a source for copernicus’ knowledge of astronomyand the first use of decimal fractions in europe

[Illuminated manuscript astronomical treatise, entitled:] Tabulae de motibus planetarum

[Ferrara, ca 1475].

Folio, ff. [4, blank] 150; [6, blank, original endleaves], double column, ca 37 lines, manuscript on paper written in brown ink in a neat humanistic hand, signed by the scribe Francesco da Quattro Castella (near Reggio Emilia) on f. 150v, 2-3 line initials in red or blue, large initial and coat-of-arms of the Scalomonte family, flanked by floral decoration, all illuminated in gold and body colours, on first text leaf, 231 full-page tables densely (but neatly) written in red and brown ink, some marginal or inter-columnar annotations, and one extended annotation on final leaf; some marginal waterstaining to preliminary leaves, generally in fine condition, in its original binding of contemporary blind-stamped goatskin over wooden boards, rebacked in the nineteenth-century, binding worn.


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a fine and complete deluxe illuminated manuscript of the astronomical tables of giovanni bianchini.

Bianchini (d. 1469), an astronomer attached to the Ferrara court of the d’Este, was considered by his disciple Regiomontanus to be the greatest astronomer of his time, and his Tabulae was one of the most sophisticated and widely disseminated fifteenth-century attempts to correct the Alfonsine Tables, the thirteenth-century planetary tables that were relied upon by all astronomers and navigators well into the sixteenth century. Bianchini was the first European mathematician to use decimal fractions for his trigonometric tables, and he also used negative numbers and the rule of signs. His rigorous mathematical approach made the Alfonsine Tables available in a form that could be used by Renaissance astronomy. ‘There can be little doubt that early in his career Copernicus depended on Bianchini’s tables for planetary latitudes which, in turn, are based on Ptolemy’s models in the Almagest. Hence, Bianchini’s tables can be considered a source for Copernicus’s knowledge of astronomy’ (Goldstein and Chabas p. 573).

‘Bianchini set out to achieve a correction of the Alfonsine tables—the standard in Europe for a couple of centuries by the time he wrote – with those of Ptolemy. He was a great admirer of Ptolemy and critical of the corrupted Ptolemaic and Alfonsine texts then in current use. Thorndike observes that historically: “... many have erred by neglecting, because of their difficulty, the Alfonsine Tables for longitude and the Ptolemaic for finding the latitude of the planets. Accordingly in his Tables Bianchini has combined the conclusions, roots and movements of the planets by longitude of the Alfonsine Tables with the Ptolemaic for latitude, and with the rules of Ptolemy which Alfonso too had employed”’ (Tomash p. 141).

Bianchini’s Tabulae was known by both Regiomontanus and Peurbach, both of whom visited the author in Ferrara and corresponded with him, and both made use of the present work in the computation of their own Ephemerides (see Hellman & Swerdlow in DSB XV p 474). Regiomontanus actually copied the entire manuscript in Vienna in 1460 (Nuremberg Stadtbibliothek MS Cent V 57), and extracts were copied later in the century by Copernicus himself (Uppsala MS Copernicana 4, ff. 276-281), influencing him as well.

The manuscript is divided into two parts. The first (ff. 1-34) consists of an introduction and Canones, explaining how the tables were calculated and how they are to be used. The remainder consists of the tables themselves (ff. 35-150).

The importance of Bianchini’s work is attested to by the significant number of manuscripts (almost all in European institutions) and three printed editions (1495, 1526, and 1553) in circulation, and its influence on such crucial texts as those by Peurbach and Regiomontanus, both of whom, as mentioned above, utilized Bianchini’s tables to calculate their own Ephemerides.

Bianchini’s Tabulae was occasioned by the visit of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III to Ferrara in 1452, and a copy, perhaps the dedication copy, in the Biblioteca Comunale Ariostea, Ferrara (Cl. I. n 147) contains a miniature in which Bianchini is shown presenting the work to Frederick, with Borso d’Este looking on.

Incipit: ‘Incipiunt Tabulae de motibus planetarum per Iovannem blanchinum ferrariensem ad I[iperatorem] F[redericum] Christianissimo Imperatori...’

Watermarks: cf Briquet 3387 (ecclesiastical hat), Venice 1471-4; Briquet 2667 (basilisk), Ferrara 1447, 1450 (see Briquet I, pp 190-2 for a number of related Ferrarese basilisk watermarks)

Provenance: signed by the scribe, Francesco da Quattro Castella (near Reggio Emilia) on f. 150 verso; arms on first leaf of Marco Antonio Scalamonte (most likely of the patrician family of Ancona) who became a senator in Rome in 1502 (Crollalanza, Diz. Blasonico, II, p. 501); early manuscript astronomical table for the year 1490 pasted onto back pastedown; nineteenth-century circular paper label on spine ‘S. III NN. Blanchinus. MS.XV. fol. 43150’; H. P. Kraus, sold to Robert Honeyman Jr. (1928-78) noted US collector of scientific books and mss, his Astronomy ms 1 and ms 75; Honeyman sale Sotheby’s, London, May 2, 1979 lot 1110 (£5280); Alan Thomas Catalogue 43, 2 (1981); H.P. Kraus, to a private client.

Census: Although Boffito, Thorndike, Zinner, and Kristeller locate some few dozen mss. of Bianchini’s work in European institutions – often comprising only the tables, without the introductory matter -, the only US copy recorded by Faye and Bond in 1962 was the present copy, then in the collection of Robert Honeyman. There was not then, and there is not now any copy of this manuscript in an American institution. There is a single copy in private hands, in the collection of Erwin Tomash.

C.U. Faye & W.H. Bond, Supplement to the Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada (1962), p. 21, no. 12 (this copy)= Honeyman Collection of Scientific Books and Manuscripts Part III, Wed May 2, 1979 Tomash and Williams B150; Boffito, ‘Le Tavole Astronomiche di Giovanni Bianchini,’ La Bibliofilia 9 (1908) 378-88; L. Thorndike, ‘Giovanni Bianchini in Paris Mss,’ Scripta Mathematica 16 (1950) 69ff. & his ‘Giovanni Bianchini in Italian Mss,’ Scripta Mathematica 19 (1953) 5-17; Paul L. Rose, The Italian Renaissance of Mathematics, passim; Ernst Zinner, Regiomontanus. His Life and Works (1990); Bernard R. Goldstein & José Chabas, ‘Ptolemy, Bianchini and Copernicus: Tables for Planetary Latitudes,’ Archive for the History of Exact Sciences, Vol. 58, no. 5, July 2004, pp. 553-73.