European Astronomy in 17th c. China. With the Engraving of The Astronomical Observatory in Beijing

Verbiest, Ferdinand, S.J. (1623-1688)

Astronomia Europaea sub Imperatore Tartaro Sinico Cam Hy appellato ex umbra in lucem revocata

Dillingen: Typis & sumptibus Joannis Caspari Bencard, 1687


Quarto: 19 x 16 cm. (8), 126, (2) p. Collation: )(4, A-Q4


A very fine copy in its original binding. The text is crisp and bright throughout with only a very light dampstain along the extreme edge of the first five and final three leaves, and a few light spots on two leaves. The folding plate of the astronomical observatory is in fine condition. The binding is contemporary calfskin tooled in gold (mostly muted due to oxidation). The boards are ruled in compartments, with the central compartment in the form of a diamond, and tooled with scrolling floral motifs, small fans, thistles, and stars. Repairs to foot of spine, crack in leather of upper board mended.

Verbiest and the New Chinese Astronomical Observatory:

In 1669 the Belgian Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest, with the blessing of the K’ang Hsi Emperor, embarked upon a project to build a new Imperial astronomical observatory of Beijing (Peking). The construction of the new observatory, the replacement of the outdated and far less accurate Chinese instruments, and the introduction of European instruments that used the Western sexagesimal system of 360 degrees (rather than the Chinese system), marked, in a concrete way, the full adoption of European science by the Chinese, a process that had been underway since the beginning of the 17th century, and which had been fraught with set-backs, controversy, and violent opposition.

The new instruments were –and remain- monuments to the fusion of European mathematical and technological methods with Chinese techniques of craftsmanship and fabrication. They were constructed of brass and bronze, which prevented them from warping and their survival to the present day is a testament to their remarkable durability.

The “Astronomia Europaea” is Verbiest’s final summation of the successful re-establishment (after a period of suppression) of European astronomy in 17th c. China. In the preface, Verbiest asserts his leading role in the development of the ‘astronomical revolution’ of 1668/9 and his authority to describe it in all its parts:

“I am the most entitled—I built these instruments, I have manipulated them, and I was not only the onlooker but also the protagonist in this play, and to this day I am still on stage here in Peking.”

During his time in China, Verbiest authored a number of books, all printed xylographically by Chinese printers and many of them printed in the Chinese language. The “Astronomia Europaea”, the only one of Verbiest’s books to be printed in Europe, synthesizes elements of the most important of these earlier works, including his works describing the instruments that he constructed for the new Beijing observatory.

The first twelve chapters of the “AE” comprise an account of the ‘astronomical revolution’ that began in 1668 and the advances made up until 1679, as well as technical descriptions of the observatory and its instruments. Chapters 13 to 27 concern Verbiest’s other scientific achievements, in ballistics, mechanics, optics, statics, etc.

The “AE” also contains elements of two important works (the “Compendium Historicum” and the “Astronomiae apud Sinas Restitutae Mechanica”) that were never printed and of which the only witness is a single manuscript copy now in Moscow.

But Verbiest did not write the “AE” as a mere digest of his earlier printed and manuscript works. Indeed, the work has many new and important elements. For instance, the text the aforementioned “Compendium Astronomicum”, as it appears in “AE”, is three times as long as the original, while the “Mechanica”, also modified from its manuscript version, forms almost the entire second half of the “AE”.

“This book is, in a true sense, the quintessence of all of Verbiest’s previous publications on the topic, as these all converged in the text of this 1687 edition. Indeed, the text composition itself was mainly a process of compilation of previously produced texts, with some adaptations and further additions… The documentary basis, added to Verbiest’s immediate personal involvement in the events related, elevates this brief treatise to a first-rank historical source for the decade 1669-79” (Golvers, Chinese Heaven, p. 152-4)

The folding plate depicts the newly constructed astronomical observatory, with detailed depictions of Verbiest’s new instruments. The image was engraved by Melchior Haffner and was copied from the large woodcut of the observatory printed in Verbiest’s I-hsiang-t’u/Liber Organicus (Beijing: 1674). The instruments depicted are: an equinoctial (equatorial) armillary sphere, six feet in diameter; a celestial globe, six feet in diameter; a zodiacal (ecliptical) armillary sphere, six feet in diameter; a horizontal azimuth compass, six feet in diameter; a quadrant, six feet in radius; and a sextant, eight feet in radius. These were all very large, made from brass, and mounted on highly decorated bronze stands. While modeled on Tycho’s instruments, Verbiest’s instruments included many modern advances, such as the use of geared setting adjustments and pulleys for his sextant.

De Backer-Sommervogel, VIII, 580, 24; Streit, Bibliotheca Missionum, V, 2267, III, 14; Cordier, Sinica 1451; Walravens, China illustrata 198; Löwendahl, China illustrate Nova, I, 185; Golvers, ed. The Astronomia Europaea of Ferdinand Verbiest, S.J.; Golvers, Ferdinand Verbiest, S.J. (1623-1688) and the Chinese Heaven