The study of the night sky can be traced back to ancient times. Greek and Chinese astronomers were collectively able to identify hundreds of stars, which they grouped into constellations, some of which are still recognised today. In medieval and early modern Europe, the distinction between astronomy and astrology remained blurred. The movement of the stars and planets were believed to have an influence upon the destiny of nations and individuals.
A Celestial Globe
Celestial globes show the position of the stars in the sky as viewed from Earth. This majestic example was designed by Vincenzo Coronelli, who is considered to be one of the world’s greatest globe makers. It was made in Paris in 1693 and is an impressive 108 cm in diameter (a larger version was made for King Louis XIV of France). Coronelli collaborated on this globe with Jean-Baptiste Nolin, who served as the engraver to the French Crown.
Each card is hand-coloured and the constellations are depicted as fanciful creatures. The cards are designed to be held up to the light, being pierced with holes that correspond to the size of the brightest stars. Although the author was said to be ‘a Lady’, they have now been identified as Richard Bloxam, an Assistant Master at Rugby School in Warwickshire.
In common with contemporary thinking, Leonardo believed that the Earth occupied the centre of the universe, and so the shaded diagram in the centre right shows the Sun and Moon revolving round the Earth. Leonardo also believed that the Moon was covered with water, and that its surface would reflect light like a convex mirror.
You Spin Me Round
Petrus Apianus, the son of a shoemaker, was an acclaimed German astronomer. This beautifully produced book is his most famous work: it contains a series of rotating paper discs, known as volvelles, mimicking the movements of the planets. This volvelle shows how to determine the Moon’s latitude. A dragon sits in the middle, which can be spun round to point at the various signs of the Zodiac. The volvelles could also be used to cast horoscopes.
Kepler on the Stars
Before the invention of the telescope, the most accurate catalogue of the stars was made by Johannes Kepler. It describes the position of more than a thousand stars, helping its readers to locate the planets. In 1617, Kepler’s own mother was suspected of being a witch; she spent a year in prison before she was released following her son’s intervention.