The existence of this 13th-century copy of a key compendium on astronomy and mathematics was previously unknown. Islamic art specialist Romain Pingannaud explains what makes it so incredibly rare
‘In the world of ancient books and manuscripts, very often even the experts are unaware of the existence of important copies of key works. That was the case here,’ explains Romain Pingannaud, specialist in Islamic Art, of this 13th-century copy of a compendium of astronomical and mathematical treatises by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201-1274). ‘This was an incredible surprise,’ he adds.
Born in Tus, in former Anatolia (present-day Iran), al-Tusi was one of the medieval world’s most eminent scholars. Credited with having invented trigonometry, he wrote on a wide range of topics within mathematics and astronomy, as well as on logic and theology. He also famously founded the observatory at Maragha, Iran, in 1259, which sparked a major renaissance in Islamic astronomy.
This manuscript, offered on 26 April in the Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds sale at Christie’s in London, is a compilation of al-Tusi’s writing on five subjects. Some are his original theories, while others are his explanations of the work of Greek scholars. One of the chapters, for example, is a commentary on Ptolemy’s major work, the Almagest.
‘In his writing, al-Tusi looks back at the Greek classics and explains them, puts them in the context of medieval science,’ Pingannaud explains. ‘He is key for the transmission of Greek science through to the modern period. In the 15th and 16th century,’ the specialist continues, ‘European scholars of mathematics and astronomy worked not from Greek originals, but from Arabic copies. Al-Tusi is a crucial bridge.’
In the Middle Ages, books lived through the copies made of them. Of central importance, specifically in the Islamic tradition, is the chain of transmission — the ability to trace the lineage of manuscripts back to the original author.
‘We know that this copy dates to 1279, only five years after al-Tusi’s death,’ says Pingannaud. ‘This makes it extremely valuable. Al-Tusi’s works were frequently reproduced in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. We even find his commentary on Euclid [the founder of geometry] being copied well into the 19th century. But very few copies of his works were known to have been produced during his lifetime, and it is extremely rare to find a manuscript produced just five years after his death.’
What’s more, the entirety of the manuscript was reproduced — by one person — from an earlier copy that belonged to Tusi’s student, Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi, himself a key scholar. ‘This gives us a direct line of transmission to al-Tusi,’ confirms the specialist.
‘We also know, thanks to notes in the manuscript, that it was corrected against those copies, which had in turn been corrected against al-Tusi’s own. That means that this copy is likely to be very true to what the author originally intended.’
Very few alterations have been made to the manuscript, which is kept in a fine 14th-century binding. ‘It holds together essentially in the same way that it did when it was first produced,’ Pingannaud says. ‘It's beautifully burnished, very smooth, with elegant handwriting and thick paper of extremely high quality. The drawings are beautiful and very precise. It’s actually quite rare to find a manuscript with as many diagrams and tables as this one,’ the specialist continues. ‘As you turn the pages, you can feel that you have something very important in your hands.’
What’s also so wonderful, adds the specialist, is the relevance of the manuscript today. ‘The rules of geometry haven't changed!’ says Pingannaud. ‘For anyone interested in manuscripts, this is a keystone for the history of science.’