginus. It is suggested that these treatises are an abridgment (made in the latter half of the 2nd century) of the Genealogiae of Hyginus by an unknown grammarian, who added a complete treatise on mythology."

The "book called Poetic Astronomy [Poeticon Astronomicon] by a Roman author named Hyginus [was] apparently written in the second century AD. We do not know who Hyginus was, not even his full name - he was evidently not C. Julius Hyginus, a Roman writer of the first century BC. Poetic Astronomy is based on the constellations listed by Eratosthenes (Hyginus differs only by including the Pleiades under Taurus), but it contains many additional stories. Hyginus also wrote a compendium of general mythology called the Fabulae. In medieval and Renaissance times many illustrated versions of Hyginus's writings on astronomy were produced.” (Ridpath, idid)

"The Poeticon Astronomicon was originally attributed to Hyginus, Director of the Palatine library, but it now seems that it was the work of a later writer of the same name. In any case the sequence of constellations follows that of Ptolemy's catalogue from the second century AD. Poeticon, which takes the form of an introduction to astronomy, was intended by its author to provide a clearer and more complete description of the sky than Aratus' Phaenomena. It contains basic cosmographic information, astronomical and mythological details and a star catalogue listing over 700 stars - more than any previous atlas, although still far fewer than Ptolemy's own catalogue. The success of Poeticon nevertheless derived mainly from its treatment of celestial mythology, and the illustrations accompanying the text were particularly important in this respect. For the first edition of 1482 a series of woodcuts was commissioned by the publisher Erhard Ratdolt and these designs became the models for subsequent editions. Although the illustrations show the positions of the stars, these bear little relation to the positions described by Hyginus [or] to the stars actual positions." (M. Lachièze-Rey, J.-P. Luminet, Celestial Treasury: From the Music of the Spheres to the Conquest of Space, p.83)

The charming woodcuts illustrating this incunable edition of Hyginus are important, being the first printed illustrations of the allegorical figures of the constellations and planets. The woodcuts derive from medieval manuscript sources and depict figures in medieval European costume. They were probably designed by Johannes Lucilius Santritter, who is also known to have illustrated the 1488 edition of Sacrobosco (stylistic comparison of the two books corroborates the attribution).

The first edition of the work, printed in Ferrara in 1475, was not illustrated (with blank spaces provided for hand-drawings or illuminations). The woodcuts were first used by Ratdolt in his edition of the Poeticon Astronomicon printed in Venice in 1482, and again in his 1485 edition, then in this 1488 de Blavis edition. They were also reused in the 1488 Augsburg printing of Johannes Angeli's Astrolabium. These iconic images served as a model for many of the later pictorial representations of the constellations.

The series consists of 47 woodcuts, "39 of which are constellations. The remaining figures are allegorical representations of the Milky Way, the Sun, and the planets. The images vary in size from 3.5 x 9 cm to 9 x 10 cm. Hyginus' book was very popular and went through many editions, well into the early 1500s. All of the Greek constellations were depicted, except for Equuleus, and all were shown from the front using a geocentric orientation. Although crude, the figures were lively and energetic. Warner has pointed out that not all of them conformed to earlier descriptions based on Ptolemy. For example, Ara had been described classically as simply an altar, whereas Hyginus['s illustrator] followed medieval mythology in having the altar surrounded by demons. There were also some peculiarities, such as the wrapping of Draco around Ursa Major and Ursa Minor in one image. But in other cases, Ratdolt's woodcuts led to stylistic conventions that endured. One example was that of Bootes, who was shown with a sheaf of wheat at his feet, not the hair of Berenice as in some earlier manuscripts, and this convention was later used by Bayer.” (Nick Kanas, Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography, p.136)

Bibliographic references:

Goff H562; Hain-Copinger *9065; BMC V 318; Essling 287; Klebs 527.4; Sander 3474; IGI 4961.

Physical description:

Super-chancery Quarto; text block measures 206 mm x 140 mm. Bound in early 20th-century full vellum, flat spine with a gilt-lettered brown morocco label; two pairs of cloth ties; decorative patterned endpapers.

56 unnumbered leaves (forming 112 pages).
Signatures: a-g8 .
Collated and COMPLETE!

Illustrated with a large woodcut diagram of the celestial globe on a1v (recto blank), and 47 large woodcuts in the text (of which 40 are of constellations, and 7 are of planets and the Sun). Numerous ornamental woodcut initials of several sizes; 5-line initial spaces (unrubricated) with printed guide-letters. A few spaces left blank by the printer for Greek words to be supplied in manuscript (not filled).

All the pictorial woodcuts finely hand-colored by contemporary hand, and three of the woodcut initials are partially hand-colored (incl. the 12-line opening 'E' highlighted in pale gold).

Also with neat manuscript captions to woodcuts, and marginal manuscript section titles : both done in red ink in an elegant contemporary hand. The celestial sphere woodcut on a1v with neat contemporary manuscript annotations in brown ink, labeling the four cardinal points, continents (Europe, Asia and Africa), etc. The blank recto (a1r) with manuscript title 'HYGINUS' and manuscript labeling (in same early hand?) of the four cardinal points (in Latin and German) around the see-through outline of the woodcut sphere from verso.

Text printed in single column, 33-34 lines per page, in roman letter (Type: 4/5:90(84)R), with gothic letter (6:70G, 7:61G) used for caption and labeling in the globe diagram.

At the end (leaves g7v-8r) is a verse address to the reader by the editor (Sentinus). Colophon on g8r (verso blank).


Near Fine antiquarian condition. Complete. Binding slightly rubbed, and the spine leather label very slightly chipped at one corner. Internally with only light occasional soiling, mostly marginal. One small brownish stain to the final leaf (g8), not affecting legibility. In all a very attractive, solid, clean, well-margined example of this beautifully illustrated incunable, with very appealing early hand-coloring to all its charming woodcuts.

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