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The history of the editions of De revolutionibus

Shortly before 21 March 1543 the Nuremberg printer, Johannes Petreius, published the first edition of Copernicus' work under the title Nicolai Copernici Torinensis De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium, Libri VI. Norimbergae apud Joh. Petreium Anno MDXLIII. In this small folio edition of 202 pages, Copernicus' own text was preceded by a separate introductory chapter including an unsigned foreword written by Andreas Osiander (Ad lectorem de hypothesibus huius operis); a letter of 1 November 1536 by Nicolaus Schönberg, Cardinal of Capua, addressed to Copernicus; and Praefatio Authoris, a letter addressed to Pope Paul III in which the astronomer asks the pope to defend him from expected attacks. This edition was divided into six 'books' and the text, in typographical terms, was very carefully prepared. According to Owen Gingerich, the Nuremberg edition ran to 400-500 copies, and from the beginning gained popularity in specialist circles. It must have been read by many as testified by both the number of surviving copies of the first edition (277) and the copious marginal notes made by their readers. It seems that Copernicus' theory stirred up interest among mathematicians, astronomers and theologians, including scholars outside formal educational institutions.

It is no wonder that two other editions soon appeared in the important European centres of Basel (1566) and Amsterdam (1617). The first, published in the famous printing shop owned by Henricus Petrus, was an exact copy of the Nuremberg edition in terms of format, typography, font and initials used. Moreover, the Basel edition bore the same title, although the title page, featuring an ornamental, almost baroque, woodcut, was much more extravagant than that of the modest Nuremberg one. The publisher, however, not only did nothing to remove the existing numerous mistakes but even added some more which has made the Basel edition the least accurate reprint of Copernicus' work. More positively, the text of Rheticus's Narratio prima was appended preceded by an introductory letter, written by Achilles Gasser, in which the mathematician recommends Narratio prima to his friend, the philosopher and physician Georg Vogelin from Konstanz. Achilles Pirminius Gasser (1505-77) was a great friend of Rheticus and an enthusiast of the 'new and true astronomy' introduced in Narratio prima and originally printed by Franz Rhode in Gdańsk in 1540. The Basel edition ran to between five and six hundred copies of which Owen Gingerich has managed to track down over 330 and which judging by the marginalia were carefully studied by their owners.

The third edition of De revolutionibus, prepared by Nicolaus Muliers, a professor of medicine and mathematics at the University of Groningen, was published in 1617 in the printing shop owned by Wilhelm Jansonius-Blaeu (1571-1638) who was, it should be noted, a student of Tycho Brahe. It bears a changed title: Nicolai Copernici Torinensis Astronomia instaurata libri sex comprehensa, qui de Revolutionibus orbium coelestium inscribuntur and differs from the previous two editions. On the reverse of the title page the printer informs the reader that the numerous mistakes appearing in the former editions are the reason why this new, reliable and complete version has been published. Muliers also added a dedicatory note addressed to the rectors and curators of the new Academy of Groningen, founded in 1614, in which he extols Copernicus and astronomy. Following the first edition Muliers included Osiander's unsigned foreword, Cardinal Schönberg's letter and that of Copernicus to Pope Paul III. On the publisher's initiative a short biography of Copernicus appeared and praise of his contribution to the advancement of European science. Muliers also eradicated many mistakes that had appeared in the previous editions, at the same time inserting many extensive commentaries meant to make it more approachable to the reader.

The date of the third edition coincided with the publication of works by Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) who provided the reasoning behind the Copernican heliocentric model with planets revolving around the sun. Their results alarmed the Roman Catholic Church so much that De revolutionibus was placed in the Index of Prohibited Books (1616, 1620), which in practice meant a ban on reading and spreading the position of Copernicus (as opposed to the position based on holy scripture) in the entire Catholic world. Lutheran theologians used similar arguments and as a consequence the popularity of the Copernican theory suffered although his work was still read by specialists.

A long time passed from the publication of the first edition of De revolutionibus until the heliocentric theory gradually penetrated popular consciousness. Its removal from the Index of Prohibited Books in 1758, allowing the publication of works professing the heliocentric doctrine, was a milestone on the road to the final acceptance of the theory by the Catholic world. Soon afterwards Poland also started showing a growing interest in Copernicus and his work, and the scholar who was the greatest populariser of his achievements was Jan Śniadecki (1756-1830) with his famous lecture entitled A Eulogy for Nicolaus Copernicus (Pochwała Mikołaja Kopernika) (1782) and a published treatise, About Copernicus (O Koperniku). The news in 1840 that the autograph manuscript of De revolutionibus had been kept in the Nostitz family library in Prague initiated renewed interest by Copernican scholars in Poland. Jan Baranowski (1800-79), Director of the Astronomical Observatory in Warsaw, set to work on a Latin-Polish version of Copernicus' works, a project ending in the publication of Nicolai Copernici Torunensis De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium libri sex. Accedit G. Joachimi Rhetici Narratio prima, cum Copernici nonnullis scriptis minoribus nunc primum collectis, eiusque vita. Printed by the Stanisław Strąbski printing house in 1854, in 4° format, this thick bilingual volume had 642 pages with the text printed in two columns, and with seventy-five pages of introductory material. This material included the translator's and publisher's foreword written by Jan Baranowski (who had worked in both capacities), a thirty-six page summary of De Revolutionibus mainly derived from Śniadecki's treatise About Copernicus, and a biography of the astronomer written by Julian Bartoszewicz (1821-70).

Apart from the text of De Revolutionibus, the Warsaw edition included other works written by Copernicus: De lateribus et angulis triangulorum (On the Sides and Angles of Triangles), Dissertatio de optima monetae cudendae ratione (Dissertation on the Optimal Minting of Coin), the Letters of Theophylact Simocatta, and also the poem Septem sidera (Seven Stars), wrongly in fact attributed to him. Moreover, the edition included some correspondence and two treatises written by Rheticus: Narratio prima and Ephemerides novae on the daily position of stars in 1551. The most important part of the Warsaw edition was Copernicus' original foreword printed for the first time (pp. 10-12), in which the astronomer expressed his strong conviction that his theory of the model of the universe was right. The Warsaw edition was very carefully designed; it had all kinds of illustrations, for instance prints of his portrait, and some then unknown further original manuscripts.

The succeeding fifth edition of Copernicus' work was published by the Copernican Society in Toruń (Coppernicus Verein für Wissenschaft und Kunst) on the 400th anniversary of his birth in 1873. Prepared by a group of five teachers from Toruń Gymnasium and members of the Society led by Maximilian Curtze (1837-1903) and Leopold Prowe (1821-87), this full critical edition of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri VI was a faithful reproduction of the autograph manuscript lent by the Nostitz library. This edition was highly appreciated by specialist readers both because it showed differences between the manuscript, the first printing and later editions, and because it was carefully designed typographically. Six years later in 1879 Toruń saw the first translation of Copernicus' work into German (Nicolaus Copernicus aus Thorn über die Kreisbewegungen der Weltkörper); although reprinted in 1939 by the University of Leipzig, the work did not however arouse much interest among specialist readers.

World War II made it impossible to prepare for a grand anniversary celebration of Copernicus' death in 1943. This occasion was only marked by a holograph reprint of the first Nuremburg edition of De revolutionibus in Amsterdam, while in Germany the Copernicus-Kommission set up by the brothers Franz and Karl Zeller in 1941 initiated work on a collected nine-volume edition of all Copernican material (the so-called Gesamtausgabe); only two volumes were published however. The first volume, featuring a collotype copy of Copernicus' autograph manuscript, appeared in 1944 in Munich, whereas the second, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri sex, came five years later in 1949. This sixth edition showed no differences from the previous as far as approach to the text and commentaries on it are concerned. In 1959 a bilingual Latin-German version appeared in East Berlin (the GDR) and in its preparation, the editing team included Aleksander Birkenmajer (1890-1967), the head of the newly-created (in 1958) Copernican Research Center in Poland, who had also been an initiator of the first Latin-Polish edition of De revolutionibus in Warsaw in 1953.

Whole or partial reprographic reprints of Copernicus' manuscript appeared in many countries, for example, the first Nuremberg edition was reprinted in Paris in 1927 and the translation of Book One into French in 1934 (a new edition of a Latin-French version was issued 1970). In Britain only partial translations were published, whereas the USA saw a complete version of De revolutionibus translated by Charles Gleen Wallis in 1939. Copernicus' work was not translated until much later into Russian (1964) and Spanish (in 1969 in Mexico), whereas a reprint of the Basel edition of De revolutionibus appeared in Prague as late as 1965.

The 500th anniversary of the great astronomer's birth in 1973 mobilised academic circles all over the world. Supported by UNESCO Copernican scholars embarked upon many projects in his honour and the Komitet Kopernikowski (Comité Nicolas Copernic de l`Union Internationale d`Histoire et de Philosophie des Sciences) was founded in Warsaw. Its main objective was to initiate and coordinate international research and publisher's projects. In 1967 the Polish Academy of Sciences committed itself to publishing a great critical edition of Copernicus' Complete Works with the then head of its History of Science and Technology Institute - Copernican Research Center (Pracownia Badań Kopernikańskich), Paweł Czartoryski (1924-99), undertaking the monumental task of coordinating the whole project. At first, the committee planned to publish three volumes: a facsimile of the autograph manuscript; a critical edition of the text and some minor works; and in three languages (Latin, Polish and English - nine volumes altogether). However, by the jubilee celebration only one had been published (in 1972): a facsimile of Copernicus' manuscript with an introduction written by Jerzy Zathey on the characteristic features of Copernicus' handwriting, the autograph manuscript's chronology and its peregrinations. It was not until 1976 that the most important work De revolutionibus (Complete Works, vol. 2) was published. In 1992 facsimiles of Minor Works in Polish, Latin, English and Russian were simultaneously published in Warsaw and Kraków as Vol. 4, and finally, in 2007, Vol. 3 including a critical edition, with some of the minor works previously left out of Vol. 4.

In collaboration with French scholars, the Copernican Research Center (Pracownia Badań Kopernikańskich) has published two volumes of the Complete Works in French: facsimiles of the autograph manuscript of De revolutionibus (1973); and some minor works by Copernicus (1992). The Russian version is published in three volumes: the first a photographic reproduction of the autograph manuscript of De revolutionibus (1973); the second a version in Russian in 1986; and the last (issued as Vol. 4) included facsimiles of minor works (1992). The full version of the Complete Works appeared first in the UK however: Vol. 1 comprising a photographic reproduction of the autograph manuscript of De revolutionibus was released in 1972; Vol. 2, an English translation in 1978; Vol. 3 Minor Works in 1985; and Vol. 4 with facsimiles of those texts in 1992. Its readers owe this success to Edward Rosen (d. 1985) who, unfortunately, did not live to see the fruit of his editorial work. To honour the great astronomer's memory, publishers in other countries have released reprints of Copernicus' work, for instance in Hungary (1973) and Italy (1975).

Scholars in the Federal Republic of Germany worked independently on their own publication of Copernicus' collected works. A publishing team called Deutsche Copernicus Forschungsstelle came into being in Munich in 1971 and continued the Zeller brothers' publishing project conceived in the 1940s. Thanks to the personal involvement of Paweł Czartoryski and the head of the Munich team, Heribert Maria Nobis, an agreement was signed starting a far-reaching collaboration for future publication. Also a Copernican Commission (Kommission für die Copernicus-Gesamtausgabe) founded in 1972 emphasised the need for mutual Polish-German cooperation involving a ten-volume publication of the entire legacy of the father of the heliocentric theory. The first three volumes were to be devoted to De revolutionibus, and another three to Copernicus' minor works and all accessible information on the astronomer's life and work. The third and last part was a bibliography including all Copernicus manuscripts and works on him in chronological order (Bibliographia Copernicana, vol.VII); Georg Joachim Rheticus' writings and other thematic texts related to the reception of the heliocentric theory (Receptio Copernicana, vol.VIII); Copernicus biographies from the 16th and 17th c.; an album of portraits and samples of his handwriting (Biographia Copernicana, vol. IX); and, finally, supplements, appendices and indexes (Supplementa Copernicana, vol. X).

Notwithstanding the intentions, only the first volume (published by Gesamtausgabe in 1974 and presenting a facsimile of the De revolutionibus autograph manuscript) resulted from the German-Polish collaboration so sonorously declared. The second includes a critical edition of De revolutionibus prepared by Heribert Maria Nobis and Bernhard Sticker (1984), whereas the third (part 1), Kommentar zu De revolutionibus was written by Felix Schmeidler (1998). The succeeding three volumes (V and VI/1-2) including a Latin-German version of minor works, correspondence and documents (Opera minora and Documenta Copernicana), were published by Gesamtausgabe in 1994, 1996 and 1999 respectively. The first part of the eighth volume (Receptio Copernicana) comprising texts on the reception of Copernicus' teachings in Europe written by several Copernican scholars came out in 2002.

Teresa Borawska
Nicolaus Copernicus University
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Mikołaj Kopernik
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