By Danielle Aloia, Special Projects Librarian
Today marks the 543rd birthday of Nicolaus Copernicus, who was born February 19, 1473 at 4:48pm.1 What better way to celebrate his birth than to look at his seminal work: De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). The library owns a 1566 second edition.
The work was originally published in 1543, a few months before Copernicus’ death and the same year that Vesalius published his Fabrica. That year is considered by many scholars to be “the veritable annus mirabilis of the sixteenth century.”2 This miraculous or amazing year was a culmination of late Renaissance humanistic thinking. Indeed, Copernicus was a true renaissance man; he was a scholar, physician, clergyman, and astronomer.
Yet Copernicus was reluctant to publish De revolutionibus; his pupil, Georg Joachim Rheticus, had to convince him to do so. Copernicus feared the controversy that would come if he published that the Sun was the center of the solar system. At the time, the Church was burning people at the stake for their views on Aristotle.3 De revolutionibus expounded upon Ptolemy’s idea of planetary motion from his treatise Almagest. As one biographer questioned: “Did Copernicus fail to see that he was pushing the dear Lord out into the infinite void?”4
Copernicus, a bishop himself, did have the support of two other bishops, Nicholas Schönberg and Tiedemann Giese, both of whom encouraged him to publish his work. Schönberg wrote an encouraging letter stating: “I had learned that you had not merely mastered the discoveries of the ancient astronomers uncommonly well but had also formulated a new cosmology … I entreat you … to communicate this discovery of yours to scholars…”5
According to historian Guy Freeland, “Copernicus was cautious about printing his treatise on the motion of the earth because the act of printing was politically and epistemologically loaded; and while he seemed to understand enough about politics of knowledge at the time to attempt to control the reception of his work, he failed to grasp the ways in which that politics was being affected by printing.”
The publication of the Revolutions caused Copernicus great anxiety. He feared that “the devoted research of great men, should not be exposed to contempt of those who either find it irksome to waste effort on anything learned, unless it is profitable, or if they are stirred by exhortations and examples of others to a high-minded enthusiasm for philosophy, are nevertheless so dull-witted that among philosophers they are like drones among bees.”6
Copernicus passed away at the time of publication, “and so he was spared the shame of the failure of his Revolutions.”7
There was no immediate backlash or threats. Really, there was no major upheaval until later scholars began unfolding its contents. First in the 1580s by Giordano Bruno, forty years after its publication. Bruno would later be burned at the stake for his heretic ideas. Then Tycho de Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton all followed suit.8 What made the work so revolutionary was the widespread interest and attention from outside the sciences and “certain embellishments contributed by other men.”9
De revolutionibus is divided into six books. Here are images taken from each section of our 1566 edition, alongside translations and explanations from Copernicus N, Dobrzycki J. On the Revolutions. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1978.
Click on an image to enlarge and view the gallery:
1. Kesten H. Copernicus and His World. New York: Roy Publishers; 1945.
2. Freeland, G. 1543 and All That. Dordrecht ; Kluwer Academic Publishers; c2000.
3. Kesten H. Copernicus and His World. New York: Roy Publishers; 1945.
5. Copernicus N, Dobrzycki J. On the Revolutions. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1978.
6. Freeland, G. 1543 and All That. Dordrecht ; Kluwer Academic Publishers; c2000.
7. Kesten H. Copernicus and His World. New York: Roy Publishers; 1945.
8. Armitage, A. Copernicus: The Founder of Modern Astronomy. London: George Allen & Unwin, LTD; 1938.
9. Drake, S. Copernicus philosophy and science: Bruno – Kepler – Galileo. Norwalk, CT: Burndy Library; 1973.