RHETICUS, Georg Joachim (1514-1574). De libris revolutionum eruditissimi viri...Doctoris Nicolai Copernici… Narratio prima. Gdansk: Franz Rhode, 1540.
4° (200 x 135mm). 38 leaves; 2-leaf errata (quire K) misbound between I2 and I3. Woodcut historiated initial. Bound by Middleton in blindstamped pigskin tooled to a 16th-century design, brown morocco folding case gilt. Provenance: author’s name written in a contemporary hand on title-page and dedication leaf, a few underlinings and one marginal note naming Pico, possibly by: — Laurentius Wirth of Bamberg (contemporary title inscription; gifted by him to:) — an unidentified owner, ‘Ex dono Laurentii Wirt cive [sic] Babenberig[e]ns[...]’ — Robert Honeyman (bookplate; sale Sotheby’s, 11 November 1980, lot 2630, £75,000 to Quaritch) — Haven O'More, Garden Library (bookplate; sale Sotheby's NY, 9 November 1989, lot 50, $430,000 to Pregliasco).
FIRST EDITION OF THE FIRST PRINTED ACCOUNT OF COPERNICUS’S HELIOCENTRIC THEORY OF THE UNIVERSE. Copernicus had allowed limited circulation of his preliminary theories in manuscript for some years, but it was Rheticus whom he permitted and encouraged to write and publish a redaction of his ground-breaking science. The Narratio prima pre-dates by three years the publication of Copernicus’s own De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium.
‘THE MOMENTOUS MEETING BETWEEN RHETICUS AND COPERNICUS PRECIPITATED THE BEGINNING OF MODERN ASTRONOMY’ (DSB). The appearance in 1531 of what was later named Halley’s comet was observed across Europe and studied by scientists such as Johannes Schöner, Gemma Frisius, Paracelsus, and Achilles Pirmin Gasser; it heightened interest in astronomy, a field in which Gasser, Rheticus’s professor at Zurich and his first mentor, encouraged his young protégé. On Gasser’s recommendation, Rheticus completed his studies at Wittenberg, where he was appointed — still only 22 years of age — professor of mathematics. Two years later, in 1538, Rheticus embarked on a leave of absence to visit leading scientists such as Schöner at Nuremberg, Peter Apian at Ingolstadt, and Philip Imser at Tübingen, and in May 1539 he arrived at Frombork to meet Nicolaus Copernicus, about whose theories he had heard. The two men worked intensively in Copernicus’s tower studio, making observations together and discussing the new theories; the Narratio prima, completed on 23 September 1539, is the result of this intense study. Rheticus took it to Gdansk for printing, receiving proofs in February 1540 and the edition appeared in March. First copies were sent to Melanchthon, Schöner, Gasser, Duke Albrecht at Königsberg, Bishop Speratus, and others. Despite the revolutionary ideas contained therein, no public outcry ensued, even if figures such as Melanchthon and Martin Luther opposed it; the muted reaction encouraged Copernicus towards publication of his work in full. After a further two years of work with Copernicus at Frombork, Rheticus returned to Wittenberg laden with books and instruments. Copernicus entrusted Rheticus with the manuscript of his magnum opus, De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium, which the younger man saw into print at Nuremberg in 1543; Rheticus remained a life-long disciple.
As a summary of highly complex and detailed arguments demonstrating a heliocentric system, the Narratio prima itself was highly influential. It was published again in 1541 at Basel, and in editions in 1596 and 1621. It is known to have been read by Gemma Frisius and later scientists such as Brahe and Gassendi; Kepler in particular recommended it and drew on it in his own Mysterium cosmographicum. The ‘First Report’ was written as an open letter to Johann Schöner, and it is accompanied by Rheticus’s geographical work on Prussia, an Encomium Borussiae, and an explanation of Greek terms, compiled by his travel companion Hermann Zell. Rheticus’s reluctance to claim the ideas contained in the Narratio prima as his own is demonstrated by the omission of his name from the title-page.
THE HONEYMAN-GARDEN COPY. Owen Gingerich records 25 copies of the Narratio prima, only one other of which is in private hands (Pommersfelden, Schönborn library). Burmeister observed that the majority of surviving copies of the first edition circulated in eastern Europe, while copies of the second edition circulated largely in south German and western European libraries. The contemporary owner of the present copy, Laurence Wirth, remains stubbornly unidentified, but his ownership places him among
the scientific elite of the time and as a contemporary of Johann Schöner at Bamberg.
Dibner Heralds 2; Grolier/Horblit 18a; Houzeau and Lancaster 2487; Stillwell Science 106; Zinner 1758; Gingerich, Annotated Census of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus (2002), appendix VI, p. 378; cf. K.H. Burmeister, Rheticus: eine Bio-Bibliographie (1967-8).