Cosmographia

In 2014 Collins Library acquired the rare and magnificent Cosmographia. Part history book, part science toolkit, the Renaissance book brings to life the history of the study of astronomy.

"I had known about the Cosmographia for most of my career as a historian of astronomy," says James Evans, professor of physics. "I had seen several copies in libraries, and had included pictures of some of the instruments in various talks and publications."

The year after completing his Ph.D., Evans received a Fulbright grant, which allowed him to spend a year in Paris, researching the history of science. "I got in the habit of going to the rare book shop of Alain Brieux, in the rue Jacob, every once in a while to see what they might have. This is a shop that specializes in old science books, medical instruments, and so on. Over the years, whenever my work took me to Paris, I would stop by. Sometimes I bought things for myself, and sometimes I recommended things to Collins Library."

Discovery in a paris book shop

In 2013 Evans was in Paris, visiting the same rare book shop, working his way along the shelves devoted to the history of astronomy, when he came upon a copy of Apianus’ Cosmographia. "It was, in fact, an excellent copy," he says. "All the original moving parts were there." (And the small wormholes he found among the pages went all the way through—a good sign.) 

Cosmographia was a best-seller of Renaissance astronomy. It was frequently reprinted. The outstanding feature of its design is its set of working parts—there are a number of instruments with moving parts, bound right in as part of the book. A teacher in 1540 (or later) could use these to show students how some astronomical point was applied in practice. And some of the instruments can actually be used to solve practical problems.  

After carefully examining the book, page by page, and consulting with the book shop's Renaissance book expert, Evans worked with the staff at Collins Library to bring the volume to Puget Sound. With the support of faculty members from across campus, departments contributed funding to support the book's purchase. 

Arrival at Collins

By the time Cosmographia arrived at Collins, it had already been unwrapped twice during its journey, once by officials in France, as it was leaving the country, and again by customs officials when it arrived on U.S. soil in New York. Fortunately in both instances, the book had been meticulously re-wrapped for shipping. It arrived carefully packaged in five layers, each layer tightly bound to ensure that no damage was done to the precious book.  Unwrapping the book took three people and 45 minutes; finally, the beautiful leather-bound volume emerged, ready to be catalogued and added to the Archives & Special Collections.

Making the past present

Cosmographia is a rich resource to use in class in a general history of science survey. It makes the past present and tangible. Puget Sound professors use the book to motivate discussions of Renaissance printing, bookbinding, teaching, and readership. In his History of Ancient Astronomy class, Evans often includes material on models, including volvelles (the "moving parts" in Cosmographia). "In this class the students understand the old astronomy well enough that I can point out particular features of Cosmographia, and show how they embody the astronomy of the day," he says. "It always makes a big impact."

For generations to come

Cosmographia is considered one of the most important geographical-astronomical texts of the Renaissance. First published in 1524, by Peter Apian (1495–1552), Cosmographia was popular throughout the 16th century; reprinted more than 30 times in 14 different languages. It features volvelles, or moving parts, made out of paper and attached to the book’s pages with string. The volvelles were printed on used paper, perhaps an early form of conservation, and designed to allow the reader to solve problems found in the book. The copy held by the Collins Memorial Library Archives & Special Collections still has the original volvelles, remarkable given how many people would have used them over the past 430 years.

We are thrilled to have this unique and one-of-a-kind book in our collection and to have it available to scholars for generations to come.