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Title-page (detail), inscribed by one

Recycling an incunable

Astrolabij quo primi mobilis motus deprehenduntur Canones. Venice: Paganinus de Paganinis, ca. 1497–8, reissued by Peter Liechtenstein, 1512

One of the Library's newest acquisitions is an intriguing book from the early years of printing in Venice. The work contains two texts. The first, commonly known as Astrolabij canones is a treatise on the planispheric astrolabe, once attributed to Robert the Englishman (fl. 1271), but now recognised as the work of Robert of Chester (fl. 1144–50, who may or may not be the same person as Robert of Ketton, fl. 1141–57). The second is a treatise on surveying, De mensurationibus rerum (On the measurement of things). It is illustrated with sixty-two woodcut diagrams, showing techniques for the measurement of altitudes (including using an astrolabe), angles and distances, some of which are shown here.

It is a rare example of a recycled incunable—the work was printed in Venice around 1497–98, but the sheets of this copy were amongst those used by Peter Liechtenstein for his reissue of 1512. He simply overprinted the title-page with three new lines of type to make his new imprint. This copy has been inscribed on the title-page in a contemporary hand by one 'Leonardus', who also added at the end 'Omnia in pondere et mensura fecisti Deus' ('You, God, have made all things by weight and measure', a variation of the phrase from the Book of Wisdom 11:21, later famously associated with Isaac Newton).

The author of the first text, Robert of Chester, wrote a number of scientific treatises and translated Arabic works such as al-Khwarizimi's Algebra, made whilst he was in Segovia in 1145. As well as the work on the use of the planispheric astrolabe, he also wrote an original treatise on the construction of the universal astrolabe whilst in London in 1147.

Measuring altitude

Measuring altitude.

The two texts here had first been printed together in Perugia, ca. 1477; the text of this edition of 1497–8 is largely the same, but this would repay further study. The printer Peter Liechtenstein, originally from Cologne, was working in Venice from around the 1490s. He printed several scientific works, including Al-Kindî's De iudiciis astrorum (Venice, 1507), Ptolemy's Almagest (Venice, 1515), and Al-Qabisi's Preclarum summi in astrorum scientia (Venice, 1521). The last of these is in the University Library as part of the collection bequeathed by the astronomer John Couch Adams (1819–1892).

The scientific texts printed in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries grew out of, and circulated alongside, the manuscript tradition of astronomical compendia, such as those found in Cambridge, University Library, MS Add. 6860 (early xiv cent.), Ii.1.13 (mostly late xiii cent.), Ii.3.3 (late xiii cent.), or Hh.6.8 (xiii cent., with some notes and additions in xiv cent. hands). This new acquisition complements these earlier manuscript holdings, as well as the University Library's fine collections of incunabula, post-incunabula, and early printed books on science and astronomy. The Library is currently cataloguing its incunabula online, thanks to a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and has started with books from Venice. Whilst this new book may not be an incunable in the strictest sense, it is nevertheless a fine example of a scientific work from the early Venetian presses.

For further information on the Library's Incunabula Cataloguing Project, see the Project's webpage, and visit the Incunabula Project Blog for the latest news.

Measuring altitude

The same technique illustrated in
Johannes Martinus Poblacion's De usu
astrolabi compendium ...
Image © The Whipple Library.

Measuring altitude

Measuring the height of a tower using an astrolabe (Astrolabij canones, ca. 1497–8, reissued 1512).

Jill Whitelock
Head of Special Collections


  • Silke Ackermann, 'Astrolabe', in Epact: scientific instruments of medieval and Renaissance Europe, [accessed 20 March 2010].
  • Bernard Quaritch Ltd., Early books & manuscripts (February 2010), no. 4.
  • Charles Burnett, 'Ketton, Robert of (fl. 1141–1157)', in Oxford dictionary of national biography, Oxford, 2004, [accessed 20 March 2010].
  • Charles Burnett & Peter Jones, 'Scientific and medical writings', in Nigel Morgan (Ed.), The Cambridge history of the book in Britain, Vol. 2. 1100–1400 (Cambridge, 2008).
  • Lynn Thorndike, 'Robertus Anglicus', Isis, 34/6 (Autumn 1943), 467–9.

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