De Revolutionibus | Nicolaus Copernicus

Copernicus and his work

Up till now scientists have been wondering how it happened that one man working alone away from big universities abolished the ancient geocentric theory. How did he manage to persuade the modern world that heliocentric system justifies the view in the sky? Before he decided to reveal his theory, there had been rumours spread from small Frombork, where he lived, worked and created, to European universities, bringing interest or criticism. Although he had many obligations, his biggest passion was researching the universe. He got interested in astronomy during his studies in Cracow. It was in Cracow where he bought his first books about astronomy. It is not obvious when and where he got the idea that the universe does not look like the one that had been presented by the known scientists of his times and before. It is known however, that his first notes of the theory he wrote at University of Bologna, but a coherent vision of the Earth moving around the Sun with other planets was created in Frombork.
It was here, among different duties of a canon, doctor, lawyer, administrator, politician, and economist, he conducted calculations based on observing the Sun, the Moon, planets, and stars. He constantly had too little time for his passion. When a young mathematician Georg Joachim Rheticus from Wittenberg, lured by stories about an extraordinary astronomer, came to Frombork, Copernicus found in him enthusiast and faithful helper. Now he was able to finish the work of his life, which under the title of The revolutionibus became his autograph, known around the world and still valid today.

Manuscript History

De Revolutionibus, Copernicus’ autograph in other words, is the most valuable manuscript in Poland. This is a work of life of Nicolaus Copernicus including a lecture on heliocentric theory. The period of work is dated on the years 1515-1540. The book was written by Copernicus hand in Greek and Latin in a font known as humanistic cursive. The work at first welcomed with great interest by church and university rulers, in 1616 was introduced to the list of banned books as endangering contemporary worldview. Today (since 1956) the original manuscript is held in Jagiellonian Library beyond the range of common view. It was scheduled by UNESCO in 1999.

Characteristics of manuscript

The manuscript consists of 21 notebooks (so called signatures) of eight, ten, and twelve pages.

Each of the signatures is signed with small Latin alphabet letters from a to x, which were placed by Copernicus at the right bottom of their first pages. In total the Autograph consists of 417 pages and the rest of them (9) are empty. There were two pages cut out – one after the page number 69 and the other after 206. Some of the pages (7) were crossed out by the great astronomer, but left in the manuscript. From the very beginning you can tell that Copernicus liked order and was fond of harmonious columns and geometric shapes. He used humanistic writing which he probably learnt during his studies in Italy. Two handwritings can be distinguished: rushed, but shapely and eligible italic type, and a more easy one, more vertical. He used black ink on four types of paper with different watermarks which enabled counting of the approximate chronology of its creation. Wide margins on 129 pages contain 162 geometric figures drawn carefully with a ruling pen, compass and ruler. They are often surrounded by text, which allows to assume that Copernicus draw the figures and wrote after the drawings were ready. He often used lines while sketching various tables which can be found on 118 pages of the book. Some of the tables, for example the catalogue of stars, are finished neatly with a red ink. The manuscript is an evidence of birth of one of the most important universe theories and a reflection of development of the creative thought of the great astronomer. It also allows us to look into the workshop of Copernicus’ piece of art, which was created during (according to the author) almost 40 years. The neatness of the writing and some inkblots (for example on pages 70 and 79) show that the author sometimes had more and sometimes less time to finish his work.



Fate of the Manuscript

De Revolutionibus which is the original manuscript of Copernicus is held in Cracow in the Library of Jagiellonian University. Before it got there it was held by hands of many scientists and other prominent persons of the period, was kept in many libraries in Poland and abroad. The manuscript went through a long and interesting route to rest in the place where its author studied and gained the knowledge necessary to its creation. After Copernicus’ death, the manuscript was inherited by bishop Tiedemann Giese and later by Georg Rheticus who was at that time a doctor at the court of Sigismund II Augustus in Cracow. After Rheticus’ death it was inherited by his student, Valentine Otho. He took it to Heidelberg, where he was a professor of mathematics at university. After Otho’s death, the manuscript was bought by an astronomy professor, Jacob Christmann. He bounded it and added a note about the author, which replaced the lost front page. Christmann used parts of the manuscript in his work about movements of the Moon which was published as Theoria lunae ex novis hypothesibus et observationibus demonstrata in 1611. Later the manuscript was bought by Czech scientist, Jan Amos Komeński, who was an opponent of the Copernicus’ theory for his whole life. It is not known when he sold the manuscript, but it is probable that he sold it as he was afraid to keep a book that was listed as a banned in 1616. The fate of the manuscript for the following 50 years remain unknown. In 1677 it was foung in Otto von Nostitz Library where it was registered in the library books under the catalogue number MSe21. In the end the manuscript came to Czech, where it was brought by a Nositz’s nephew, who moved his uncle’s library from Silesia to his castle in Prague. In 1774 an ex-libris (decorative possession mark) of Nositz Library was given to the book, and it stayed there forgotten for many years. In the 1930s PhD Karl Hillard, who was the library’s custodian, found the book. When the director of Warsaw Observatory, Jan Baranowski found out about the book, he borrowed it from Prague as he was preparing the 4th edition of it to conmemorate the 300th anniversary of its first publishing. According to the manuscript, Baranowski removed some parts of the 4th edition and published the original introduction written by Copernicus, which had been hidden from readers for 300 years. In 1956 the Czech government agreed to exchange the manuscript of Copernicus to a manuscript of some of Czech authors. This way the Copernicus’ Autograph came back to Cracow where it has been kept as a possession of the Jagiellonian University. It is held in a vault hidden from people and all the factors that could endanger it. It is lent only to a small group of scientists aware of the fact that each single time when it is opened shortens its life.

It has been 500 years since Nicolaus Copernicus started his work on heliocentric theory which he wrote in the most precious Polish book – The Revolutionibus.

500 years of heliocentric theory

It was a huge breakthrough in the human history. Although the view that the Earth is not the centre of the universe and it goes round the sun was stated long before Copernicus, it was him who proved it scientifically. From the historical point of view, Copernicus revolutionized perception of the world. It influenced politics, science, religion, and philosophy of modern times. Copernicus was an eminent mathematician and astronomer who did not overlook any of details while observing the sky. Although at the basis of his theory, more than calculations, laid contemplation of the harmony of the universe. His contemplation of geocentric astronomy led him to the idea that it is a set of random hypothesis. He wanted to prove the move of planets scientifically. His perfect knowledge of geometry combined with his passion to observing stars resulted in the conclusion that it was sun that was in the middle and planets moved around it in the order depending on the pace of their movement: from Mercury, through Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, till Saturn, which is the slowest one. The rest of the universe in the theory of Copernicus are just stars. But the order of the universe in his theory was not only heliocentric theory. It was also a precisely calculated shape of planetary orbits, their sizes, and placement. The system introducing harmony into the universe is still present today when the scientists having at their disposal the most sophisticated telescopes and measurement devices look into the never-ending space.

Title and introduction

Contrary to the common opinion, the original title given by Copernicus to his work was not De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, but only De revolutionibus.
With such a title the manuscript was handed to Petreius publishing company by Georg Rheticus. There, without the knowledge of Rheticus or consent of Copernicus the work was printed under the title De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. What is more, the publisher, impersonating the author, added the introduction. He over interpreted the theory. The introduction suggested that the Copernicus’ theory was not the true image of the shape of the universe, but just a hypothesis that made calculations easier. The first printed volumes came to Frombork on the day of Copernicus’ death. His friends – bishop Tiedemann Gise and Georg Rheticus – irate tried to make the city council to remove the anonymous introduction or at least to attach explanation written by Rheticus and remain the original title.

Decision about publishing

The canon did not hurry to hand his work to the world. He was afraid that it would not be understood and could be mistreated. Although the manuscript was almost ready, Copernicus had doubts. At first his intention was to keep it for himself and a few befriended persons of his nearest environment who guaranteed understanding and respect to his work. The astronomer, as he wrote himself, was afraid of “calumnious tongues, false accusers, people of little minds, wandering among true scientists as drones among bees.” Probably, the decision about printing the work was made in the summer of 1539, during a several day visit paid with Georg Rheticus to his friend, bishop Tiedemann in Lubawa.
Inscription: worried about misunderstanding and criticism, Copernicus wrote in his manuscript:
“Shall the leg of the one who does not know geometry be not put here.” Such a dedication was to be an invitation for mathematicians, and scare the people who does not know mathematics at the same time.

 A woman

According to a historian Jerzy Sikorski, an expert of Copernicus and the history of Varmia of 15th and 16th centuries, Anna Schilling, a housekeeper 25 years younger than Copernicus, was his mistress. The historian claims that Anna left his husband a few weeks after her wedding and moved back to Copernicus’ house, which caused a scandal. Although she did not get a divorce, she kept on living with Copernicus, which was reported to Varmian bishop who at that time was Maurice Feber. The situation did not cause problems to Copernicus until the bishop changed. The new bishop, Jan Dantyszek demanded sending Anna back to her husband. Anna Schilling wanted a divorce, as a reason she claimed that her marriage had not been consumed. But her request was rejected. Copernicus did not want to send her back. In the end, Anna went to Gdańsk. She wanted to come back to Toruń after Copernicus’ death, but she was not allowed to do so, as according to Sikorski, there was an assumption that she could seduce another canon.

Jewerly Setting

Front of the book, obverse, shows the image of Nicolaus Copernicus known from City Hall in Toruń (oil hand-painting) and a visualisation of Copernicus’ solar system. The book is decorated with over 320 gems (turquoises, corals, malachite, lapis lazuli, sunstone and Swarovski crystals). The meteorite used in the book is Muonionalusta, the oldest ever found on Earth, dating back to 4.6 billion years, which was found in Sweden in 1906.

The setting is entirely covered with the most precious antiquated silver and, selectively, 24 carat gold. The frame: Vesica Piscis which is a repetitive medieval decorative pattern. The reverse is decorated with jewellery gems and the image of armillary sphere refined with gold.

Facsimile specification

Format: 288 x 198 mm
Number of pages: 426 and protective elements
Paper: ribbed, ecological Corolla Classic White 120g
Binding: goatskin hand dyed leather
Circulation: limited edition of 99 copies
Accessories: wooden stylized chest for a book, wooden easel, jute sack, gloves, hand-numbered notary certificate
ISBN: 978-83-938300-8-4

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