Lot 6
  • 6

Copernicus, Nicolaus.

500,000 - 700,000 GBP
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  • De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri vi. Nuremberg: J. Petreius, 1543
  • paper
First edition, small folio (267 x 187mm.), 202 leaves (this copy with no errata as often; see note), 148 woodcut diagrams, including 6 repeats (Gingerich count), tables of calculations, ornamental woodcut initials, early annotations in two hands, one of which sixteenth-century, in red and black adding notes on radices on ff. 150–152 and elsewhere, late seventeenth-century sprinkled calf gilt, red speckled edges, minor marginal dampstaining at beginning and end, marginal rust-hole in O3, binding rubbed at extremities, slight abrasion to upper cover, slight wear at foot of spine


"Brugiere", ownership inscription on a1, erased; Jacobus du Roure, ownership inscription at head of title, crossed out; sale, Battista Galanti, Italy, 1949; sale, Hans Kraus and Helmut Schumann, 1970, to Peter and Margarithe Braune; sale, Reiss and Auvermann Auktion, 12 October 1983; Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, bookplate


Dibner, Heralds of Science 3; Gingerich, I.128; Grolier / Horblit 18b; PMM 70; Sparrow, Milestones of Science 40; Zinner 1819


Condition is described in the main body of the cataloguing, where appropriate
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

A fine copy with wide margins of the first edition of this "landmark in human thought" (PMM), heralding the birth of heliocentrism and changing our view of the universe for ever.

"The earliest of the three books of science that most clarified the relationship of man and his universe (along with Newton's Principia and Darwin's Origin of Species)" (Heralds of Science).

The word "planet" comes from a Greek root meaning "to wander", and what we know as the planets were first 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 other systems had been suggested, but Aristotle's ideas about the earth and heavens had held sway for generations, and both the traditions of the Arab astronomers and 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" (Owen 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. 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.

Most surviving copies do not have the errata. They can appear on a separate leaf, or on the verso of the main or additional title. More often, though, they are absent, as here; of the 279 copies of the work in Gingerich's census all but 86 are without errata.

This is a cardinal scientific work which, like that of Vesalius published in the same year (see his Epitome, lot 15), ultimately, and in the teeth of strong resistance, created the modern consciousness, and paved the way for the scientific revolution.