Math Horizons is a magazine published by Taylor & Francis for the Mathematical Association of America aimed at undergraduates interested in mathematics: It publishes expository articles about “beautiful mathematics” as well as articles about the culture of mathematics covering mathematical people, institutions, humor, games, cartoons, and book reviews. (Description taken from Wikipedia, which attributes it to the Math Horizons instructions for authors January 3 2009). Apparently, however, authors are not expected to adhere to historical facts, they can, it seems, make up any old crap.
The latest edition of Math Horizons (Volume 25, Issue 3, February 2018) contains an article by a Stephen Luecking entitled Albrecht Dürer’s Celestial Geometry. As I am currently, for other reasons, refreshing my knowledge of Albrecht the mathematician I thought, oh that looks interesting I must read that. I wish I hadn’t.
Luecking’s sub-title seems innocent enough: Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer designed a specialty compass for astronomical drawings, but when you read the article you discover that Luecking says an awful lot more and most of it is hogwash. What does he have to say?
Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), noted Renaissance printer and painter, twice left his native Germany for sojourns to Italy, once from 1494 to 1495 and again from 1505 to 1507. During those years his wide-ranging intellect absorbed the culture and thinking of noted artists and mathematicians. Perhaps the most important outcome of these journeys was his introduction to scientific methods. His embrace of these methods went on to condition his thinking for the rest of his life.
So far so good. However what Dürer absorbed on those journeys to Italy was not scientific methods but linear perspective, the mathematical method, developed in Northern Italy in the fifteenth century, to enable artists to represent three dimensional reality realistically in a two dimensional picture. Dürer played a significant role in distributing these mathematical techniques in Europe north of the Alps. His obsession with mathematics in art led to him developing the theory that the secret of beauty lay in mathematical proportion to which de devoted a large part of the rest of his life. He published the results of his endeavours in his four-volume book on human proportions, Vier Bücher von Menschlicher Proportion, in the year of his death, 1528.
If Dürer wanted to learn scientific methods, by which, as we will see Luecking means astronomy, he could and probably did learn them at home in Nürnberg. Dürer was part of the humanist circle of Willibald Pirckheimer, he close friend and patron.
Franconian houses are built around a courtyard; Dürer was born in the rear building of the Pirckheimer house on the market square in Nürnberg. Although his parents bought their own house a few years later Albrecht and Willibald remained close friends and possibly even lovers all of their lives. Pirckheimer was a big supporter of the mathematical sciences—astronomy, mathematics, cartography and astrology—and his circle included, amongst others, Johannes Stabius, Johannes Werner, Erhard Etzlaub, Georg Hartmann, Konrad Heinfogel and Johannes Schöner all of whom were either astronomers, mathematicians, cartographers, instrument makers or globe makers some of them all five and all of them friends of Dürer.
Next up Luecking tells us:
One notable consequence was Dürer’s abandonment of astrological subject matter—a big seller for a printer and publisher such as himself—in favor of astronomy.
Luecking offers no evidence or references for this claim, so I could offer none in saying that it is total rubbish, which it is. However I will give one example that shows that Albrecht Dürer was still interested in astrology in 1517. Lorenz Beheim (1457–1521) was a humanist, astrologer, physician and alchemist, who was a canon of the foundation of the St Stephan Church in Bamberg, he was a close friend of both Pirckheimer and Dürer and corresponded regularly with Pirckheimer. In a letter from 8 December 1517 he informed Pirckheimer that Johannes Schöner was coming to Nürnberg with printed celestial globes that could be used for astrology, which if his wished could be acquired by him and Albrecht Dürer. He would not have passed on the information if he thought that they wouldn’t be interested. Beheim also cast horoscopes for both Pirckheimer and Dürer.
Next up Luecking starts, as he means to go on, with pure poppycock. All of the above Nürnberger mathematician, who all played significant roles in Dürer’s life, were of course practicing astrologers.
Astronomy was not to be a casual interest. Just before his second trip to Italy, Dürer published De scientia motus orbis, a cosmological treatise by the Persian Jewish astronomer Masha’Allah ibn Atharī (ca. 740–815 CE). Since Masha’Allah wrote the treatise for laymen and included ample illustrations, it was a good choice for introducing Europeans to Arabic astronomy.
The claim that Dürer published Masha’Allah’s De scientia motus orbis is so mind bogglingly wrong anybody with any knowledge of the subject would immediately stop reading the article, as it is obviously a complete waste of time and effort. The book was actually edited and published by Johannes Stabius and printed by Weissenburger in Nürnberg in 1504.
The woodcut illustrations came from the workshop of Albrecht Dürer, but probably not from Dürer himself. There were traditionally attributed to Hans Süß von Kulmbach (1480–1522), one of Dürer’s assistants, who went on to become a successful painter in his own right, but modern research has shown that Süß didn’t move to Nürnberg until 1505, a year after the book was published.
Although Luecking wants Masha’Allah to be an astronomer he was in fact a very famous astrologer, who amongst other things cast the horoscope for the founding of Bagdad. De scientia motus orbis is indeed a book on Aristotelian cosmology and physics but it includes his theory that there are ten heavenly spheres not eight as claimed by Aristotle. His extra heavenly spheres play a significant role in his astrological theories. It is very common practice for astrologers, starting with Ptolemaeus, to publish their astronomy and astrology in separate books but they are seen as complimentary volumes. From their beginnings in ancient Babylon down to the middle of the seventeenth century astronomy and astrology were always seen as two sides of the same coin.
In 1509 Dürer purchased the entire library of Regiomontanus (1436–1476 CE) from the estate of Nuremberg businessman Bernhard Walther. Regiomontanus was Europe’s leading astronomer, a noted mathematician, and a designer of astronomical instruments. Walther had sponsored Regiomontanus’s residency in Nuremberg between 1471 and 1475. Part of Walther’s largesse was to provide a print shop from which Regiomontanus published the world’s first scientific texts ever printed.
Regiomontanus was of course first and foremost an astrologer and most of those first scientific texts that he published in Nürnberg were astrological texts. Walther did not sponsor Regiomontanus’ residency in Nürnberg but was his colleague and student in his endeavours in the city. An analysis of Walther’s astronomical observation activities in Nürnberg after Regiomontanus’ death show that he too was an astrologer rather than an astronomer. When Regiomontanus came to Nürnberg he brought a very large number of manuscripts with him, intending to edit and publish them. When he died these passed into Walther’s possession, who added new books and manuscripts to the collection. The story of what happened to this scientific treasure when Walther died in 1504 is long and very complicated. In fact Dürer bought not “the entire library” but a mere ten manuscripts not when he bought Walther’s house, the famous Albrecht Dürer House, in 1509 but first in 1522.
In 1515, Dürer and Austrian cartographer and mathematician Johannes Stabius produced the first map of the world portraying the earth as a sphere.
The Stabius-Dürer world map was not “the first map of the world portraying the earth as a sphere”. The earliest know printed world map portraying the earth as a sphere is a woodcut in a Buchlein über die Kunst Corsmographia, (Booklet about the Art of Cosmographia) published in Nürnberg in about 1490. There are others that predate the Stabius-Dürer map most notably on the title page of Waldseemüller’s Die Welt Kugel (The Earth Sphere) published in Straßburg in 1509.
There are no surviving copies of the Stabius-Dürer world map from the sixteenth century so we don’t actually know what it was produced for. The woodblocks survived and were rediscovered in the 18th century.
It is however dedicated to both the Emperor Maximilian, Stabius’s employer who granted the printing licence, and Cardinal Matthäus Lang, so it might well have been commissioned by the latter. Lang commissioned the account of Magellan’s circumnavigation on which Schöner based his world map of that circumnavigation.
Afterward, Stabius proposed continuing their collaboration by publishing a star map—the first such map published in Europe. Their work relied heavily on data assembled by Regiomontanus, plus refinements from Walther.
It will probably not surprise you to discover that this was not “the first such map published in Europe. It’s the first printed one but there are earlier manuscript ones, two of which from 1435 in Vienna and 1503 in Nürnberg probably served as models for the Stabius–Dürer–Heinfogel one. Their work did not rely “heavily on data assembled by Regiomontanus, plus refinements from Walther” but was based on Ptolemaeus’ star catalogue from the Almagest. There is a historical problem in that there was not printed copy of that star catalogue available at the time so they probably work from one or more manuscripts and we don’t know which one(s). The star map contains the same dedications to Maximilian and Lang as the world map so one again might have been a commission from Lang, Stabius acting as the commissioning agent. Stabius and Lang studied together at the University of Ingolstadt.
The star map required imprinting the three- dimensional dome of the heavens onto a two- dimensional surface without extreme distortions, a task that fell to Stabius. He used a stereographic projection. In this method, rays originate at the pole in the opposite hemisphere, pass through a given point in the hemisphere, and yield a point on a circular surface.
You will note that I have included the name of Konrad Heinfogel to the producers of the map and it was actually he, and not Stabius, who was responsible for the projection of the map and the location of the individual stars. In fact in this project Johannes Stabius as commissioning agent was project leader, Konrad Heinfogel was the astronomical expert and Albrecht Dürer was the graphic artist hired to draw the illustration. Does one really have to point out that in the sixteenth century star maps were as much, if not more, for astrologers than for astronomers.
Luecking now goes off on an excurse about the history of stereographic projection, which ends with the following paragraph.
As the son of a goldsmith, Dürer’s exposure to stereographic projection would have been by way of the many astrolabes being fabricated in Nuremburg, then Europe’s major center for instrument makers. As the 16th century moved on, the market grew for such scientific objects as astrology slipped into astronomy. Handcrafted brass instruments, however, were affordable only to the wealthy, whereas printed items like the Dürer-Stabius maps reached a wider market.
Nürnberg was indeed the major European centre for the manufacture of scientific instruments during Dürer’s lifetime but scientific instrument makers and goldsmiths are two distinct professional groups, so Luecking’s argument falls rather flat, although of course Dürer would have well acquainted with the astrolabes made by his mathematical friends. Astrolabes are of course both astrological and astronomical instruments and astrology did not slip into astronomy during the 16th century. In fact the 16th century is regarded by historians as the golden age of astrology.
There now follows another excurse on the epicycle-deferent model of planetary orbits as a lead up to the articles thrilling conclusion.
In his 1525 book Die Messerung (On Measurement), Dürer presents an instrument of his own design used to draw these and other more general curves. This compass for drawing circles upon circles consisted of four telescoping arms and calibrated dials. An arm attached to the first dial could rotate in a full circle, a second arm fixed to another dial mounted on the end of this first arm could rotate around the end of the first arm, and so on.
The title of Dürer’ 1525 book is actually Underweysung der Messung mit dem Zirckel und Richtscheyt (Instructions for Measuring with Compass and Straightedge). It is a basic introduction to geometry and its applications, which Dürer wrote when he realised that his Vier Bücher von Menschlicher Proportion was too advanced for the artist apprentices that he thought should read it. The idea was first read and digest the Underweysung then read the Vier Bücher von Menschlicher Proportion.
Luecking tells us that:
As a trained metalsmith, Dürer possessed the expertise to craft this complex tool. Precision calibration and adjustable arms allowed its user to plot an endless number of curves by setting the length of each telescoping arm and determining the rate at which the arms turned. This, in effect, constituted manual programming by setting the parameters of each curve plotted.
As a teenager Dürer did indeed serve an apprenticeship under his father as a goldsmith, but immediately on completing that apprenticeship he undertook a second apprenticeship as a painter with Michael Wolgemut from 1486 to 1490 and dedicated his life to painting and fine art printing. Luecking has already correctly stated that Nürnberg was the major European centre for scientific instrument making and Dürer almost certainly got one of those instrument makers to produce his multi-armed compass. Luecking describes the use to which Dürer put this instrument in drawing complex geometrical curves. He then goes on to claim that Dürer might actually have constructed it to draw the looping planetary orbits produced by the epicycle-deferent model. There is absolutely no evidence for this in the Underweysung and Luecking’s speculation is simple pulled out of thin air.
To summarise for those at the back who haven’t been paying attention. Dürer did not absorb scientific methods in Italy. He did not abandon astrology for astronomy. He didn’t publish Masha’Allah’s De scientia motus orbis, Johannes Stabius did. Dürer only bought ten of Regiomontanus’ manuscripts and not his entire library. The Stabius-Dürer world map was not “the first map of the world portraying the earth as a sphere”. The Stabius–Dürer–Heinfogel star charts were the first star-charts printed in Europe but by no means the first ones published. Star charts are as much astrological, as they are astronomical. Astrology did not slip into astronomy in the 16th century, which was rather the golden age of astrology. There is absolutely no evidence that Dürer’s multi-arm compass, as illustrated in his geometry book the Underweysung, was ever conceived for drawing the looping orbits of epicycle-deferent planetary models, let alone used for this purpose.
It comes as no surprise that Stephen Luecking is not a historian of mathematics or art for that matter. He is the aged (83), retired chairman of the art department of DePaul University in Chicago.
Whenever I come across an article as terrible as this one published by a leading scientific publisher in a journal from a major mathematical organisation such as the MAA I cringe. I ask myself if the commissioning editor even bothered to read the article; it was certainly not put out to peer review, as any knowledgeable Dürer expert would have projected it in an elegant geometrical curve into his trashcan. Above all I worry about the innocent undergraduates who are subjected to this absolute crap.