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Uranometria, Johann Bayer, Augsburg, Germany, 1603

Uranometria, Augsburg, Germany, 1603. Johann Bayer. Rain, Germany 1572-Augsburg, Germany 1625.
35.2 x 24.7 x 2.5 cm. Bound in contemporary vellum. Inscribed on title-page: “Collegii Societatis Jesu Monachii. 1604.” Gift of Ann Vershbow, 2002.

In 1603 Johann Bayer, a lawyer and amateur astronomer who had studied philosophy as a university student,[1] published Uranometria, one of astronomy’s most influential star atlases and a work that has had a lasting impact on how the celestial landscape has been perceived for hundreds of years. Although Uranometria was preceded in the sixteenth century by other printed star maps and atlases, it included many more stars than did previous works and was the first to incorporate stars and constellations from the southern hemisphere.

The book contains fifty-one charts, forty-eight of which represent each of the classical Ptolemaic constellations of the northern sky. Drawing from the records of sixteenth-century Italian, Portuguese, and Dutch navigators,[2] Bayer also introduced twelve new star groups in the southern sky with the forty-ninth chart. The final two maps depict overviews of the northern and southern hemispheres, "Synopsis coeli superioris borea" and "Synopsis coeli inferioris austrina," respectively. Each chart includes a grid for determining the position of each star to a fraction of a degree, offering considerably better accuracy than earlier works.

On the verso of each map is a discussion of the various names of each constellation and a list of its stars, including their position within the constellation figure, their magnitude, and astrological association. In Uranometria Bayer also introduced a new way of distinguishing stars – a standardized method of stellar nomenclature that is still in use today – by assigning each star in a constellation one of the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet. (For constellations with more than two dozen stars, he resorted to the Latin alphabet.)[3] Each of the stars identified in Uranometria includes both its Ptolemaic number and its Bayer designation.

The full title of Bayer’s work, Uranometria, omnium asterismorum continens schemata, nova methodo delineata, aereis laminis expressa, translates as “Uranometria, containing charts of all the constellations, drawn by a new method, engraved on copper plates.” It is not only Bayer’s scientific advances that make the atlas remarkable, but also the illustrations engraved by Alexander Mair (1559-1620). Philip Hofer, in Baroque Book Illustration, calls the book an “example of fine astronomical illustration.”[4] Owen Gingerich, Research Professor of Astronomy and of the History of Science at Harvard University, wrote that “in its artistic figures [Uranometria] remains the classic astronomical atlas of all times.”[5]

The title-page features an architectural motif and depicts Ptolemy, with classical figures such as Hercules, Apollo, and Diana wearing a cape of stars. Beneath the title banner is a figure of Capricorn, and beneath that is a view of the city of Augsburg, where Bayer lived as an adult and served as legal advisor to the city council.[6] Forty-nine of the fifty-one additional plates show many of the constellations expressed as familiar characters from mythology, such as Casseopeia, Orion, Hercules, and Perseus.

A relatively recent acquisition, this first edition is the only early (pre-1800) star atlas in the Boston Athenæum’s map collection, which includes roughly 3,000 sheet maps and charts, 625 atlases, and seven globes.[7] Although the Athenæum is not known as a “map library,” its broad collection of cartographic materials – some very common and some, such as Bayer’s Uranometria, quite special -- are essential to the Athenæum’s function as a repository of knowledge and a vital part of its role as an independent research library.[8]


Kara Stepanian from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 81-83. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1]Charles Coulston Gillespie, ed., Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York:Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970) 1:530.
[2] Brian Warner, “Whence the Constellations?” Bulletin du Bibliophile 1 (2005): 90.
[3] Louis A. Kenney, Catalogue of the Rare Astronomical Books in the San Diego State University Library (San Diego: Friends of the Malcolm A. Love Library, San Diego State University Foundation, 1988), 50.
[4]Philip Hofer, Baroque Book Illustration (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1970), 38.
[5]Kenney, 11.
[6] Basil Brown, in his book Astronomical Atlases, Maps, and Charts (London: Dawson’s of Pall Mall, 1968), identifies the city portrayed as Ulm.
[7] John Lannon, “The Cartographic Collections of the Boston Athenæum,” The Map Collector, 63 (Tring, Hertfordshire: Map Collector Publications Ltd., Summer 1993): 2.
[8] Ibid.