Lot 557
  • 557

Copernicus, Nicolaus (1473-1543).

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  • Copernicus, Nicolaus (1473-1543).
De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri vi. Nuremberg: J. Petreius, 1543


It is possible that Greaves acquired the Copernicus in Venice in 1636 at the earliest. It had previously belonged to a Venetian cardinal, Giovanni Dolfin or Delfino (1545–1622), a cleric and scholar, who worked in the diplomatic service and who had many connections in the scientific, astronomical and mathematical worlds. Between 1584 and 1588, Giovanni Dolfin was Venetian ambassador to France and afterwards to Prague, arriving in April 1590. In a letter addressed to his masters in Venice (3 September 1591), Dolfin, at the urging of the imperial vice-chancellor Kurz, himself a great student of astronomy, sang the praises of Tycho Brahe “the first man in the world for mathematics”. Dolfin urged Venice to assist in measuring the length and breadth of the pole in various parts of the world (see Evans, Rudolf II, p.136). In early 1595 Dolfin returned to Paris, this time with Pietro Duodo (1554-1611), the well-known book collector and commissioner of bindings (see A.R.A. Hobson, French and Italian Collectors and their Bindings (Oxford, 1953), p. 66). Duodo was later (1608) a correspondent of Galileo and other members of the family were Galileo’s private students.

Back in Venice, Dolfin became heavily involved in the problems caused by the publication of the Clementine Index (Rome, 1596), which was strongly opposed by the Venetian Senate, whose interests, as well as those of Venetian printers and booksellers, Dolfin was sent to Rome to represent. In July 1600 Dolfin was made one of the Riformatori dello Studio di Padova and was responsible for making an ex gratia payment to a hard-up Galileo to marry off his “figliuola nubile”. Galileo’s links remained right up to the end of Dolfin’s life: Niccolò Dolfin wrote to him about his uncle just a few days before his death (Galileo, Opere, 13:100).

It is, of course, equally possible that Greaves acquired the Copernicus in England. Books from Dolfin’s library were in England from not long after his death. Sir Henry Wotton (1568–1639) when he was in Venice on his last term as ambassador (1621–early 1624), had acquired various items from his estate: a printed book (Juvenal and Persius, Satyrae, Milan: P. de Lavagna, 1476; H 9684), and two manuscripts now at Eton (both from Bernardo Bembo’s library) and a manuscript in the Bodleian (MS.e.Mus.25). Wotton must have brought these back to England in 1624, the year that he became Provost of Eton College. We know that Wotton had a substantial library, which has disappeared without trace, and it is just possible that he may have owned this book. Eton would certainly in 1639 not have needed a copy of this book as it already possessed two, one from Savile, and the other from John Harrison, Head Master (1630–1636), and Fellow until his death in 1642.

Greaves’s estate, including his books, passed to his three brothers. The part now in the Bodleian was purchased in 1678 from the estate of Thomas (d. 1676), who had published the Arabic manuscripts, including Apollonius’s On the division of a Ratio, translated by Halley. But the Bodleian also acquired books and manuscripts by other routes. Thomas Greaves sold manuscripts to Samuel Clarke in 1668, probably for Oxford. Certainly one manuscript once owned by John Greaves ended up with Edward Bernard and came to the Bodleian in 1698. In all probability John Greaves’s Copernicus came onto the market in the late 1660s or in the late 1670s.

We do not know when Richard Bentley (1662–1742), acquired the volume, though it was possibly around 1690.  His signature appears in the top right-hand corner of the title-page, as it does in a few other mathematical books in the Macclesfield science library. Bentley gave the Boyle Lectures in 1692 at St Martin in the Fields (“A Confutation of Atheism”, 1693), and in the same year consulted Newton about the use of his ideas. A correspondence ensued (Correspondence, 2, letters 398, 399, 403, 406), and although there is no precise reference to the 1543 De revolutionibus, the Copernican system is mentioned, and Bentley was clearly well-read in some of the literature. Although he was a great classical scholar, Bentley was no mathematician, and has left no mark in the book. But Bentley’s role is assured in assisting in publishing (for his own profit) the second edition of Newton’s Principia, and his activities in establishing an observatory in Trinity for Cotes, and a chemical laboratory for Vigani (1702).

Bentley died in 1742 but there was no sale, and one suspects that Jones (who himself died in 1749) acquired it sometime between 1715 and 1725, possibly as a gift. Apart from adding a signed note at the end of the Table of Contents about Greaves, Jones has added nothing.

Note: Other books from Dolfin’s library have appeared at auction (Sotheby’s 25 May 2000, lot 70); it was more likely Giovanni Dolfin (1543–1592), who was papal nuncio in Vienna in the mid 1570s, and a correspondent of the Imperial Librarian Blotius, who owned the volume sold in these rooms on 3 October 2002, lot 289, Canones concilii tridentini, 1564.


Zinner 1819; Gingerich I.214; Bibliotheca Palatina (1986) F5.5. (Gasser's copy) with lengthy note; PMM 70; see also J. Toomer, Eastern Wisedome and Learning (Oxford, 1996); Raymond Mercier, “English Orientalists and mathematical astronomy” in G.A. Russell, ed. The ‘Arabick’ interest of the natural philosophers in seventeenth-century England (Leiden, 1994), pp.158-214; Zur Shalev, “Measurer of all things: John Greaves (1602-1652), the Great Pyramid, and early modern metrology” in Journal of the History of Ideas (2002), 555-575

Catalogue Note

first edition of this “landmark in human thought” (pmm), heralding the birth of heliocentrism and changing our view of the universe for ever. a fine copy from the library of the astronomer and mathematician john greaves, with his annotations.

The word “planet” comes from a Greek root meaning “to wander”, and what we know as the planets were described as “wanderers” by Aristotle. To fit these into a system of pure circular motion around the earth was the aim of mathematical astronomy. The Ptolemaic system of the universe, which managed to explain the workings of the planets by means of an ever more complicated geometry, ensuring the retention of pure circular motion, was remarkable and held sway for a very long time, although it did not always succeed, as Ptolemy himself was aware. In the Greek world there had been other systems suggested, but Aristotle’s ideas about the earth and heavens had held sway for generations, and both the traditions of the Arab astronomers and (strongly influenced by them) those of the Western Middle Ages remained faithful to these, while constructing ever more ingenious mathematical refinements and tabulating immensely detailed and accurate observations. Furthermore the belief in a divinely created universe, which could only be perfect (a belief held by both Christian and Muslim), gave theological weight to the existing cosmology.

Copernicus was a technical astronomer and geometrician, and most of his book is devoted to technical matters. Indeed, “the majority of sixteenth-century astronomers thought eliminating the equant was Copernicus’s big achievement” (O. Gingerich, The Book nobody read (2004), p.55). But his analysis showed him that, while the old system with its epicycles and equants could explain the motions of the planets quite adequately, a much more economical explanation, and a much simpler one, could be found if the planets moved around not the earth but the sun, with Mercury, the swiftest-moving planet, nearest to the sun and Saturn, the slowest-moving, furthest away, the others fitting in where the duration of their orbit placed them. The heliocentric system was born.

The arch-publicist Rheticus told the world about it in 1540 in the Narratio prima, and influenced Copernicus to publish his magnum opus. Its potential repercussions were immediately recognized, notably in the unsigned preface by the theologian Osiander (“Hosiander” is written in this copy at the beginning of this preface). The extension of the heavens and the recognition that the universe was not immutable as shown by Tycho Brahe and later Galileo, the adoption of heliocentrism by a variety of figures, not least Giordano Bruno, plus the development of ideas about an infinite universe, which could not be changeless, inexorably pushed De revolutionibus towards condemnation, which came in 1616.

This is a cardinal scientific work which, like that of Vesalius published in the same year, ultimately and in the teeth of strong resistance, created the modern consciousness, and paved the way for the scientific revolution.

john greaves (1602-1652), mathematician, orientalist, astronomer and traveller

“One of the most interesting characters in the intellectual history of that most interesting of English centuries, the seventeenth, was John Greaves. His enormous energy, curiosity, and breadth of vision combined to make him extremely effective in extending the bounds of scholarship…” (Toomer, p.127).

This extraordinary volume is a microcosm of the astronomical, mathematical and calendrical interests of the seventeenth century, demonstrative of both the international nature of science and of the private study of a man of wide and deep scholarship. An already important book is transformed by Greaves’s copious annotations and remarks and provides a unique insight into an age and its concerns through the eyes of a most remarkable man.

John Greaves was born near Alresford, Hampshire. He was educated at Oxford University, matriculating at Balliol in December 1617, and graduating from St Mary’s Hall in July 1621. Three years later, he was elected a Fellow of Merton College, where he came under the influence of Henry Briggs and John Bainbridge, who developed his interest in mathematics and oriental studies. There was a strong interest in mathematics at Merton, originally fostered by the Warden, Sir Henry Savile (1549–1622), and continued by his disciples and pupils. Greaves remained there until his expulsion from Oxford in 1648. During his Oxford years he also spent substantial time in London, where, in 1631, he was elected Gresham Professor of Geometry, a post he held until the 1640s. His interest in astronomy is apparent from the notes on eclipses made in Oxford from 1630. Greaves’s notebook containing this work survives in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Greaves travelled extensively abroad. In 1633 he went to Leiden, where he probably studied Arabic under Jacobus Golius, the renowned Dutch arabist and collector of manuscripts. He was in Paris in August 1635, where he met the French mathematician and orientalist Claude Hardy, one of Mersenne’s circle, and where he continued his Arabic studies. By November he was in Padua, but went soon to Venice, where he is mentioned as being already settled for some time on 18 January 1636. In the same year, in Rome, Greaves met William Petty, agent of the Earl of Arundel, to whom he outlined his idea for travels in the Middle East, to collect manuscripts, improve his Arabic and make astronomical observations. On his return to England, he met Edward Pococke, the great orientalist and first holder of the Laudian chair of Arabic at Oxford. Pococke had just returned from Aleppo and together he and Greaves planned a further expedition.

Early in July 1637, they embarked on a ship for Constantinople, Greaves spending some time in Rome en route and arriving at the Bosphorus at the end of the year. His main intention was finding manuscripts to be sent back to England. He wanted to obtain “most of the Greeke mathematicians, translated into Arabicke… Amongst others I have procured Ptolemies almagest, the fairest booke that I have ever seene…”

As regards his astronomical studies, Greaves wished to determine precisely the latitudes of places important in the works of the ancient astronomers, particularly Constantinople, Rhodes (Hipparchus) and Alexandria (Ptolemy). He had with him astronomical instruments, including a brass quadrant of seven-foot radius (made by Elias Allen in London in 1637), which he certainly had in Egypt in April 1639, and which still survives in Oxford in the Museum of the History of Science. Greaves also planned to make observations (or have them made) of simultaneous sightings of eclipses, the overall purpose of which was cartographical improvement. In the Bodleian Library are a number of Greaves’s notebooks, and these have been studied and some extracts published by Raymond Mercier.

Greaves spent some time in Constantinople before sailing with the Turkish fleet in August or September 1638 to Alexandria, stopping en route at Rhodes, where he made some observations. In Alexandria he spent six months in study, went to Cairo to visit the pyramids, which he measured, and met local scholars, before sailing to Livorno in March or April 1639, a journey which took him two months. He then spent nine months in Italy, and it was at this time that he met Lucas Holsten, the Vatican Librarian, who allowed him access to the collections. Greaves worked on Guillaume Postel’s manuscript of Abu’l-Fida’s Geography. He returned to England in March 1640.

The English Civil War was a major interruption to scholarship, particularly in Oxford, but it did not stop all work. Greaves was responsible in Oxford for ordering Archbishop Laud’s oriental collections and in late 1643 succeeded to the Savilian chair of astronomy. As a result of his loyalist sympathies, he lost his post at Gresham College, his rooms were ransacked by parliamentary troops and his books and papers confiscated. Most were returned to him through John Selden’s good offices. From 1642 until his death in 1652 (and even after his expulsion from Oxford in 1648), Greaves published various books. The Pyramidographia or a Description of the Pyramids in Aegypt appeared in Oxford just after the city fell to Fairfax’s parliamentary forces. In 1647 he published his Discourse of the Romane Foot and Denarius, etc., a wide-ranging work on ancient and modern measurements. In 1648 he edited Bainbridge’s Canicularia, which had been commissioned by Archbishop Ussher, where he showed a broad knowledge of oriental reading. In 1650 he published the Persian text with a Latin translation of the Zij-i-Jami by Mahmudshah Khalaji, and the list of publications, not simply limited to mathematical or astronomical studies, which takes up a goodly part of Smith’s Life, is most impressive.

At his early death Greaves was, like so many others in this great period of English scholarship, a remarkable figure, a savant but also a traveller, a man as equally at home in the Egyptian desert, or inside a pyramid, as in a cold library or study, as this volume and two others (the annotated Archimedes, Basel, 1544 and Theodosius Sphaerica, Paris, 1558) in the Macclesfield library amply demonstrate.

the annotations

The annotations in the Copernicus are in pencil (in the text, and some on the title-page) and in ink. They are written in Greaves’s small, neat hand in English, Arabic, Latin and French. That Greaves has read the text carefully with pencil in hand is evident in the margins of the text. Not only has he corrected the errata (noting this on the errata list), but he has frequently made notes, sometimes referring to other writers.

Copernicus was widely read in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Edward Hindmarsh (1545–1618) heavily annotated his copy (now at Trinity College, Cambridge). Sir Henry Savile mentioned him in a lecture in Oxford in 1573, and Thomas Digges translated part of Book I of De revolutionibus. Further, Giordano Bruno caused something of a riot in Oxford when advocating Copernican doctrines there in the early 1580s. Savile had a copy of the first edition, which survives in the Bodleian. He studied it carefully, as can be seen in his notes on Ptolemy (MS Savile 30, dated 1570). The first edition (rather than the later printings of 1566 or 1617) was still being used in the seventeenth century, as we know from various surviving copies. John Harrison (d. 1642), the Head Master of Eton, also annotated his copy. That Greaves should have used this edition is therefore not surprising; that he should have copiously annotated it is totally in keeping with the way that others treated their copies.

The passages in English are on the lower inside pastedown. One, headed T.C., is copied from Thomas Coryate and is mostly about various cities in India and the Levant (“Ur a pleasant city 6 dayes iourny from Aleppo…”). To the right of this is an account (dated June 1748) of experiments involving mercury carried out at Dr Goddard’s house in the presence of the Elector Palatine and Lord Herbert. Jonathan Goddard (1617-1675), Cromwell’s choice as Warden of Merton in 1651, was one of the earliest members of what became the Royal Society, meeting in Wilkins’s rooms in Wadham College, Oxford, and at his home in Wood Street, London. Goddard’s interest in mercury is attested by a paper published by Wallis in his Mechanica (“Experiments of weighing glass canes with the cylinders of quicksilver in them”). Lord Herbert must be either the fourth earl of Pembroke (d. 1650), the great patron of Van Dyck and Inigo Jones, or possibly his son. A note in French on the same pastedown is about the “lunetier à Naples Fontana ses merveilleuses observations du ciel ou il a découvert des satellites de Venus & Mersenni epistola”. This must refer to Francesco Fontana (d. 1656), the Neapolitan astronomer and instrument maker, who is mentioned not only in Mersenne’s Correspondance but also by Hobbes (Correspondence, ed. N. Malcolm, Oxford, 1997, 2:621). Hobbes, indeed, acquired a telescope made by him (with others by Divini and Toricelli), which he sold in 1659 to the third Earl of Devonshire. On the lower free end-paper is a further note in French: a short passage from the Jesuit Dubreuil’s La Perspective pratique (1642), dealing with the oval (“L’ovale se fait de plusieurs facons, et toutes composées de portions de cercle…”). This is illustrated with four diagrams.

At chapter 11, “De triplici motu telluris demonstratio”, Greaves has placed three markers 1, 2, 3 in the margin referring to the triple motion of the earth and added in pencil (f. 10 verso, at foot of page):      

“Suppose a bowle, with a little bias, running in a great circle, the axis of wch bowle let us imagine to be carried always parallel. Here yn will be 3 motions. Ye 1 about its own centar and axis, ye 2d about ye gt. Circle, ye 3d ye renitency of the axis, wch is supposed to be contrary to the progressive motion of the centar, & as much. For if it were carried with it having no renitency, the pole of the axis would describe a circle parallel to that of the motion of ye centar, but ye axis would describe a circle parallel to that of the motion of the centar, but ye axis would not be parallel. Now an anomaly in this 3d motion by ye libration of ye axis. We may conceive to be made by ye bias. So for for ye treble motion of ye earth 1 ye diurnal 2 annual 3 reflexion or renitency of ye axis. To keepe itselfe parallel &c.’ earth.”

In Book II chapter 3 there is a manuscript reference to Theodosius, whose Sphaerica Greaves worked on intensively; and other literature is occasionally cited. At II, 2 (“De obliquitate signiferi, etc.” there is a marginal pencil note referring to John Wells, Sciographia published in 1635 (STC 252234; for a note on Wells, see Rigaud, Letters (1841) 1:6, and Turner, Tudor & Stuart, p.199).

Of the various notes in Arabic, or connected with Arabic subjects, there are: a table of Hijra and Common era years from 622 until 1668 (with substantial gaps) with further notes on Middle Eastern chronology (Hijra, Persian, Julian and other calendrical systems), with a table of the names of the months and the number of days in Arabic, Syriac and Persian, and a list of eras both before and after Christ. That these should be written in a copy of De revolutionibus is significant. Copernicus himself was greatly interested in chronology, and wrote about it in this work (see Grafton, Scaliger 2, pp.122–126, 129–131). The whole question of dating was hugely important across a wide range of historical studies from the sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries, not least in the christological aspect, as is amply stated in many pamphlets and other works, such as Scaliger’s great De emendatione temporum (also in the Macclesfield library).

There is a substantial corpus of geometrical annotation in Latin on the front pastedowns, fly-leaves and even the title-page. These are triangle problems with their diagrams (there is also a lengthy note on the title-page in pencil). These all connect with the section in Book I which deals with triangles, and which had been the subject of a separate publication edited by Rheticus in 1542, De lateribus et angulis triangulorum. There are references here (and elsewhere) to Pitiscus and to his Trigonometria.