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Book of the Week — De solaribus horologiis…

title-page with frame containing figures left and right and printer's device

Virescit vulnere virtus (Virtue grows stronger from being wounded)

Orontii finei delphinatis, regii mathematicarvm professoris, de solaribus horologiis…
Oronce Fine (1494-1555)
Parisiis: apud Gulielmum Cauellat, 1560
First edition
QB215 F55 1560

Oronce Fine was the son of a physician who drew, in part, upon astrology for his medicine, as was the practice and logic of his day. At this time, astrology was considered a legitimate mathematical science, in the same vein as geometry or arithmetic. Fine’s uncles were painters, particularly interested in perspective. Fine’s early childhood was filled with mathematics and books.

Educated in Paris, Fine made astrological predictions as one way to make money, of which he never did make very much. A Renaissance polymath – surveyor, mapmaker, mathematician, geographer, astronomer, poet, translator, editor, instrument maker, and illustrator – he mixed craftsmanship, entrepreneurship, and scholarship in an especially sixteenth-century manner: using self-promotion, hustle, and no small amount of smarts.

Fine was well thought of by his peers in Paris and in London, although his reputation waned in the later years of the sixteenth century until, by the seventeenth century, he was mostly forgotten.

Fine’s first employment was in a Parisian print shop, where he illustrated mathematics books by, among others, Regiomontanus. He also worked as a private tutor in mathematics. Both careers were interrupted by time in prison, from about 1517 to 1524. The reasons for his incarceration are not clear, although sedition is possible – other academics were imprisoned at the same time by François I. Fine’s use of astrology may have led to displeasure among Parisian theologians. This, in spite of the fact that François I had an astrologer of his own.

Around the time of his imprisonment, Fine adopted the motto, Virescit vulnere virtus (Virtue grows stronger from being wounded). It was used by other printers and academicians as a slogan for academic freedom.

Fine’s imprisonment put his financial situation on shaky ground and he published several works soon after he was released, trying to make up for lost time and money. He dedicated a poem to François I, urging him to appoint a chair of mathematics to the Collège Royal (University of Paris). In 1531, it was he who was named the first Royal Lecturer in Mathematics, a position he held until his death. While prestigious, the position as Royal Lecturer failed to produce the funds promised, but through this position he met and worked with a fashionable Paris crowd eager to at least recognize, if they didn’t completely understand, the importance of science in the grand scheme of things. It was probably because of these acquaintances that he met British publisher John Dee, for whom he wrote a preface to the first English edition of Euclid’s Geometry (1570).

Fine wrote extensively and with influence on a number of topics in mathematics and astronomy. The sheer number of his books guaranteed a degree of wide dissemination. His books – written mostly in Latin, but sometimes in French – were read in France, Italy, Spain, England, Portugal and elsewhere in Europe. In this way, Fine and his work are representative of the print culture that poured out of Paris at the time. His profuse output (as many as seventy-four books, authored or edited) gained Fine fans and foes. The same prolific dissemination that brought admiring readers also brought critics. At the time and still, he is derided for claiming to have squared the circle in at least a hundred different ways.

He was certainly industrious, but perhaps lacked in the scholastic vigor expected then and today. He was also the victim of petty jealousies, typical of the academy, then and now. He was a man with a large family and wrote to keep it out of the poorhouse. He continued to work with publishers (notably Guillaume Cavellat and Simon de Colines) until his death.

Perhaps he was not the genius expected then nor particularly awe-inspiring now, but, as an educator and a writer, he taught practical mathematics to a generation who then taught the likes of Christoph Cluvius and René Descartes. His multiple books were accessible and affordable, helping to project mathematics onto an audience hitherto out of the trajectory, helping to popularize mathematics, if such a thing is possible. His own particular talent, if not genius, was in his inventions and his production of measuring instruments, along with detailed instructions to help others understand them, expand their use, and improve upon them.

text block interrupted by drawing of a polyheral daiPolyhedral Dial

The first printing of De Solaribus horologiis was part of an earlier collection of Fine’s writings, Protomathesis, published in 1530. In this work in four books about sundials, published posthumously, Fine included a description of how to make a Regiomontanus dial and a ship-shaped dial, with diagrams showing how the finished instrument should look.

full page diagram of Regiomontanus dialRegiomontanus dial

page with diagram of ship-shaped dialShip-shaped dial

page with diagram of ship-shaped dialShip-shaped dial

Fine based his information for the ship-shaped dial on examples he found in medieval manuscripts, a source he drew upon heavily. Probably without exception, these manuscripts were brief, if not fragmented. Fine took a variety of sources, corrected inaccuracies and made a significant number of changes, linking geometrical practices to a solid theoretical foundation. Ever practical, Fine, working from simple to complex, described portable sundials that could be used at more than one latitude and described how to build a nocturnal, using the stars. He described dials that tell time from the altitude, using quadrants and an astrolabe, and described the hydraulic clock, linking it with the ship-shaped dial.

spread with engraving of ship-shaped sundial on recto, large floriated initial "P" on rectoHydraulic clock

Fine included instructions about building both, offering excellent diagrams. Fine’s audience were not necessarily readers who wished to actually make instruments, but those who wished to understand the mathematics in the making of them. He advertised the sale of his instruments in this work by mentioning in his instructions, “just as we do in our instruments for sale.”

Fine was an excellent draughtsman and prepared his own diagrams and ornaments for most of his books and for those of others.

diagram with textDiagram with ornamentation

fold out containing diagramFold-out attached at back board

For this separate, posthoumous edition, his son, Jean, reworked the engravings and edited the text and commissioned new woodcuts from Guillaume des Bordes – the only known work by this artist.

Parts of De solaribus horogiis were translated and reworked in publications coming from France, Italy, and England. Nearly a century later, Athansius Kircher included the ship-shaped dial in one of his books, although it is an altered version of Fine’s, correcting some errors.

These uses, and the criticisms, of Fine’s work suggest that it was read and followed by other mathematicians and scientists. Fine may not have been correct all the time, but he was read and reread as an early humanistic authority. Fine’s opus suggests a desire to survive, but also a desire to discover, to teach, and to view the world in terms of expanding time and space – chronology and geography – and the ability, if not to manipulate, then to see beyond a theology that must have seemed static. His work is befitting of a mathematician geographer living during European global exploration. Fine is an earnest scientist. He is living in a world in which his father’s and his king’s astrology will soon no longer be needed to cure physical woes, let alone pretend to cure existential angst.

The dedication in this book is a moving description of the misery which befell Fine’s children after his death. On the advice of a friend, Antoine Mizauld, Jean Fine had the work reprinted as a separate piece, in part to help the cash-strapped family.

Epistola spreadFrom “Epistola”

“After three decades and more spent and devoted to restoring and explaining mathematics, not only by lecturing but also by writing, all this time waiting and begging for payment for his efforts and being mocked and put off with courtly pittances, all this time watching his family shrink and old age come upon him while the number of his published works continued to mount, having borne such indignity as unworthy, he died cheerfully and steadfastly in the Lord in his sixtieth year from a fatal disease. My beloved mother, who had sailed in the same deplorable ship of hopes and troubles, followed a short while after, leaving behind six little sheep to wander among starving wolves without a shepherd.”

The dedication continues with praise for printers and booksellers and their belief in the importance of publishing scientific books. Praise due indeed since the cost of such productions was great because of the need for complex illustrations, diagrams and elaborate tables, requiring precise and meticulous labor. Bookseller and printer Guillaume Cavellat brings the subject to the reader’s attention with his introduction, Typographus lectori.

Typographus Lectori spreadTypographvs Lectori

Cavellat was up to the task, publishing beautiful books on science and architecture. Cavellat’s business was closely connected to the University of Paris and he made use of its scholars, like Fine, in producing faithful work.

Illustrated with fifty-seven wood engravings and numerous wood engraved initials. Printer’s mark on title-page and enlarged on the back of the final page.

Recommended reading:

Marr, Alexander, ed. The Worlds of Oronce Fine: Mathematics, Instruments and Print in Renaissance France. Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2009. See especially Marr’s “Introduction” and chapter 6, “Oronce Fine’s Sundials: The Sources and Influences of De Solaribus Horologiis” by Catherine Eagleton.
QA11 A1 W67 2009 General Collections

McDonald, Christie and Susan Rubin Suleiman, eds. French Global: A New Approach to Literary History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. See especially, chapter 2, “’There’s a New World Here’: Pantagruel via Oronce Fine” by Tom Conley
PQ145.1 G56 F74 2010 General Collections

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