Euclid's Elements
Erhard Ratdolt, 1482
EUCLID (fl. c.300 B.C.). Elementa geometriae. Translated from Arabic into Latin by Adelard of Bath and Robert of Chester. Edited by Giovanni Campano da Novara. Venice: Erhard Ratdolt, 25 May 1482.

A tall copy, with none of the diagrams cropped or shaved, of the first edition of “the oldest textbook in the history of science” (Norman) and “a monument of typography” (Kelly)—“an outstandingly fine piece of printing” (PMM).

“For twenty-three centuries the Elements of Geometry has been changing the world. A compendium of facts about space and its properties—lines and shapes, numbers and ratios—it has drawn countless readers into its limitless world of abstract beauties and pure ideas” (Wardhaugh). The Elements organizes all geometric knowledge from the time of Pythagoras “into a consistent system so that each theorem follows logically from its predecessor; and in this simplicity lies the secret of its success” (PMM). Read, reprinted and translated continuously, it has been a model for mathematical exposition up to the present day, training over two millennia of mathematicians from Archimedes to Anne Lister (and beyond). Originally composed in Greek at the court of Ptolemy in Alexandria, the present text is a Latin translation from an Arabic recension, likely that of Al-?ajjaj ibn Yusuf ibn Ma?ar (which itself does not survive complete today). Produced as part of the Latin scientific translation movement of the 12th century, the translation is the work of Adelard of Bath and Robert of Chester, which was then edited and augmented in the 1250s by Campanus of Novara to become the definitive Latin version for the next several hundred years.

Ratdolt’s first edition of the Elements is not only “one of the great classics in the history of science [but also] a masterpiece of early typographical ability and ingenuity” (Bühler). “Ratdolt created geometric diagrams which are so finely wrought that the method of manufacture still baffles historians of printing. The most accepted theory today is that they were made from bent rules or perhaps cast metal shapes, but we cannot be sure how such consistent, thin and accurate lines were printed” (Kelly). Other challenges included running out of woodcut initial Ss (due every proposition beginning with the same set formula) and a general shortage of capital letters resulting from their use in labeling the over 500 marginal diagrams—all met by Ratdolt to produce the most beautiful scientific book of the incunable period, which became the model for much that followed.

Variants occur in the first quire; the present copy agrees with the main entry in GW. Furthermore, the present copy has the corrected version of the last line of o8r (Curt Bühler, “A typographical error in the editio princeps of Euclid,” Gutenberg-Jahrbuch 1966, pp.102-104). The Glasgow Incunabula Project notes discrepancies in the marginal diagrams; the present copy has two diagrams each on d1r,v and 3 diagrams on e1r. HC *6693; BMC V, 285; GW 9428; Bod-inc. E-036; BSB-Ink. E-106; Dibner 100; Goff E-113; Klebs 383.1; Norman 729; Redgrave 26; PMM 25; Thomas-Stanford 1a; Kelly, One Hundred Books Famous in Typography 4. See also Benjamin Wardhaugh, Encounters with Euclid (2021).

Chancery folio (311 x 212mm). 138 leaves (dedication leaf supplied from another copy). Incipit printed in red, woodcut three-quarter border [Redgrave border 3], woodcut initials, and more than 500 woodcut and type-rule geometric diagrams (dedication leaf with worming to text and some green paint offset, lower margin of leaf a2 restored; small portions of leaves c8, f1, and f2 renewed; occasional light marginal dampstaining, some spots and stains). Modern blind-tooled morocco antique, edges gilt (light scuffing to joints and extremities); custom full morocco box.

Brought to you by

Heather Weintraub
Heather Weintraub Specialist, Books, Manuscripts, & Archives

Related Articles

View all
What I’ve learned: Thomas Venn auction at Christies
Bound for glory: 10 landmark b auction at Christies
The best exhibitions of summer auction at Christies

More from The Exceptional Literature Collection of Theodore B. Baum: Part One

View All
View All