Collections of Distinction

The universe in motion: Apian’s Cosmographia

by jmoschella


nocturnal in use, from the the 1524 edition of Cosmographia

Cosmographia … is about the world, which consists of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire

Thus writes Petrus Apianus in the opening lines of Cosmographicus liber a Petro Apiano mathematico studiose collectus, more commonly known as Cosmographia. The nod to the four classical elements is a fitting introduction to a delightful, wide-ranging work that was partly a rehash of medieval scientific thought and partly a paean to Renaissance ingenuity and the burgeoning spirit of discovery.

Apianus (sometimes called Peter Apian, or Peter Bennewitz, as he was formerly known) was a humanist in the Renaissance tradition — a scholar well-versed in a number of classical disciplines, including geography, mathematics, astrology, and astronomy.

Though Copernicus had already begun circulating his heliocentric model before Cosmographia was published, Apianus, like most other cosmographers of the era, remained an adherent of Ptolemy, the 2nd-century Greco-Egyptian astronomer and polymath.

The BPL's copy of the 1524 edition of Cosmographia contains an extremely rare variant state of the title page and some fascinating 16th century provenance evidence.

The BPL’s copy of the first edition of Cosmographia contains an extremely rare variant state of the title page and a fascinating 16th-century provenance.

The first edition was published in Landshute, Germany by a printer and priest named Johann Weyssenburger. It would go on to become a bestseller of sorts, with 28 distinct editions appearing in print during the 16th century alone. All but the first edition were printed after the original text had been combed through by the Dutch mathematician Gemma Frisius, who, beginning with the second edition of 1529, slowly supplemented Apianus’ work with his own writings and illustrations.


The success of Cosmographia may, in part, be attributable to its fantastical passages about strange peoples and foreign places, including a brief section on the newly-discovered continent of America. For the most part, however, Cosmographia is a practical book, intended to introduce laymen to concepts in astronomy, geography, geometry, surveying, and navigation. It provides detailed information on the structure of the universe and how one might navigate through it by using various instruments and devices and by taking measured observations of the heavens and the Earth. To accomplish these ends, Cosmographia was lavishly illustrated with maps, charts, and diagrams.


A detail from the world map added by Frisius in the BPL’s copy of the 1548 Spanish edition. (Click for full view)

In these illustrations we see a Ptolemaic solar system dominated by the Earth and Moon, with the Sun orbiting somewhere between Venus and Mars. We see various phases of a lunar eclipse. The armillary sphere — an ornate, mechanical model of the cosmos — appears several times within the text. In the cordiform map above, which first appeared in the 1544 edition, we see North America, a thin sliver of land off the coast of Asia labeled Baccalearum (land of the cod), floating within an otherwise recognizable map of the earth while the wind gods blow in from the margins. Perhaps most famously, though, we see volvelles.

A lunar clock from the 1524 edition. Click for a full-sized animation of movements.

A lunar clock volvelle from the 1524 edition. Click image see it in motion.

Popularized during the late middle ages and used in both scientific manuscripts and early printed books, volvelles are paper (or parchment) devices made of concentric disks that act like dials. The disks can be rotated into different configurations in order to make various calculations. They were usually intended for practical use, and Apianus’ volvelles (along with those added by Gemma Frisius) helped readers to apply geometric principles to navigation and practical geography and to understand the workings of the solar system.

To the right is an example of the lunar clock volvelle, which originally appeared in the appendix to the first edition. It works via the juxtaposition of two disks in front of a fixed dial, which can be manipulated to show the moon as it would appear at certain times of day and night, while also showing the relative position of the sun, thereby allowing the reader to determine the time.



The horizon volvelle from the 1548 Spanish edition. Click to view an animation.

The horizon volvelle from the 1548 Spanish edition. Click the image to see it in motion.

To the left is the horizon volvelle as it appeared in the Spanish edition of 1548. A simple, single-disk mechanism, it allows the reader to manipulate the dial against the backdrop of a compass.











The volvelle in the first edition, of 1524. Click the image to see it in motion.

Lastly, we see the speculo cosmographico (cosmographic mirror). This volvelle is comprised of a complex, four-disk mechanism that can be manipulated in such a way as to make a variety of geographical and horological calculations.











The BPL holds six 16th-century editions of Cosmographia: the first edition (1524), the French edition of 1551 (printed in Latin) and a 1553 reprint of the same; the Spanish edition of 1548, and two abridgments, likely edited and published by Apianus himself and issued in 1532 and 1541. To view any of these editions in person, please contact the Rare Books Department by email ( or by phone (617-859-2225) or stop by our reading room on the third floor of the Johnson Building.

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