Avicenna’s Qānūn fī at-Tibb and Other Works


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Avicenna’s Qānūn fī at-Tibb and Other Works

Avicenna’s Qānūn fī at-Tibb and Other Works
by The Arcadian Library
The Arcadian Library
The Arcadian Library
DOI: 10.24157/ARCS_008

  • Subtitle:
    A Survey of Avicenna Printings in the Arcadian Library
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Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Al-Hasan ibn Ali ibn Sīnā (c. 980−1037), commonly known in the West as Avicenna, was a Bukharan polymath and is widely considered to be the most important and influential scientist of the Islamic Golden Age. He is best known for the Qānūn fī at-Tibb, a medical encyclopaedia encompassing the sum total of contemporary medical knowledge, and the Kitāb Al-Shifaʾ, a philosophical work dealing with physics, metaphysics, mathematics and logic. Both compendia exerted a profound influence on Medieval and Renaissance thought and science, and became required reading at European universities until well into the eighteenth century. The Arcadian Library owns more rare copies of Avicenna’s writings than of any other scientist of the Islamic Golden Age. It is one of the largest and finest collections of the Persian polymath’s work in private hands.

In the later Middle Ages Avicenna was widely acclaimed as one of the greatest transmitters of ancient Greek ideas on medicine. The discovery of Greek manuscripts in the fifteenth century produced a reaction against him within Christian Europe, but his reputation endured and he remained on the syllabus of many European universities. His legacy is credited with encouraging European scholars to learn Arabic, so fervent was the desire to read him in the original and improve upon the standard twelfth-century Latin translation of his main work, the Canon of Medicine, by Gerard of Cremona, and indeed upon the efforts of his successors, such as Andrea Alpago. This wish to learn Arabic often led European scholars eastward, as well as to delve deeper into other Arabic texts, which in turn brought other scientific works of the Islamic Golden Age to European scholarly attention.

Editions of the Canon of Medicine in the Arcadian Library

The most important edition of Avicenna owned by the Arcadian Library is an incredibly rare large folio incunable of the Canon

produced in Padua between 19 August and 6 November 1479. It is the original Gerard of Cremona translation, and was printed by Johannes Herbort de Seligenstadt, who produced at least 50 incunables, first in Padua, where he began printing in 1475, and after 1481 in Venice. The text was edited by Petrus Rochabonella, a professor of medicine and philosophy at the University of Padua. It is a virtually pristine edition bound in sixteenth-century blind-stamped pigskin and comes from the library of Count Oswald von Seilern und Aspang (1900–1967), a notable collector of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and early printed books. The elder brother of Count Antoine Seilern, a prominent art collector whose collection is now housed at the Courtauld Institute of Art, he began collecting at a time of extraordinary opportunities for book collectors, and amassed an exceptional library which has now largely been forgotten due to the discretion with which he purchased.

The library owns several other editions of the Canon, or parts thereof, as well as editions featuring commentaries by Western readers, which will follow in the third section. The earliest of the former category is a quarto edition printed in Venice in 1507, bound in late seventeenth-century French calfskin. It was printed by Paganino de’ Paganini, who is now best known for his printings of mathematical works, and for what was probably the first printed Arabic edition of the Quran, of which only a single copy has been discovered, namely at the Franciscan convent of San Michele in Isola in Venice. The library has an interesting letter penned by the Hebraist Giovanni Bernardo de Rossi published in Parma in 1805 that contains a lengthy discussion on the lost Quran. Paganini’s edition of the Canon is extremely rare, and the Arcadian copy was once owned by the French physician and botanist Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Chomel (1671–1740).

There is also a printing of the first five books of the Canon printed in Venice from July 1520 to January 1522 by the heirs of Octavianus Scotus. It is bound in late eighteenth-century Italian pattern boards (though the third volume is backed in vellum), and features a large woodcut showing Avicenna and the editor as his scribe.

Octavianus Scotus was the patriarch of a renowned family of Venetian printers who came from Monza at the age of 35 and established his press in 1479. His brothers and nephews took over the family press after 1499. Next comes a rare second edition of Jacob Mantino’s translation of Book I, fen. 4 of the Canon, printed by Claude Chevallon in Paris in 1532. Mantino was a Spanish Jewish physician working in Venice, and worked primarily with the Hebrew editions to produce his translation. He saw the need for a new translation due to the errors in the one produced by Andrea Alpago, though he respected the latter’s translation as an improvement on Gerard of Cremona’s. Though he did not finish his task, Mantino’s edition met with significant success, with editions printed in Ettlingen in 1531, in Paris in 1532, in Hagenau also in 1532, in The Hague in 1533, and again in Paris in 1555.

The Medici Canon

The Arcadian Library owns a printed folio Arabic edition of the Canon produced by the Medici Oriental Press, also known as the Typographia Medicea, in Rome in 1593, bound in eighteenth-century vellum over pasteboard. The Arcadian Library acquired the book from the Haskell F. Norman Library of Science and Medicine, and before this it belonged to Georges Jean Mazloum, a physician in Aleppo. There is also a fragment of the Medici Avicenna (pp. 69–80 and 567–592) bound with a manuscript commentary in Arabic, dated AD 1783. The document is in octavo format and bound in late eighteenth-century sheepskin, with ‘CMHRK’ lettered in gilt on the upper cover, and the label ‘Joseph Sabar’.

The Medici Oriental Press, all of whose publications the Arcadian Library owns, was established in 1584 by Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici, who later became the Grand Duke of Tuscany, at the request of Pope Gregory XIII. The press was founded in order to publish high-quality editions of standard non-religious Arabic texts, such as Al-Tusi’s recension of Euclid’s Elements, Al-Idrisi’s geography, and the grammatical studies of Giovan Battista Raimondi, Ibn al-Hajib, Al-Zanjani, Georgius Amira, and Ibn Ajurrum, as well as Christian texts, including Leonardo Abel’s compendium of the Gregorian calendar, and a magnificent edition of the Gospels illustrated by Antonio Tempesta. These Christian texts were printed to support missionary work among the Muslims and to contribute to the union of Arabic-speaking Christians with Rome. It was hoped that the press would be a lucrative endeavour, given the appetite for good editions of standard Arabic works, as well as Christian texts, since Bayazid II had prohibited printing on pain of death in the Islamic world. Seeing an opportunity to provide texts en masse to Christians in the Levant, Rome hoped to extend its influence into the Ottoman Empire.

Ultimately, however, the endeavour proved controversial. The selection of works printed by the Medici Oriental Press, originally based on manuscripts donated by the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, was generally considered not to suit contemporary European tastes. In addition, although the Arabic typesetting was undoubtedly the most beautiful ever to have been produced, given that the types were cut by Robert Granjon, one of the period’s greatest printers and type-cutters (Vervliet, 2008), the publications were found to be littered with mistakes. As such, the enterprise was short-lived, and ceased printing in 1614. In spite of the flaws inherent to the Medici Avicenna, it provides a fascinating insight into Christian Europe’s interaction with the Muslim East in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Avicenna’s Other Works in the Arcadian Library

The Arcadian Library owns exceedingly rare editions of Avicenna’s other works, some of which are bound with the writings of others. For example, there is an edition of Avicenna’s De congelatione et conglutatione bound with the first German edition of Geber’s work, printed in 1710 by Hieronymus Philipp Ritschel, replete with woodcut illustrations. There is also a first edition of the Regimen sanitatis printed in Lyons in 1505 by Francois Fadin. Besides excerpts from Avicenna, the book also includes writings by Hippocrates and Reginaldo da Vilanova, as well as the second printing of Averroes’s treatise on poisons. Bound with Celsus’s De medicina, the Arcadian Library also owns the first edition of Avicenna’s sole zoological work, De animalibus, printed in Venice in 1500 by Gregorio de’ Gregori, who in 1514 printed the first complete Arabic text ever to be printed, the Fano Book of Hours. De animalibus was translated in Toledo in the twelfth century by Michael Scot, a Scottish polymath best known for his translations, and for his exalted position at the court of Frederick II in the Kingdom of Sicily, where he continued to translate various Arabic texts and answer Frederick II’s questions about astrology and the Christian afterlife. His translation of Avicenna’s De animalibus was dedicated to the emperor, and used by the latter in his De arte venandi, of which the Arcadian Library also has an edition, printed in Augsburg in 1596.

The Arcadian Library also owns a number of Avicenna’s philosophical works from the Kitāb Al-Shifaʾ, the ‘Book of Healing [for Ignorance]’, a four-book encyclopaedia on logic, physics, mathematics and metaphysics. The earliest is an exceptionally rare incunable printing of part of the second book, De anima, printed in Pavia from 1484 to 1485 by Antonius de Carcano. It is the first and only fifteenth-century edition of the first of Avicenna’s works to be printed. Avicenna’s work in De anima established him as a leading authority on psychology in Mediaeval and Renaissance Europe. The first separate printing of Avicenna’s Metaphysica occurred in 1495, produced in Venice by Bernardinus Venetus. The Metaphysica constitutes Avicenna’s synthesis of three contemporary currents of thought, namely the Quran and the satellite theologico-philosophical works it inspired, science, and his take on Aristotelian philosophy as influenced by his readings of Plotinus, Proclus and Persian works. The Metaphysica exerted a profound influence on European philosophy, particularly upon Thomas Aquinas.

Finally, there are two editions of Avicenna’s Logica. The first is a 1508 edition of the twelfth-century Latin translation by the Spanish philosopher Domenico Gundisalvo, printed in Venice by Octavianus Scotus and bound in contemporary Italian blind-stamped goatskin. The book represents the first printings of Avicenna’s Logica, Sufficientia, De caelo et mundo and De intelligentiis. The remaining three (De anima, De animalibus and Metaphysica) had each appeared singly in separate incunable editions. Avicenna’s philosophical works are bound here with De intelligentiis by the Persian philosopher Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad Al-Farabi, who was one of the first Muslims to study logic and to develop it independently of Aristotle. The second version of Logica owned by the library is the extremely rare first French edition, printed in Paris in 1658 by Courbé and Huart, and translated by Pierre Vattier, a noted doctor and Orientalist who also translated works on the history of Islam, Egyptian civilisation and Timur, the Turco-Mongol founder of the Timurid Empire.


Vervliet, H. D., 2008. Cyrillic and Oriental Typography in Rome at the End of the Sixteenth Century: An Inquiry into the Late Work of Robert Granjon (1578–90) . In: The Palaeotypography of the French Renaissance: Selected papers on sixteenth-century typefaces , Vol. II. Leiden:Brill, 433–480