Liber physiognomiae.

(Passau), (Johann Petri), (c. 1487-1488).


4to. 44 unnumbered leaves, a-c8, d6, e8, f6. Gothic letter. Rubricated throughout, capital spaces with guide letters, initials supplied in red. Light age yellowing, early paper repair at head of blank inner margin of first quire, title page fractionally dusty. A very good copy, crisp and clean, in modern vellum over thin paste boards.

Extremely rare incunable edition of the Physiognomy or ‘Book of Secrets’ by the renowned Scottish astrologer, philosopher, alchemist, translator from the Arabic, and scholar Michael Scot. “In the first half of the thirteenth century Michael Scot, the translator of Aristotle’s History of Animals produced a ‘Book on Physiognomy’ (liber phisionomiae), better known in the Renaissance under the title ‘On the Secrets of Nature’ (De Secretis naturae), that has been described as the first true work on physiognomy composed in the medieval West. Dedicated to Frederick II, Michael Scot composed the work to enable the emperor to distinguish, from outward appearances, trustworthy and wise counselors from their opposite numbers. Such a science is so useful to a ruler that Michael Scot does not hesitate to describe it as a “doctrine of Salvation” that enables its practitioners to identify those inclined to virtue or vice”. Irven M. Resnick. ‘Marks of Distinctions: Christian Perceptions of Jews in the High Middle Ages.’

“The work is divided into three books, each having its own introduction. The first expounds the mysteries of generation and birth, and reaches, as we have already remarked, even beyond humanity to a considerable part of the animal world so much studied by the Arabians. The second expounds the signs of the different complexions, as these become visible in any part of the body, or are discovered by dreams. The third examines the human frame member by member, explaining what signs of the inward nature may be read in each. The whole forms a very complete and interesting compendium of the art of physiognomy as then understood. … The book attained a wide popularity in manuscript, and the invention of printing contributed to increase its circulation in Europe.

No less than eighteen editions are said to have been printed between 1477 and 1660. … The last two chapters of Book I in the Fhysionomia of Scot show plainly that he had the Arabic version of Aristotle’s History of Animals before him as he wrote. … Meanwhile let us guard against the impression naturally arising from our analysis of the Fhysionomia, that it was a mere compilation. Many parts of the work show no correspondence with any other treatise on the subject that is known to us, and these must be held as the results of the author’s own observations. The arrangement of the whole is certainly original.” J. wood Brown. “The Life and Legend of Michael Scot.”

“Michael Scot (c. 1175 – c. 1235), who was born in Scotland and travelled to Spain, deserves a special place among the translators of this century. Scot was a philosopher, alchemist, astrologer, and translator from Arabic. He was in Toledo in 1217, in Padua and Bologna in 1220, and in Rome between 1224 and 1227. He ended his days in the service of Frederick II in Sicily. Scot was able to translate some important Arabic works of a revolutionary nature. He produced a translation of al-Bitruji’s treatise which contained the first attack on traditional astronomy. His translations of some of Aristotle’s works with Ibn Rushd’s commentaries were among the first works that introduced Averroistic philosophy to the Latin world.

Scot gave also the first Latin translation of Aristotle’s biological and zoological works including De Animalibus. Most of these major works were achieved while Scot was in Toledo, where he was able to enlist the help of native Arabic-speaking assistants. While Scot was in the Service of Frederick II, as court astrologer, he translated Ibn Sina’s De Animalibus and wrote several works on astrology, alchemy, physiognomy, and the occult sciences. The name Michael Scot became associated in the popular imagination with black magic. He was famous in his own time and in the following generations as an astrologer and magician. He was called a wizard and thus he gained a place in Dante’s inferno.” A. Y. Al-Hassan ‘Science and Technology in Islam: The exact and natural sciences’. A good copy of this rare and most interesting incunable.

BMC II 616. Goff M559. HC 14547. BSB-Ink M-384. GW M23296.


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