Printing the Stars

I know that I am mortal by nature and ephemeral, but when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch earth with my feet. I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.
–Ptolemy, Almagest

For tens of thousands of years, humans have looked up at the night sky in awe, intrigued by the motion, manner, and nature of the stars. And with our propensity for pattern recognition and our proclivity for causal inference, or attributing meaning or significance to coincidence, we joined the dots, so to speak, perceiving in the stars’ contingent distributions, patterns, pictures, and amalgamations — reflections of temporal phenomena; as Hume wrote, ‘We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds…’. And of those armies in the clouds, we see a host of the animate: fishes, dogs, a ram, a bull, rabbits, a crab, a scorpion, a swan, and a centaur, spared by Heracles; and the inanimate: ships, a lyre, a triangle and a bow and arrow – all immortalized in the heavenly spheres.

The origins of astrology can be traced back at least as far as the Babylonians in Mesopotamia in the second millennium B.C., for whom it was a source of divination and hence the purview of priests; their celestial omens, recorded on cuneiform tablets, reference yet earlier oral traditions. They associated the five visible planets, or wandering stars,† Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Mercury and Mars, with gods. The Greeks adopted the names of the planets from the Babylonians. The earliest references to the constellations in Greek literature are to be found in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The earliest extant graphical depictions of the Western constellations are to be found gracing the magnificent Farnese Atlas, a second-century B.C. Roman copy of a Greek statue depicting Atlas, condemned by Zeus to support the heavenly spheres on his shoulders.

† Planet from the Greek ἀστήρ πλανήτης (astēr planētēs), literally “wandering star.”

** Aristarchus of Samos (fl. third century) was one of the first to propose that the sun, and not the earth, was at the center of the universe, with a rotating earth orbiting it.

The astrological tradition of the Middle Ages was transmitted from Ptolemy, through the Greek and Romans of antiquity, kept alive by Arab and Persian Scholars from the ninth century, and translated into Latin in the twelfth century.

Medieval and early Renaissance astronomy was based in large part on the Classical astronomy established by Aristotle and Ptolemy some fifteen hundred years before. Their epistemology underpinned the geocentric model of the universe that prevailed until the dawn of the Copernican Revolution in the sixteenth century.


Statue of Atlas holding the celestial sphere (Farnese Atlas). Second century B.C. Courtesy of Naples, National Archaeological Museum.

During the present day, when astrology is little more than a popular pastime, it is perhaps difficult to comprehend its all-pervasive influence on the culture of people’s past. For millennia, astrology and astronomy were ostensibly two facets of the same discipline. Even Johannes Kepler and Galileo, heroes of the Scientific Revolution, practiced as astrologers: the latter writing horoscopes for Emperor Ferdinand’s General Wallenstein. The Medieval preoccupation with astrology was indelibly writ into both Eastern and Western cultures. However, although it was widely revered and practiced by Christian and Islamic scholars alike, it was never without its detractors: Cicero (106–43 BC), Plotinus (c. 204–270), St. Augustine (354–430), Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636) and others objected. The twelfth-century Jewish astronomer and philosopher Moses ben Maimon wrote, ‘Astrology is a disease, not a science.’ Dante’s Divine Comedy, depicts the famed thirteenth-century astrologer, Guido Bonatti, residing in hell as punishment for his “magical deceits.” And one of the foremost fifteenth-century opponents of astrology, and one of that century’s greatest philosophers, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola,* inveighed against astrology, in his posthumously published (1494), Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinicatrium (Treatise Against Divinatory Astrology). And Luther later disparagingly referred to astrologers as “star-peepers” and that “astrology is framed by the devil.”1

1. Alexander Chalmers: The Table Talk of Martin Luther, (1857) pp. 341–344.

* Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, famed for his Oration on the Dignity of Man, a kind of humanistic or Renaissance manifesto stressing the importance of the quest for knowledge or “intellectual research,” … and that humans are masters of their own destinies. Ironically, the astrologer, Lucio Bellanti, predicted Pico’s death before his thirty-third birthday. Pico died aged 32, perhaps poisoned. See Wilhelm Knappich: Geschichte der Astrologie, (1998) p. 228.

Portrait of Pico della Mirandola

Portrait of Pico by Cristofano dell’Altissimo. From Galleria degli Uffizi.

But despite its articulate detractors, these were minority opinions, crowded out by an overwhelming conviction that the trajectories and conjunctions of celestial bodies had real and significant effects on the sublunary world, and therefore important implications for the fates of those who lived in the shadows of their heavenly trajectories. Predicting their movements (astronomy) was an attempt to contravene or at least mitigate their effects. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the admixture of eschatological speculation and astrology, its focus on the End Times and the revelation of the Antichrist – thus astrology and astronomy worked in concert to affect preparedness. Not until the latter part of the sixteenth century was astrology vigorously and widely challenged. At the Council of Trent that concluded in 1563, astrology was forbidden, and later reinforced and reiterated through Pope Sixtus V’s 1586 bull, Coeli et terrae (Heaven & Earth). The work of Kepler and others of The Enlightenment in the subsequent century signaled the end of Aristotelian physics and astrology.

2. Medicine, diagnosis and treatment in the Middle Ages

One might assume that astrology was at its most popular during the Middle Ages, when in fact it was during the Renaissance that astrology was most enthusiastically practiced. During the Renaissance, in response to political turmoil and uncertainties, astrology witnessed a vigorous resurgence, especially so in the Italian courts. Astrology was a legitimate subject of the university curriculum. Renaissance astrologers and astrologer-physicians were patronized by princes and patricians. In medicine too, especially prior to the resurgence of Galenic medicine, spurred by the influx of Greek scholars to the West upon the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the stars played their part in medical astrology. Physicians believed that the celestial bodies influenced the balance of the four humours (sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic, choleric). “By the end of the 1500s, physicians across Europe were required by law to calculate the position of the Moon before carrying out complicated medical procedures, such as surgery or bleeding.”2

Astrology is a disease, not a science.

Astrology & Astronomy in Print


Regiomontanus (1436–1476), astronomer, astrologer, and mathematician, pupil and collaborator with Peurbach.

As books on astrology and astronomy were already popular in the fifteenth century, it was only natural that these titles should be among the first to be transmitted via print. Some of the earliest of this genre were put out by the famed mathematician and astronomer, Regiomontanus (also known as Johannes Müller) working from Nuremberg in the 1470s.

Excluding the many broadside almanacs, more than a hundred works on astrology and cosmography were published during the fifteenth century. Almost all were issued in Latin, while a great number of single-sheet (broadside) almanacs, intended for a wider audience, were published in the vernacular. These annual publications could be nailed to the wall and consulted throughout the year.

3. See Renzo Baldasso, “La stampa dell’ editio princeps degli Elementi di Euclide (Venezia, Erhard Ratdolt, 1482)”, in Lisa Pon and Craig Kallendorf (eds), The Books of Venice – Il libro veneziano, Miscellanea Marciana, xx (2005–7) (New Castle, DE, 2008), 61–100; and The Geometrical Diagrams in Regiomontanus’s edition of his own Disputationes (c. 1475): Background, Production, and Diffusion.

Erhard Ratdolt

During the 1480s, Ratdolt had something of a monopoly on the market for Latin treatises on astrology and astronomy, producing about a third of the total production of this genre, while in Venice and latterly in Augsburg. Books on these subjects were typographically challenging, not only because they were often lengthy, some running to several hundred leaves, but too because they demanded numerous illustrations and complex tables. But then Ratdolt relished a typographic challenge. It was during this decade that Ratdolt produced more than a dozen works on astrology and astronomy: Ptolemy, Abu Ma’shar, Regiomontanus, and Johannes de Sacro Bosco, including a large number of first editions. His competitors, perhaps put off by the complexity and cost of producing these books, or simply ceding this niche market to Ratdolt on the basis of his already having cornered the market. And Ratdolt, by the 1480s, had plenty of experience printing the kinds of diagrams that these titles demanded. Although he was not the first to print diagrams (that accolade goes to Regiomontanus in Nuremberg), it appears that he developed a new method of setting them, using metal bands, perhaps set in plaster.3

Woodcut depicting Sagittarius. Poetica astronomica, 22 Jan. 1485. Erhard Ratdolt, Venice (type 8:91R). The 1482 edition is set in gothic (type 7:92G). Image courtesy of Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich.

Many of these books were aimed at scholars and used as text books. Erhard Ratdolt, like Jenson, also in Venice, appears to have been particularly skillful at cornering a niche market with the right titles, and then producing relatively large, quality editions at a competitive price.

Ptolemy’s second-century geocentric model of the cosmos, set forth in Almagest, was generally accepted until Copernicus in the sixteenth century.

Ratdolt was the very first to print-publish the works of Abu Ma’shar (also Albumasar). The Persian, Abu Ma’shar (787–886), lived in Baghdad, a former Islamic scholar of the Hadith, he was the most influential and prolific writer on astrology during the Middle Ages. Not only was he revered by his contemporaries, but his work, via twelfth-century Latin translations was very familiar to Renaissance astrologers and astronomers in the West.

Pages from Flores astrologiae (left) and Chronicon (right).

In 1482, while still in Venice, Ratdolt printed Johannes de Sacrobosco’s thirteenth-century Sphaera mundi. This work, a compendium of astrological treatises (including Regiomontanus’s Disputationes contra Cremonensia and Peuerbach’s Theoricae novae planetarum), was probably the most popular text on elementary astronomy for students new to the subject. With more than twenty printed incunabula editions, it was one of the century’s most popular texts on astronomy, with about thirty editions put out prior to 1500. The significant number of extant copies suggests that Ratdolt’s book was printed in a very large edition. Ratdolt printed this title again in 1485. The 1482 edition is set in Ratdolt’s Types 3 & 4; the 1485 edition in Types 4, 6, & 8. It is richly illustrated and signposted with numerous vine-leaf, black-ground initials, and sold well enough to warrant a second edition put out in 1485.

Ratdolt’s 1482 edition of Johannes de Sacrobosco’s Sphaera mundi. ISTC: ij00405000

In 1488 Ratdolt printed, in Augsburg, the first incunable edition of Abu Ma’shar’s Flores astrologiae (‘Flowers of Astrology’), an instruction manual for the training of students in astrology, in a twelfth-century translation by Johannes Hispalensis (John of Seville). Originally an Islamic scholar of the Hadith, Abu Ma’shar, only in his forties, developed an interest in astrology. Ratdolt’s edition is illustrated with seventy-two woodcuts, seven half-page and 52 smaller (square) ones (with a number repeated). Floriated initials divide and signpost text, and many are comparable in size and weight to the smaller woodcut illustrations, making for a rather beautiful harmony. None of the woodcut illustrations has a border, and the illustrations are crisp and clear with just a minimum of shading to hint at shadow. The main text is set in a small Gothic (type 4:76G), with titles set in type 9:130G, and captions for the half-page woodcuts are set in roman, type 8:90R. The woodcut outline illustrations exemplify what Landau and Parshall characterize as “the engaging simplicity and cleanliness” of the Augsburg style. This really is a delightful book, with some variation in the placement of the smaller woodcuts – some in the margins; others within the text flow. The colophon repeats a familiar self-aggrandizing refrain:

Erhardi ratdolt Augustensis viri solertis eximia industria: et mira imprimendi arte: qua nuper venetiis: nunc Auguste vindelicorum excellit nominatissimus.

Through the outstanding industry and wonderful skill at printing of the expert gentleman Erhard Ratdolt of Augsburg, for which he excelled with the utmost renown recently at Venice and now at Augsburg.

Flores must have sold well, as Ratdolt published it again in 1495. The only one other incunable edition of this work was put out by Johannes Baptista Sessa in Venice about 1500.

While Abu Ma’shar’s Flores was a manual for astrologers, another book, that for Ratdolt at least proved perhaps even more popular, was a star atlas or atlas of the constellations, Hyginus’s Poetica astronomica that describes the constellations of the zodiac and recounts their origin myths (dating back to Eratosthenes). Regiomontanus had planned to publish this work, but died before its realization. It is very likely that Ratdolt and Regiomontanus worked together, perhaps in Nuremberg; and in many respects, Ratdolt is Regiomontanus’s heir, for he published many of the titles that Regiomontanus had planned prior to his death in 1476, aged just forty. Of the five extant incunable editions, Ratdolt published three (1482, 1485, 1491). The 1485 Poetica astronomica, is one Ratdolt’s last Venetian imprints (before returning to his hometown of Augsburg in Germany) and one of the very last books that he set in roman type. Ratdolt’s Poetica of 1482 is the first illustrated edition of this work. An earlier edition of 1475, printed in Ferrara had left spaces for the insertion of illustrations by hand. Ratdolt’s third and final edition of Poetica is the only German translation of Hyginus published during the fifteenth century. Between these two editions of Hyginus’s Poetica, Ratdolt published, in 1489, Hyginus’s Introduction to Astronomy.

And we see the effect of book illustration’s influence on iconography outside of print. Visitors to the library at the University of Salamanca in northwestern Spain need only look up to its vaulted ceilings, the Cielo de Salamanca, to see evidence, perhaps, of Ratdolt’s influence on Fernando Gallego’s magnificent fifteenth-century depictions of the constellations and planets, painted between 1483 and 1486.

Left: woodcut of Mercury from Ratdolt’s Poetica astronomica, of 1482; right: detail of ceiling mural from the University of Salamanca, Spain.

The imagery bears a rather striking resemblance to the woodcut illustrations from Ratdolt’s 1482 Poetica astronomica, (see figure above) even down to the silhouettes of the zodiac signs Virgo and Gemini, for which Mercury is the ruling planet, on the chariot’s wheels. Mercury is dressed as a tradesman in reference to his Roman origin as the god of trade or commerce. He holds aloft the caduceus, a rod entwined by two snakes, that in Roman times represented commerce.

“The first artistic depictions of the Ptolemaic constellations on paper are found in early medieval illuminated manuscript copies of the works of Aratus and Hyginus. Two famous examples are known as the Leiden Aratea and Harley 647. However, the images they contain bear little relation to the constellation figures as described by Ptolemy, so the artist’s impressions in these manuscripts are only a sidelight in the history of constellation illustration, albeit an entertaining one.” Source.

It is difficult to trace the model or source of Ratdolt’s woodcuts of the constellations. They resemble more those in the Harley manuscript than those found in the Spencer Collection manuscript (Ms. 28; 1475–80). There is something thoroughly medieval about those in the former, while in the latter, the artists, Giovanni Vendramin and the anonymous ‘Douce Master’ reproduce something that mimics antiquity. Perhaps, then, we must look to another manuscript to find models for Ratdolt’s woodcut illustrations of the constellations. Perhaps the illustrations of Michael Scot, the early thirteenth-century Scottish polyglot, in Aratus’s didactic poem, Phaenomena, published in Bologna in 1474 – just eight years before Ratdolt’s first edition of Hyginus’s Poetica astronomica. – were the model for his illustrations. [I have yet to see a copy, so cannnot be certain.]

Ratdolt’s woodcuts — and reversed copies of them — appear in the books of at least two other printers: in Thomas de Blavis’s 1488 reprint of Ratdolt’s 1485 Poetica and in October of 1488 (between Ratdolt’s second and third editions) in Venice, by Antonius De Strata, de Cremona. And his Poetica woodcuts were copied even by the likes of Aldus Manutius for his own 1499 edition of Aratus’s Phaenomena.

ratdolt and aldus woodcuts
Left: Ratdolt’s woodcut of Sol (1482); right: Aldus Manutius’s copy (1499).

These charming though sometimes rather crude and even comical constellation woodcuts also demonstrate something of what was lost in the transition from manuscript to printed book. The coming of the printed book is almost always couched in terms of progress, of improvement; and though, while it is true, of course, that there were innumerable benefits to the printed book, something of the art of the manuscript was lost. For example, the illustration of the constellation Cygnus from the Harley Manuscript was beyond the means of any printer during the fifteenth century.

Harley Ms 647, f. 5v. Ninth century. Image courtesy of The British Library.

Although most of Ratdolt’s books on astronomy and astrology were printed during his decade in Venice, he printed a number of editions of this genre while in Augsburg from 1486. One such example is Pierre d’Ailly’s Concordantia astronomiae cum theologia, of 1490, a book that attempts to harmonize astronomy and theology. This work is edited by Johannes Angelus, who must have spent a great deal of time with Ratdolt in 1488–90, for Ratdolt, during this time, printed four Almanacs authored by Angelus. Not only did he work as editor with Ratdolt, editing the 1489 De magnis coniunctionibus of Abu Ma’shar, among others; but too was an important author: and it was to Ratdolt who he turned to publish the first edition of his Astrolabium, in 1488.

Concordantia astronomiae cum theologia, printed in Augsburg, 1490, by Erhard Ratdolt. Image courtesy of Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Darmstadt.

This book is notable for concluding with a woodcut of Ratdolt’s enormous red and black printer’s device.


The above is a brief introduction to the very first printed books on astronomy and astrology. We have only scratched the surface of what is a particularly rich genre of fifteenth-century books. Not only do we continue to marvel at their beauty, but their influence, both in terms of layout and iconography, persists to this day. So the next time you look up at the night sky in awe, perhaps you will recall those printers, long dead, who brought the wonder of the heavens to print and thus influenced generations of scientists and stargazers to explore and expand our knowledge of our rather magnificent cosmos.

Header image shows a region of star birth and death in the Carina Nebula. The nebula contains at least a dozen brilliant stars that are 50 to 100 times the mass of our Sun. Credit for Hubble Image: NASA, ESA, N. Smith (University of California, Berkeley), and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).
The pure CSS solar system animation was designed and coded by the very clever, Malik Dellidj. You can view the source on CodePen.

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