Astronomicum Caesareum

Astronomicum Caesareum – Edition Leipzig – Math Fol. p. 38 – Landesbibliothek (Gotha, Germany)

Germany β€” 1540

A Renaissance astronomical masterpiece on the eve of the Copernican revolution: 58 hand-colored woodcuts of planetary motions with movable celestial maps by Michael Ostendorfer and Hans Brosamer

  1. The magnificent masterpiece of 16th-century book art took eight years to complete

  2. It was written by the German humanist scholar, professor, and publisher Peter Apian (1495-1552)

  3. Published in 1540, it is dedicated to Emperors Charles V (1500-58) and Ferdinand I (1503-64)

Astronomicum Caesareum

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Astronomicum Caesareum

A magnificently adorned scientific work summarizing the state of astronomical knowledge in the mid-16th century: the Astronomicum Caesareum by Peter Apian. Apian was a leading German humanist and a true Renaissance man active as a mathematician, astronomer, cartographer, professor, and printer. His work, published in 1540, is considered to be the last great creation of Ptolemaic astronomy and shows the state of the field before the publication of the heliocentric theory presented by Nicolaus Copernicus just three years later. 58 hand-colored woodcuts created by Michael Ostendorfer and Hans Brosamer illustrate the text, which is also furnished with 21 rotating paper discs for calculating the position of celestial bodies.

Astronomicum Caesareum

Also known as Petrus Apianus, Peter Apian (1495-1552) was a prominent German humanist, mathematician, astronomer, and cartographer. The author of various works, his Astronomicum Caesareum is considered by many as "perhaps the most beautiful scientific book ever printed" (Brashear, Ronald, Daniel Lewis, and Owen Gingerich. 2001.) Published in 1540, the work predated De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, the groundbreaking treatise on a heliocentric solar system by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), by only three years. The book was thus scientifically very quickly outdated for the time. Not a few astronomers of the following generations – among them Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) – therefore expressed derision concerning this work. It was not until the 20th century that this last great creation of Ptolemaic astronomy attracted the attention of researchers as well as that of bibliophile collectors.

A True Renaissance Man

Probably born Peter Bienewitz in Leisnig an der Mulde in Saxony as the son of a successful shoemaker, he studied at the universities of Leipzig and Vienna. Since the imperial court had a keen interest in astrology and astronomy, the University of Vienna had long been a center for the study of astronomy as well as geography and mathematics. From Vienna, Apian went to Regensburg and then Landshut in 1523, eventually teaching mathematics at University of Ingolstadt from 1526 until his death in 1552. However, applied mathematics – astronomy and geodesy – were not particularly popular subjects there and mainly medical students attended Apian's lectures on astronomy. Physicians needed basic astronomical knowledge, for example in connection with bloodletting therapy, in order to determine the ideal times for their interventions.

One of the Original Self-Publishers

At the same time, he ran a print shop in Ingolstadt together with his brother Georg. There, in addition to Peter Apian's own works, they mainly printed those of Johann Eck (1486-1543), a fellow professor and most important theological opponent to Martin Luther (1483-1546). By operating the print shop, Apian did not merely want to tap additional sources of income, but above all to make himself independent of outside printers. In order to avoid errors in the printing of their works, which were difficult to typeset, quite a few famous astronomers in the early modern era – such as Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) or Johannes Hevelius (1611-87) – operated their own printing workshops. Apian's first significant astronomical publication was the Instrument Book, printed in 1533, in which he describes scientific instruments that served astronomers, surveyors, and navigators alike.

A Masterpiece of Science and Printing

Printed in 1540, the large-format Astronomicum Caesareum is a magnificent masterpiece of 16th-century book art that took eight years to complete. The number of printed copies is unknown. However, 111 copies have survived to this day, 34 of which are in Germany. The hand coloring was already done in Apian's workshop, which was rather unusual at that time. After the publication of the Astronomicum Caesareum, Apian's print shop largely ceased its work and was sold after his death. Apian dedicated the work to Emperor Charles V (1500-58) and his brother Emperor Ferdinand I (1503-64), who both financed the printing and made the author a rich man. Moreover, the book earned him the title of court mathematician and elevation to the peerage.

Encyclopedia of the Stars

The Astronomicum Caesareum summarizes the state of astronomical knowledge in the mid-16th century. In the foreground of the first part is the representation of the planetary movements and the determination of the position of the celestial bodies, which made the work interesting not least for astrologers. The movements of the celestial bodies are illustrated with the help of 21 rotating discs made of paper, the so-called volvelles. The Astronomicum Caesareum is thus not only a theoretical astronomy book, but at the same time a scientific instrument with which the position of the sun, moon and planets can be determined. Such rotating representations can already be found in Apian’s earlier writings and are part of a tradition going back to the 15th century. In total, the work includes 58 hand-colored woodcuts created by Michael Ostendorfer (1490/94-1559) and Hans Brosamer (1494-1554). The introductory celestial map lists the 1,022 stars known to Apian and the second part of the work deals with astronomical instruments and comets. Apian, by the way, was the first to recognize that the tail of a comet always faces away from the Sun.


Alternative Titles
Peter Apian: Astronomicum Caesareum
Petrus Apianus: Astronomicum Caesareum
Size / Format
120 pages / 45.5 Γ— 32.5 cm
Numerous woodcuts
Astronomical treatises with numerous volvelles
Emperor Charles V (1500–1558)
Ferdinand I (1503–1564)
Artist / School

Available facsimile editions:
Astronomicum Caesareum – Edition Leipzig – Math Fol. p. 38 – Landesbibliothek (Gotha, Germany)
Edition Leipzig – Leipzig, 1967
Limited Edition: 750 copies
Detail Picture

Astronomicum Caesareum

A Kaleidoscope of Constellations

Several charts of the cosmos present an artistic tangle of zodiac symbols and other constellations, which are presented in the form of the mythological character(s) with which they are associated. As such, Hercules, greatest of all the heroes, is depicted in battle with the Nemean Lion at the center of this page alongside the constellation Opiuchus, which is represented by a man fighting a great serpent. Libra, Scorpio, and Sagittarius appear on the circle labelled ECPLIPTICA along with the rest of the zodiac symbols.

Astronomicum Caesareum – Edition Leipzig – Math Fol. p. 38 – Landesbibliothek (Gotha, Germany)
Single Page

Astronomicum Caesareum


This work is a wonderful blend of science and art that features 21 beautifully designed volvelles, a type of paper slide chart with rotating parts that is used for making calculations like an analog computer. Although they were based on the false geocentric model of the universe, they could still be used reliably for predicting the movements of the planets.

The outer ring of this volvelle is labelled with the names of the twelve zodiac signs, and as such it can be assumed that this chart was used for calculating horoscopes based on an exact calculation of the time of one’s birth. Astronomy and astrology were still closely intertwined during the 16th century, which is creatively illustrated by this brightly colored volvelle with a muscular, curly-tailed dragon.

Astronomicum Caesareum – Edition Leipzig – Math Fol. p. 38 – Landesbibliothek (Gotha, Germany)
Facsimile Editions

#1 Astronomicum Caesareum

Edition Leipzig – Leipzig, 1967

Publisher: Edition Leipzig – Leipzig, 1967
Limited Edition: 750 copies
Commentary: 1 volume by Diedrich Wattenberg
Languages: German, English
1 volume: Exact reproduction of the original document (extent, color and size) Reproduction of the entire original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding.
Facsimile Copy Available!
Price Category: €€€
(3,000€ - 7,000€)
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