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History of Science and Medicine | Europe and the Ottoman World: Diplomacy and International Relations

October - December 2018

Farghani - Breuis ac perutilis cōpilatio Alfragani astronomo[rum] peritissimi

This is a very rare first edition of the great Arabic astronomer al-Farghānī’s (Alfraganus) most famous work. One of the most celebrated astronomers of the Abbasid caliph al-Mamun, al-Farghānī composed this work between 833 and 857 AD. It went on to become the most popular astronomical works in both the East and the West, and was used as a textbook until the 15th century. 

The core of the book is the exposition of the basic concepts of Ptolemy's Almagest, to which al-Farghānī also introduces new material. For example, in chapter 21 he states the distances of the planets from the earth (Ptolemy had only stated the distance of the sun and the moon), and in the next chapter the magnitudes of the planets (Ptolemy again had only given the magnitudes of the sun and the moon). 

Following the translation of the Breuis by John of Spain in 1137 AD, it became the prime vehicle for the dissemination of Ptolemaic astronomy in the medieval West. Its influence can be seen in the works of many great European scholars of the medieval period, notably those of Johannes de Sacrobosco, Guido Bonatti and Roger Bacon. However, its impact extended beyond this period and the scientific and mathematical sphere. Dante derived his astronomical knowledge from al-Farghānī, and the text was referred to several times by Kepler, who cited, for instance, his measurements of the circumference of the world. (Epitome, Book I, Part I). In the 15th century, these calculations were also used by Christopher Columbus in planning his western voyage of discovery. However, Columbus mistook al-Farghānī’s Arabic miles for shorter Roman mile, an error that was instrumental in leading him to believe he could take a shortcut to Asia.

The printer of this particular work, Andreas Belfort, was the first printer in Ferrara and the most important of the printers there before 1500. Belfort was a printer of scientific and medical works, including commentaries on Avicenna and Mesue, whose career was interrupted twice by political upheavals and war. This is one of his last books, and the only one of his to contain illustrations. The beautiful woodcut portrait, which has attracted much attention from historians of art, is in the style of the Ferrara master Cosme Tura.

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Abdukhalimov, B., 1999. Ahmad Al-Farghānī and his Compendium of Astronomy. Journal of Islamic Studies, 10(2), pp. 142-158.

Beding, S. A. (ed.), 1992. The Christopher Columbus Encyclopedia. London: Macmillan.

Unat, Y., 2007. Alfraganus and the Elements of AstronomyManchester: Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation.