September 5, 2014

Lost Copernicus volume turns out not to be so lost after all


He knew it had to be somewhere. Image of Nicolaus Copernicus via Wikipedia.

Those eyebrows knew it had to be there somewhere. Image of Nicolaus Copernicus via Wikipedia.

Good news, heliocentrists! A copy of Nicholas Copernicus‘s 1543 De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, long thought lost in the fire that ravaged the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, Germany ten years ago, has been discovered during restoration work.

When the historic library, whose collection Goethe managed for many years, caught fire on September 2, 2004, the losses were tremendous: 50,000 books lost, a quarter of those deemed irreplaceable, and 62,000 books damaged by fire or water or both. Since 2004, the library has been in the process of treating and restoring the damaged volumes, batch by batch.

In the fourth batch, which contains the most badly damaged books, there was a surprise: far from being “vermutlich Verlust” (“probably lost”) – in the classification system set up by the Help for Anna Amalia organization, which has created a database of the lost and damaged books – the sixth book of Copernicus’s seminal work had survived.

In an interview with Deutsche Welle, library director Michael Knoche explained the importance of the discovery:

This print is entitled “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium.” It is the first edition of Copernicus’ work from 1543, in which he presents his new world view that the Earth turns on its own axis and is part of a solar system that rotates around the sun. That thesis completely contradicted the medieval world view. That’s why this book is so significant.

There are other copies scattered in libraries all over the world. They are all extremely valuable and sought after because each one of them has been commented on in different ways. Works like these would sell for 1.4 million euros ($1.8 million). That was the price paid at a New York auction in 2008 for the last copy of this Copernicus print.

So the Anna Amalia copy is a volume that’s important not only in its own right, but also because of how it was used and responded to. However, Knoche quashed the interviewer’s wilder speculations about who might have been scribbling in the margins:

Can the handwriting in the margins of some in the pages of the Copernicus work possibly be attributed to Goethe, who used to be director of the library? He mentioned the work in some of his notes.

One thing we can say for sure is that this was not Goethe. It looks more like handwriting from the 16th century.

I’m still holding out hope for Shakespeare, though.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.