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Rare, pristine first edition of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus up for sale

De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium in 1543.”>
Enlarge / Nicolaus Copernicus revolutionized science with the publication of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium in 1543.
Sophia Rare Books

Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus revolutionized science when he challenged the 1,400-year dominance of Ptolemaic cosmology with the publication of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) in 1543. His manuscript suggested that the Sun, not the Earth, was at the center of the Solar System, thereby altering our entire view of the Universe and our place in it. Now, a rare, pristine first edition is up for sale for a cool $2.5 million.

The high price tag is a testament not just to the historical importance of the work, but also to the clear provenance and excellent condition of this particular edition, according to Christian Westergaard of Sophia Rare Books, who is handling the sale. (He will be exhibiting the edition at the upcoming New York International Antiquarian Book Fair next month.) A similar copy with just a couple of repairs and a contemporary binding sold at auction for $2.2 million in 2008. But most first editions of De Revolutionibus that come up for sale have dubious provenance, fake bindings, facsimile pages, stamps removed, or similar alterations that decrease the value.

Noted Copernican scholar Owen Gingerich spent 35 years tracking down and examining every surviving copy of the first two editions of De Revolutionibus, ultimately locating 276 first-edition copies (of about 500 originally printed) around the world, most of them part of institutional collections. There are only a handful of editions from Gingerich’s census (maybe 10 to 15) in the hands of private collectors, including this one. “It’s the holy grail for me,” Westergaard told Ars. “If you’re going to handle a book in this price range, you want good provenance. You don’t want it to suddenly be reported stolen from some library. You want it to be in Gingerich’s census. In my opinion, this copy has it all.”

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Enlarge / The “Toruń portrait” of Nicolaus Copernicus (anonymous, c. 1580).
Public domain

Copernicus was raised by his uncle, a canon at Frauenburg Cathedral. He traveled to Italy in 1496 to pursue degrees in canon law and medicine, but after witnessing his first lunar eclipse in March 1497, he found himself drawn to astronomy. Copernicus eventually became a canon at Frauenburg Cathedral himself. He built an observatory in his rooms in the turret of the town’s walled fortification and diligently studied the heavens each night.

In 1514, an anonymous booklet began making the rounds among a few astronomers—personal friends of Copernicus, who had authored it. The “Little Commentary” (Commentariolus) laid out his new model of the Universe with the Sun at the center and the Earth and other planets orbiting around it. He correctly determined the order of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter, and concluded that the changing positions of the stars are actually caused by the rotation of the Earth itself. Finally, he explained that the apparent retrograde motion of the planets is caused because one is observing them from a moving Earth.

These axioms formed the basis for De Revolutionibus, which wasn’t published until near the end of his life. A young professor of mathematics and astronomy named Georg Joachim Rheticus visited Copernicus at Frauenburg in May 1539, and at his urging, Copernicus finally completed the manuscript. In 1542, Rheticus delivered it to a printer in Nurnberg, delegating responsibility for supervising the process to Andreas Osiander, a local Lutheran theologian.

Alarmed at the potentially heretical content, Osiander replaced Copernicus’ original preface with his own (unsigned) letter to the reader. In it, he claimed the book’s conclusions should not be viewed as the “truth,” but as a new model for a simpler means of calculating the positions of the heavenly bodies. Rheticus never forgave Osiander for what he considered a betrayal, even striking out the replacement preface with a red crayon on several copies. What Osiander and others found heretical was the very notion of a heliocentric universe. The Ptolemaic worldview was seamlessly intertwined with traditional interpretations of certain passages in the Bible—which Church doctrine had declared to be infallible—implying that the Earth was stationary.

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By the time Copernicus received a copy of De Revolutionibus in May 1543, he was on his deathbed, having suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. Legend has it that he woke from a coma, looked at his book, and then died peacefully of cerebral hemorrhage shortly thereafter.

For all the controversy, the bulk of the book was a rather dry mathematical treatise—so much so, that author Arthur Koestler claimed (in his book The Sleepwalkers) that nobody read De Revolutionibus when it was published. “It was surely a text to be studied, but scarcely to be read straight through,” Gingerich wrote of this prevailing attitude in The Book Nobody Read, which recounts his quest to track down all the first and second editions. But Gingerich discovered that many of the first editions contained richly detailed annotations in the margins, contradicting Koestler’s claim—although most leading mathematicians and astronomers of the time focused on later chapters concerning Copernicus’ models of planetary motion, rather than the earlier chapters on cosmology.

The copy being offered by Westergaard also has extensive marginal annotations, in two different handwriting styles, which he believes are contemporary, i.e., made in the 16th century. Gingerich identified the two earliest owners as “Brugiere” and “Jacobi Du Roure,” although he was unable to find any historical records to learn more about them. An Italian dealer named Battiata Galanti handled the sale of this edition in 1949. The book was sold again in 1970 to private collectors before being bought at auction in 1983 by Dutch collector Joost Ritman, who created the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, aka the Ritman Library. Its current owner purchased the volume at auction in 2013.

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Nor was this edition subject to the censorship imposed by the Inquisition in 1616, when it included De Revolutionibus on its Index of Prohibited Books—prohibited, that is, until very specific corrections had been made. Most of the required changes were designed to emphasize the hypothetical nature of the work, but one called for the removal of the entirety of chapter 8, which concerns the Earth’s motion. “For centuries, you had to have a permit to even read this book,” said Westergaard. “If a library had a copy of Copernicus, it would be locked away in a little separate cupboard. The copy I have is not censored at all.”