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Euclid’s Elements “has exercised an influence upon the human mind greater than any other work except the Bible”

EUCLID. Elementa Geometriae [translated by Adelard of Bath, edited by Campanus of Novara].

Venice: Erhard Ratdolt, 1482

Folio. 137 leaves, without the final blank. 16th-century vellum. Hundreds of diagrams, initials throughout. Headline on a2r and several diagrams shaved. Old library stamps on b6r and m3r, some staining, mainly minor, a few unobtrusive ms markings, one leaf with ink stains, and a stamp erased from initial leaf, occasional defects and minor worming. Despite these faults, this is a pleasing, honest copy in an early binding. 

 

First edition of the most important book in the history of mathematics. Euclid’s Elements is “the oldest mathematical textbook still in common use today” and “a model for subsequent mathematical books” (PMM). The book’s use of hundreds of complex geometrical diagrams makes this an “outstandingly fine piece of printing” (PMM), a landmark from the dawn of printing.

“The first printing of one of the most important texts from the Middle Ages and one of the very earliest mathematical works to be printed, posed a challenge to the new technology, requiring ingenuity, skill and innovation to replicate the all-important diagrams. Erhard Ratdolt, who printed works in Augsburg, his birthplace, and in Venice succeeded spectacularly, and this first edition is the result — a true masterpiece of early printing technique. The first printing to use colours and a title page, this 1482 edition of Euclid’s Elementa is technically brilliant in integrating the diagrams with the text. The inclusion of woodcuts and other design flourishes, such as the use of red in the headings and paragraph marks, as well as underlinings, all combine to make this intrinsically technical work both a joy and an immensely practical tool to own” (Treasures from UCL 15).

The 2,000-year reign of Euclid’s Elements as the most widely used mathematics textbook attests to its enduring value. More than one thousand editions have been printed, and the book has been studied by the greatest thinkers including Descartes, Pascal and Newton. The Elements contains thirteen books: 1-6 on plane geometry, 7-9 on the theory of numbers, 10 on incommensurables, and 11-13 on solid geometry. Among the most remarkable of Euclid’s books is Book 10 on incommensurables. “It seems at first almost impossible that this could have been done without the aid of algebra, but it is tolerably certain that it was actually affected by abstract reasoning. No further advance in the theory of incommensurable magnitudes was made until the subject was taken up by Leonardo and Cardan after an interval of more than a thousand years” (W. W. Ball, Short Account of the History of Mathematics).

Euclid’s Elements “has exercised an influence upon the human mind greater than any other work except the Bible” (DSB). The 1482 first edition is one of the monuments of the history of printing. Examples in early bindings are now scarce in the market.

Provenance: Charles Turner (1886-1973), distinguished collector of mathematics books; bequeathed to 2. Keele University, deaccessioned; 3. a private collector.

Printing and the Mind of Man 25. Grolier/Horblit Science 27. Dibner, Heralds 100. Goff E-113.

$285,000