4 June 2008
COPERNICUS, Nicholas (1473-1543). De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri vi. Georg Joachim RHETICUS (1514-1574). De libris revolutionum Nicolai Copernici Narratio prima. Basel: Ex officina Henricpetrina, September 1566.
4° (279 x 188mm). Roman and Greek type, woodcut printer's device on title and final verso, initials, numerous text diagrams and tables. (Discreet repair to title-page over partially erased inscription, very small tear affecting few letters on verso, sporadic light spotting.) 17th-century speckled calf, gilt spine, marbled pastedowns, edges speckled red (rebacked, lightly restored). Provenance: early inscription washed from title -- Alexander de Pratianis (early ownership inscription).
UNRECORDED COPY OF THE SECOND EDITION, THE FIRST TO CONTAIN RHETICUS'S NARRATIO PRIMA. Originally published in 1543 - it is said that Copernicus received his copy on the day that he died - De revolutionibus was the first work to propose a comprehensive heliostatic theory of the cosmos, according to which the sun stood still and the earth revolved around it. It thereby inaugurated one of the greatest ever paradigm shifts in the history of human thought. The publication process was overseen by a Lutheran theologian, Andreas Osiander, who added the notorious unsigned preface arguing that Copernicus's new theory should be viewed as a useful calculating device which need not present a 'true or even probable' image of the actual structure of the universe. This reading remained current throughout the second half of the sixteenth century and was only to be disproved by Galileo's observation of the phases of Venus in 1613. Osiander's preface, still unsigned, is contained in the present edition.
Copernicus had developed the broad outline of his theory by 1530; news of his ideas spread throughout Europe over the next decade and he received a number of requests to explain them. The Narratio prima by Georg Joachim Rheticus is the first printed exposition of Copernican theory, preceding publication of De revolutionibus by three years. The first edition of this short work is exceptionally rare.
The 1566 edition is therefore the first publication to contain both Copernicus's masterwork and the first published account of Copernican theory. The present copy, bearing the ownership inscription of Alexander de Pratianis, is not included among the 317 copies which Gingerich cites in his census; total edition size has been estimated at 500. Adams C-2603; Cinti 48 (3); M. M. De Caro (ed.), Galileo Galilei, 71; Honeyman II 755; Houzeau-Lancaster 2503. PMM 70 for the first edition.
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