For three years now, for every Christmas Studiolum has published in collaboration with the Cathedral Library of Kalocsa – one of the richest historical libraries in Hungary – an especially beautiful and important Medieval manuscript or Renaissance incunabula from the collections of the Library. At the end of the last year we have published the De Astronomica, that is, On the Stars by Gaius Iulius Hyginus, the librarian of Emperor Augustus.
The library preserves several editions of this book. The editio princeps was published in 1475 in Ferrara, but this came without illustrations. The woodcut images of the forty constellations and seven planets described by Hyginus were first represented ten years later in the Venice edition by Erhard Ratdolt. These pictures were also copied in the most beautiful 15th-century edition of the work by Thomas de Blavis, Venice 1488. We have chosen this latter version for publication. The DVD includes the complete facsimile of the book with the searchable transcription of the Latin text. We have also indicated all the differences of this early text version from the critical edition of 1983. In addition, we have also accompanied each illustration with their Renaissance counterparts in the 1535 Basel edition. These illustrations of the illustrations offer a peculiar time travel. It is clear that the two figures are the same, but it is also clear how much the world changed in the fifty years that passed between them.
We had already posted the DVDs intended as a Christmas gift when we came to know that the year of 2009 was announced by the UNESCO as the International Year of Astronomy. So our choice could not have even been more fortunate. At hearing the news the Library started to organize, after the Bible exhibition installed in the last year in honor of the Year of the Bible, an exhibition from their extremely rich astronomical collections to be opened, most appropriately, on the day of the spring aequinox, the 20th of March. And we have decided to prepare the very first Spanish and Hungarian translations of the De Astronomica, to be included, together with the English version, in the second edition of the DVD which will be distributed at the opening ceremony.
The Hispanian Hyginus, chief librarian of the imperial library mostly spent his time by compiling reference works in the most various topics for the citizens of Rome who, after the end of the civil wars and with the arrival of the Augustinian peace, felt the need again of obtaining some education. He made summaries on the origin of the cities of Italy, the families of Troy, the life of illustrious people, the memorable stories, the gods, and even on agriculture and apiculture which also belonged to the topics of educated literature of the age. Only two of his books have survived: the Fabulae, a compendium of Graeco-Roman mythology and the Astronomica which, besides the description of the stellar sky, was also primarily a summary of the myths connected with the constellations.
Nowadays, aided by so many mythological encyclopedias we do not even consider how little self-evident it is that Classical mythology has remained to us in such a detailed shape. For most other nations in that period, while their ancient religion was alive, regarded it superfluous to write it down exactly for this, and when they changed it for another – the Graeco-Roman or the Christian – religion, then for that reason. From the thousand years old Armenian mythology we only know as much as was mentioned for the sake of a deterrent example by 5th-century Movses Khorenatsi, their first Christian chronicler. And from ancient Hungarian religion not even that much.
The knowledge of Graeco-Roman mythology was preserved for us exactly by those few compilations which were made around that time, the age of Augustus. By these two books by Hyginus. By the Metamorphoses and Roman feasts of Ovid, the friend of Hyginus, which are practically poetic mythological summaries. By the collected notes of two anonym authors in the Vatican library. And that is all. All the other sources are fragmentary. But these few works are enough to set up a system in which the other sources can be inserted as well. These books were the inspiration and model to the great mythological handbooks of the Renaissance, beginning with the Genealogia Deorum of 1360 by Boccaccio.
These summaries were not only created for the purpose of popular literature. As Jean Seznec writes in his important The Survival of Pagan Gods (1953), the educated citizens of the Hellenistic empire exactly around this time started to give up their beliefs in the ancient gods as really existing beings, and began to reinterpret them either as personified natural phenomena or as outstanding historical figures who lived at the dawn of mankind. These tractates on the gods written around the age of Augustus – which also include the De natura deorum of Cicero – were already inspired by this new, demythifying view and the need of a new summary.
Hyginus dedicated the De Astronomica to a certain M. Fabius. According to Jérôme Carcopino (1963), he was most probably identical with the educated Roman aristocrat Paullus Fabius Maximus whose star was suddenly risen in 11 B.C. when he married into the imperial family, and who then in 3 B.C. fell into disfavor in a similarly abrupt way. If this is so, then Hyginus also had to write between 11 and 3 B.C. this summary, in which he, by demythifying the celestial constellations, said farewell to the gods behind them already regarded as mere symbols. He did so around the same time when three Oriental astrologers set off to look for a new star, not yet included in Hyginus.