The First Printed Illustrations of the Constellations

Hyginus, Caius Julius (fl. 2nd century)

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

Venice: Erhard Ratdolt, 14 October, 1482


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.

FIRST ILLUSTRATED EDITION of Hyginus’ “Poeticon Astronomicon”, illustrated with 47 half-page woodcuts of the constellations and the planets personified. The text is set in a pleasing Gothic. The text of Hyginus was first published in an unillustrated edition in Ferrara in 1475.

Bound in a fourteenth-century medical manuscript leaf over 19th c. boards. A fine copy, complete with the first blank. With neat contemporary coloring in yellow to some woodcuts. A few small stains, a few leaves lightly toned, some marginal soiling. Nice margins.

FIRST ILLUSTRATED EDITION of Hyginus’ “Poeticon Astronomicon”, illustrated with 47 half-page woodcuts of the constellations and the planets personified. The text is set in a pleasing Gothic. The text of Hyginus was first published in an unillustrated edition at Ferrara in 1475.

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, the Director of the Palatine Library under the Emperor 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 early astronomers –including Copernicus- 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”.

One of the chief interests in Ratdolt’s edition of Hyginus lies in the illustrations of the constellations, the first such illustrations to appear in a printed book. These images derive from medieval sources such as those found in manuscripts and paintings –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.” Hyginus gives detailed accounts of the myths associated with each of the constellations, and these myths 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). 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.

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 Pythagorean notions of the harmony of the spheres.” (Lippincott, Kristen “The textual tradition of the De Astronomica 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