HYGINUS De Stellis, Poeticon Astronomicon

Pavia, Paucidrapensis sumptibus vero heredum quondam...Octaviana Scoti, 1513


4to. 52 unnumbered ll, last blank [A-F8 G4]. Gothic letter with woodcut initials of twelve- , seven- and four-line height. T.p. with full-page woodcut of ‘Sphaera Mundi’, 47 half-page woodcuts depicting constellations, the signs of the Zodiac, and allegories of the 7 planets. Light age yellowing, some browning at C3-8, a well-margined, crisp and clean copy in C17th vellum over boards, brown morocco label, cracking to upper joint but sound, a.e.r.

Hyginus’s work on the constellations, known as the ‘Poetical Astronomy’, depicts 47 constellations found in Ptolemy’s Almagest alongside tales from their mythological origins. Printed in beautiful imitation of Ratdolt’s 1482 edition, this nonetheless has a more sensible layout, keeping each image on the same page as its accompanying text that gives the stars’ location in the sky. The images are precursors of the grand star atlases of the 17th and 18th century, such as Tycho Brahe’s Rudolphine Tables. Moreover, the accompanying stories provide insight into the more obscure corners of classical mythology that otherwise would not have survived, beginning in the north with Draco and the Bears, major and minor, and ending with the Fish found in southern skies. Hyginus compiles information from as many sources as possible for each, so many descriptions catalogue the myths of different cultures. For instance, the Serpent-Holder called Ophiuchus is Phorbas according to the Rhodians, because he aided them in ridding the island of Ophiussa of its overgrown snakes. To the Romans, he is Aesculapius, a great medicine man, who holds a snake because the same had brought herbs to him which he used to bring a man back to life – hence the Rod of Asclepius which symbolises healing. The final portion of the book offers a similar treatment to the planets. Detailed woodcuts depict the Sun, Moon, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, each equipped with chariots pulled by animals of allegorical significance: for instance melancholy Saturn with his scythe, his chariot pulled by dragons, its hubcaps embossed with the signs of the zodiac over which he rules: Capricorn and Aquarius. After the procession of these chariots, in excellent strong impressions, the work ends with poems by Jacobus Sentinus Ricinensis and Jioannes Andreas dedicated to the reader’s happiness in his new knowledge of the heavens, and in praise Hyginus’ labours.

Hyginus may be Gaius Julius Hyginus (64 BC – AS 17) a Latin author famous for his collections of some 300 fables in addition to this ‘poetical astronomy’. At the time of publication of the work he was believed to be its author, although more recent scholars suggest a later author – or a later abridgement of what Hyginus actually wrote. On the other hand, the work follows Ptolemy’s so closely, with its star list in exactly the same order, that there is still a case for the 2nd century author.

BM STC It. 337 Cantamessa II p. 1302. USTC 836045. Essling 290. Sander II 3477. Not in Adams, Houzeau & Lancaster, Kenney.

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