Copernicus and His Revolutions

Copernicus 2: The Renaissance Cosmos

From Constantinople to Ferrara

Note: Use the links to the right to watch a streaming version of the entire Copernicus video, or a non-streaming version of just this section: Video 2 (Renaissance Cosmos, 18:49 mins).

Let’s begin the story in the Quattrocento, the 1400s or 15th-century, the century of the Italian Renaissance, one hundred years before the publication of Copernicus’ great work... (Figure 1)

Fearing the advance of the Turks, the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople, John Palaeologos, appealed to Pope Eugenius IV in Rome to form a council to discuss church unity and military aid. Thus in 1438 the Byzantine emperor, accompanied by 700 Greek scholars and officials, journeyed to the Council of Ferrara.(1)

These Greek scholars, and the Greek texts they brought with them, invigorated the University of Ferrara for the remainder of the century. To the great humanist scholar Rudolf Agricola, Ferrara seemed "the very home of the Muses.”(2) Nor was Ferrara only a center for the humanities: many of the Greek visitors, including Joannes Bessarion, Archbishop of Nicaea,(3) were Neoplatonists highly interested in mathematical astronomy. These Renaissance scholars, theologians, and astronomers shared a common geocentric, or Earth-centered, view of the universe. In university study, the most common introduction to the geocentric cosmos was De Sphaera, On the Spheres, a medieval work by Sacrobosco, first printed in Ferrara in 1472. (Figure 2) (Figure 3) (Figure 4) (Figure 5) (Figure 6)

Figure 1 Figure 1 - Return to Text

Florence skyline, view of Brunelleschi’s Dome and Giotto’s Campanile.

Image credit: Duane H. D. Roller slide archive
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Figure 2 Figure 2 - Return to Text

Sacrobosco, Sphaera (1490). Frontispiece.

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Figure 3 Figure 3 - Return to Text

Sacrobosco, Sphaera (1519). Frontispiece.

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Figure 4 Figure 4 - Return to Text

Sacrobosco, Sphaera (1519). 3v.

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Figure 5 Figure 5 - Return to Text

Sacrobosco, Sphaera (1537). Frontispiece.

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Figure 6 Figure 6 - Return to Text

Sacrobosco, Sphaera (1537). Title page, with illustrations of zodiac constellations.

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Notes and References

  1. (Text) - 1. These scholars included Georgios Gemisthos (or Plethon; ca. 1360-1452), from Mistra in the Peloponnessos; and the future Roman cardinal Joannes Bessarion (1402-1472). Guarino de Verona (1374-1460), a friend of Vittorino da Feltre (ca. 1378-1446), resided in Constantinople for nearly five years. While there he lived in the house of the scholar who earlier had taught Greek to the Florentines, Manuel Chrysoloras (ca. 1335-1415). After 1429, Gaurino taught Greek and Rhetoric at the University of Ferrara. Italian scholars with an interest in Greek after Chrysoloras, such as Guarino de Verona and Giovanni Aurispa (also at Ferrara), collected Greek manuscripts. Aurispa alone brought 232 manuscripts back from Byzantium, including a collection of Plato a copy of which was acquired by Vittorino. Interestingly, Pawel Czartoryski, "The Library of Copernicus," Studia Copernicana, 16 (1978): 355-396, has described books which were known to be annotated by Copernicus, some of which might have been acquired in Ferrara, e.g. Bessarion's In Calumniatorem Platonis; a Greek-Latin dictionary by Johannes Crastonis published in Modena (near Ferrara) in 1499-1500; and two works by the Ferraran lecturer in medicine, Joannes Michael Savonarola.
  2. (Text) - 2. Werner L. Gundersheimer, Ferrara: The Style of a Renaissance Despotism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), 212.
  3. (Text) - 3. Bessarion studied Neoplatonism and Pythagorean philosophy with Gemisthos at Mistra, and became the Archbishop of Nicaea before the Council of Ferrara/Florence. After returning to Byzantium, Bessarion was named a Roman Cardinal (1439). Appreciating both the Turkish threat and the Latin invitation, he returned to Italy in 1440 and engaged himself in reforming monasteries. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Bessarion was in a position to assist his refugee countrymen, and to collect Greek manuscripts obtained from Byzantium.

Exhibit credit: Kerry Magruder.

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