Episodic Survey of the History of the Constellations


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O: Modern Western Constellations

30: Gherardo of Cremona

Shown above are pages of a translation of Ptolemy's Almagest from Arabic to Latin (an Arabic-Latin version) by Gherardo (Gerard) of Cremona (Lombardy) in 1175. The pages show Ptolemy's description of his kinematic model for the motion of the superior planets - Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn (Book X, Chapters 6-7). The above manuscript book is held in the Vatican library. The translation into Latin by Gherardo (Gerard) of Cremona was a very popular translation.

The translation movement in Latin Europe surged soon after the re-conquest of Toledo, which opened up important centres of Islamic Spain (1085). The fall of Antioch also opened up the Islamic and Greek culture of the Eastern Mediterranean (1098). The process of translation took several forms. The translator basically had 2 choices. As example regarding Arabic texts: He could translate text from the original manuscript directly, or rely on the text to be spoken by an Arabic speaker/reader i.e., an oral interpretation of the text. (According to Roger Bacon, many people understood the spoken forms of Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew, even if they could not read and write the languages.) Both methods were used to translate Arabic texts. It was not unusual for the text to be spoken orally by an Arabic speaker/reader and the translator to work from this interpretation. Translators who are said said to have had the help of Arabic speakers include: Gerard of Cremona who was helped by "Galippus" (a Mozarab), Alfred of Shareshill who was helped by "Salomon Avenraza" (a Jew), and whom Alfred of Shareshill mentions as his teacher, and Michael Scotus who was helped by "Abuteus levita."

Gerard of Cremona (circa 1114-circa1187), accessing Arab libraries in Toledo, translated 71 books from Arabic into Latin; 12 on astronomy.

Ptolemy's Almagest was first translated into Arabic circa 827. The first competent (clear), thorough, non-mathematical (descriptive) summary of Ptolemy's Almagest into Arabic was carried out by the Egyptian astronomer and geographer Abd al-Abbas al-Farghani. Its title was Elements of Astronomy and was written in the period between 833 and 857. Al-Farghani was born in Farghana (present-day Fergana), Uzbekistan, and died in Egypt. He was a member of the House of Wisdom established by the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma'mūn in the 9th-century. The House of Wisdom in Baghdad became the centre for both the work of translating and of research.

The first contacts of (Latin-speaking) Europeans with Arab-Islamic science dates to late 10th-century CE Catalonia (Spain).

Paul Kunitzsch proposes that the Arabic title "al-Majisti" and "Almagest" (= "greatest treatise") derives from a Pahlavi (Middle Persian) form. The Arabic-transliterated title betrays the route by which the Syntaxis reached Europe. Although a Latin translation of the Almagest was made from a Greek manuscript in Sicily, circa 116O CE, this version was not disseminated. Rather, Arabic translations were the means by which this major astronomical work of Ptolemy was reintroduced to Europe, until Greek manuscripts became available in Renaissance times. In Toledo, in 1175 CE, Gherardo of Cremona finished translating the text into Latin from Arabic, and this version was the most popular in medieval Europe.

The retransmitted Latin translation of Ptolemy's Almagest by Gherardo of Cremona in the 12th-century began the distorted use of Greek-Arabic-Latin words that appear in modern lists of star names. In Greek astronomy the stars within the constellation figures were usually not given individual names. (An exception was made for a few of the brighter stars.) Ptolemy did not identify the stars in his catalogue with Greek letters, as is done by modern astronomers. Each of the 1025 stars listed by Ptolemy (Book VII and Book VIII of the Almagest) was identified (1) descriptively by its position within one of the 48 constellation figures; then (2) by its ecliptic latitude and longitude; and then (3) its magnitude. When the Arabic astronomers translated Ptolemy's Almagest, and adopted the Greek constellations, they also applied their own star names to the listed stars. Beginning with Gherardo, when the Arabic texts of the Almagest were translated into Latin, the Arabic star names were retained but were frequently translated in a corrupted form. The medieval European astronomers adopted the system of using individual (Arabic) star names in their uranography. Hence the star names we use today were essentially introduced by the medieval European translators of Arabic texts of Ptolemy's Almagest, the translation from Arabic to Spanish of al-Sufi's Book of the constellations of the Fixed Stars (Kitab suwar al-kawākib), and also by the introduction of hundreds of Arabic astrolabes into Europe during this period.   

The principal channel for the recovery of the Almagest in Western Europe was the Arabic to Latin translation by Gherardo of Cremona. It was made at Toledo using several Arabic versions and completed no later than 1175. Numerous copies of the work were made. It was widely circulated in manuscript copies before appearing as a printed book in 1515. (The European printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440.) Gherardo's translation was the only version of Ptolemy's Almagest known in Western Europe until the later discovery of copies of the original Greek texts and their translation into Latin texts in the 15th-century. However, Gherardo's translation is very literal and hard to follow. (Some translations from the Greek text were, however, made in medieval times. Ptolemy's Almagest in the original Greek continued to be copied and studied in the eastern (Byzantine) empire. Some years earlier to Gherardo's translation, circa 1160, a very literal translation of Ptolemy's Almagest was made directly from the Greek text into Latin by an unknown translator in Sicily. However, this particular version had little circulation and made no effect. The copy in the Vatican library came through the great Florentine book collector Coluccio Salutati.) In the 15th-century European scholars, first George of Trebizond and then Johannes Regiomontanus, independently translated Ptolemy's Almagest from copies of the original Greek text.

Avner Ben-Zaken writes (Cross-Cultural Scientific Exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1560-1660 (2010, Page 2)): "Early modern European intellectual history started, arguably with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when Greek texts flowed into Europe, giving Europeans access to classical texts previously known only through Arabic and Hebrew translations. Scholars promptly embarked on retranslations of classical works."

Gherardo of Cremona was born in Cremona, Lombardy (Italy) circa 1114 and died in Toledo in 1187. He is most famous as the translator of Ptolemy's Almagest from Arabic texts found in Toledo. In the 12th-century, Gerard of Cremona translated the Almagest in Toledo from Arabic into Latin using several Arabic translations. Books I–IX of his translation are based on the work of al-Hajj ibn Matar except for the star catalog in the books VII.5–VIII.1, which derives from a text mixing 2 Arabic translations. The remaining 3 books of Gerard's translation are derived from the work of Ishāq ibn Hunayn and Thābit ibn Qurra. The date he went to Toledo (Spain) is uncertain but was no later than 1144. His specific initial intention was to learn Arabic so that he could read Ptolemy's Almagest. (Gerardo had left Italy mainly in quest of Ptolemy's Almagest.) At the time known copies of Ptolemy's Almagest only existed in the Islamic world (in Arabic and Syriac (a pre-Islamic language of ancient Syria). Even though no Latin copies existed up to the 12th-century it retained its traditional high reputation among European scholars. Gherardo was one of a small group of European scholars who revitalised medieval European astronomy in the 12th-century by transmitting Greek and Arabic science texts to the West in the form of translations into Latin. Gherardo remained in Toledo for 30 years and continued to make Latin translations of Arabic scientific texts until his death. He made over 70 translations. (It was Islam's conquest of Spain that would bring the seeds of modern astronomy to Europe.)

During the 12th-century Toledo was a multi-cultural city, an important centre of Arab and Jewish culture, and full of libraries and manuscripts. Some libraries there were reputed to hold up to 400,000 manuscripts. Thousands of texts were available for purchase from booksellers. Toledo became a centre for educational studies of Arabic scientific and literary texts. King Alfonso VI of Castile, with the aid of El Cid, had taken Toledo (and the surrounding region) from the Moors in 1085. Prior to this Toledo had been a provincial capital in the caliphate of Cordoba. In the following decades many European scholars who had mastered Arabic began the task of translating Arabic books into Latin. The Moors had arrived in Toledo in 712 CE. During the 12th-century Toledo also became the Christian base for driving the Moors out of southern Spain. It is estimated that up to 1,000,000 Arabic books were burnt when the Catholic monarchs regained control of Moorish Spain. The southern Spanish cities of Toledo, Cordova, and Seville became the most important centres for the transmission of Arabic scientific texts into medieval Europe. (Other important centres were located in Southern Italy and Sicily at Salerno, Monte Cassino (a Benedictine monastery), Palermo, and Syracuse. Copies of Ptolemy's Almagest were translated into Latin both in Spain and in Sicily. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, at his court in Palermo, Sicily, financed translations of Arabic works into Latin.) During the 1140s leading European church figures such as Abbot Sugar (Abbot of St-Denis, statesman and historian) (circa 1081-1151) and Peter of Montboissier (Peter the Venerable, General of the Benedictine Order) (1092-1156) expressed the belief that before fighting an enemy, one must first understand them. This led to the systematic translation of Arab-Islamic writings into Latin.

What resulted in Europe was a polyglot system of Greek constellations with Latin names containing stars with (largely) Arabic titles.

With the expulsion of the Moors from Spain the availability of Arab-Islamic texts in Europe via Spain ceased.

Appendix 1: First Sicilian School of Translators

The Norman conquest of southern Italy and Sicily took place in the 11-century. Its cultural achievements were brief and are now largely unremembered. In the 12th-century the Norman kingdom of Sicily was one of the strongest and wealthiest states in Europe.

The Norman conquest of Sicily with its Greek and Arabic-speaking population (1072–1091) was an impetus to the establishment of the translation movement there.

In southern Italy and Sicily royal patronage played an important role in supporting translators/translations. The earliest Latin version of the Almagest was made in Sicily by the so-called First Sicilian School of Translators. This was established under the king Roger II and continued under his son William I. Roger II of Sicily was a Norman count who took the title king in 1130 CE. The Norman Sicily of king Roger II (1095-1154) and William I (1125-1166) represents an important route for the transmission of classical heritage and Arab knowledge. Roger II was educated by exponents of Graeco-Byzantine culture. Roger II had been educated by Greek preceptors in Palermo and his court in his capital city of Palermo was a mixture of Greek, Arab and Latin elements. (This was later diminished by the actions of his son William I, who promoted Latin culture. William I initiated a process of 'de-hellenisation.' The reign of William I also resulted in a decline in the influence of Byzantine culture as a model worthy of imitation.)

The first cultural interactions between the Latin West and the Greek East began taking place in the 12th-century, principally in Constantinople (where several Italian city-states had trading concessions), and Norman Sicily. (The presence of the Venetians and the numerous foreign marriages both attest to closer ties and increasing traffic between Constantinople and the West.) A few translations from Greek to Latin had been done in Italy during the 6th-century. The most notable of these were some works on logic by Aristotle which were translated by the Roman senator and philosopher Anicius Boethius in the early 6th-century CE. Boethius (circa 480-524 CE) was a court official (Magister Officiorum) under Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths (ruler of post-Roman Italy). Boethius had an ambitious program for the translation of Greek texts (mainly those of Aristotle and Plato) into Latin. However, the program ceased when he was charged with treason and eventually executed. It can never be known how much Boethius would have accomplished if he had not met a premature death. In 523, less than a year after being named Magister Officiorum by king Theodoric, Boethius was charged with treason, hastily and perhaps illegally tried, and executed in 526. No further translations from Greek to Latin were done until the 12th-century.

A Latin translation of the Almagest was made from a Greek manuscript in Sicily, circa 1160 CE, but this version was apparently not widely disseminated (and so its influence was less important than the later copy by Gerard of Cremona, who belonged to the School of Translators at Toledo, Spain). Apparently Sicily was still largely Greek-speaking at this time. The gift of a copy of a Greek manuscript of the Almagest was taken to Sicily by Henry Aristippus (from 1156 the archdeacon of Catania cathedral), who had received it as a gift to the Sicilian king Roger II from the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Comnenus. As well as being archdeacon, Aristippus also served as envoy to the court of Manuel Comnenus. From an embassy (diplomatic mission) to Constantinople in 1158-1160, Aristippus brought back several Greek manuscripts as a diplomatic present from the Emperor Comnenus (Komnenos). Comnenus presented Aristippus with a beautiful codex of Ptolemy's Almagest as a gift to king William 1 (though most sources state it was for king Roger II). It is usual for sources to state the translation was made at Roger II's court by Herman of Carinthia. (Aristippus was not Greek, nor was Greek his native tongue. However, he was an excellent translator.)

Note: The French medievalist/philologist Richard Lemay dated the translation to circa 1150 CE.

The diplomatic gift/present of Greek manuscripts is usually identified as being for Roger II. However, several scholars identify the gift/present as being for king William I. (Roger II reigned 1130-1154; his son William I reigned 1154-1166.) Earlier there had been hostilities between Roger II and Comnenus. Comnenus had even secured an alliance with the German king Conrad III, whose sister-in-law Bertha of Sulzbach he had married, against Roger II of Sicily. Western Europeans were able to acquire (Greek) manuscripts at Constantinople. Interestingly, Roger II used Byzantine symbols of lordship and when on military campaigns sought to behave like a Byzantine general.

The Graeco-Latin translation was assisted by Emir Eugene of Palermo whose native language was Greek. Eugene/Eugenius was an amitatus (high ranking civil official) who was highly skilled in Greek and Arabic and highly competent in Latin. Interesting is the existence of at least one Greek manuscript of Ptolemy's Almagest in Europe at this time. Also interesting is Ravenna was important in history as the capital of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th-century CE and later (6th–8th century) of Ostrogothic and Byzantine Italy. As the capital of the Exarchate of Ravenna, the city was the administrative centre of Byzantine government in Italy. In the 8th-century, Ravenna was the Italian centre of the Byzantine world.

Roger II was interested in natural science. William I continued his father's patronage of learning. The court at Palermo under William I (king of Naples and Sicily) was also a centre of Greek studies in philosophy and natural science.

With the beginning of the universities a process of Latinisation of the middle class was in place. It had become common for civil servants to obtain academic degrees, and these were obtained through institutions that taught in Latin. By the time of Frederic II the interest was in Arabic science and philosophy rather than Hellenic culture. Frederick II (1194-1250) was a Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily. His enormous political and cultural ambitions, based in Sicily, extended through Italy to Germany, and to Jerusalem. The Norman connection with Greek and  Byzantine culture was eventually severed i.e., by the early 13th-century. The influence of the cathedral school of Chartres - the so-called School of Chartres, attached to the famous Chartres Cathedral near Paris - during the first half of the 12th-century is well established. It was the focus of Christian Neoplatonism and humanism.

From the early middle ages onwards, Salerno (south-western Italy) had been a centre of medical study, from where Graeco-Arabic knowledge had been spread to Western Europe. The English philosopher and translator Adelard of Bath also worked in Salerno.

The manuscript of the Almagest translated in Sicily was inherited by Charles of Anjou, who then donated his library to the Papacy in 1266. The modern Vatican Library was not founded until 1475, and previous collections were often dispersed. Thus, the manuscript of the Almagest subsequently ended up in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. While interest in Greek and in making translations may be unsurprising in the South of Italy, we also see the first signs of it further north with James of Venice (circa 1130/1170) and Burgundio of Pisa (circa 1110-1193) acquired manuscripts, travelling to Constantinople, and beginning to make Greek to Latin translations.

A few references: "The Sicilian Translators of the Twelfth Century and the First Latin Version of Ptolemy's Almagest." by Charles Haskins and Dean Lockwood (Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Volume 21, 1910, Pages 75-102). "De la scolastique ŕ l'histoire par le truchement de la philologie : itinéraire d'un médiéviste entre europe et islam." by Richard Lemay. In: La diffusione delle scienze islamiche nel Media Evo europeo. Convegno internazionale promosso dall'Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Fondazione Leone Caetani, e dall'Universit di Roma 'La Sapienza', Facolt di Lettere, Dipartimento di Studi Orientali, Roma 2-4 ottobre 1984. (Roma: Accademia nazionale dei Lincei, 1987, Pages 399-535). Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe by Stephen McCluskey (1998). Roger II of Sicily by Hubert Houben (English translation 2002). "The First Sicilian School of Translators." by Daniele Molinini (Nova Tellus, Volume 27, Number 1, 2009, Pages 191-205).

Appendix 2: Manuscript Traffic

In the rare example of the mention of a source, Hugo of Santalla states that his patron, Michael bishop of Tarazona, acquired the Arabic manuscript of a work on astronomical tables from the library of the Banu Hud after they were driven out of Saragossa (in 1110) by the Almoravids, and settled in the fortress of Rueda de Jalón in Aragon.

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