Nicolaus Copernicus

Astronomer, Mathematician, Canon. Student of Canon Law at Bologna (Toruń, 1473 – Frauenburg, 1543).

A few days before he died, Nicolaus Copernicus left a testament that would bring humanity into a new age. Science would understand the need for observation, and man would understand that he is not at the centre of the universe. Bologna played a fundamental role in this epochal revolution, inviting the young law student into its humanist and astronomy circles, which were flourishing at the Bentivoglio university in the middle of the fifteenth century.

Nicolaus Copernicus Nicolaus Copernicus was born in 1473 in Toruń in Polish Pomerania (Royal Prussia), to a wealthy family of merchants originally from Silesia. Orphaned when he was ten years old, he and his siblings were entrusted to the care of their maternal uncle Lucas Watzenrode, who sent him to the chapter school in Wloclawek.

In 1491, he enrolled at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków with his brother Andreas, where he met, among others, the mathematician Jacob Kobel, with whom he remained in contact for some time.

Four years later, he received his minor orders from his uncle, who had become bishop of Warmia in the meantime.

He then went to Bologna with his brother, where his uncle hoped he would follow in his footsteps, taking a doctorate in Canon Law – here it should be remembered that Lucas Watzenrode had also been a professor at the University of Bologna for two years.

He arrived in the city in the autumn of 1496, but Nicolaus waited until 6 January 1497 to enrol at the University of Bologna, matriculating in the German college.

Although studying law, Copernicus was drawn like many of his fellow students to the flourishing Università degli Artisti, founded in the middle of the fifteenth century with the combined support of the papal legate Bessarion, the Bentivoglio family and Pope Nicholas V.

In 1455, the discipline of astrology had finally managed to extricate itself from the medical field, and a new, independent university chair was instituted (the astronomy professor at the time was Giovanni Paolo da Fondi), giving Copernicus the opportunity to supplement what he had learned in Kraków. It is assumed that he was already familiar with the mathematical and physics theories of Nicole Oresme (14th century) and the new, revolutionary ideas of Niccolò Cusano.

The University of Bologna had a long tradition of astrology. Its first documented astrologer was Guglielmo di Ottobon Piccardo, recorded in 1125, followed by the illustrious scholars Guido Bonatti, who Dante placed in the Hell for Diviners, Cecco d’Ascoli, later condemned to the stake by the Inquisition, Bartolomeo da Parma and Girolamo Manfredi, the latter harshly criticised by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. 

Pico, who also studied Canon Law at the University of Bologna, published his Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinatricem  in that city the very same year that Copernicus arrived. Without entering into the specific divinatory system, the book pilloried the use of astrology, which was even more popular at the Renaissance courts.

In the rich academic world of Bologna, the young Pole chose as his mentor the astronomer Domenico Maria Novara, who he also stayed with in via Galliera (or via San Giuseppe) and under whom he studied the art of astronomical observation, working together on the verification of a few Ptolemaic errors. Novara believed in earthly movement, having, among other things, postulated the shifting of the globe’s rotation axis, after having noted that the latitude of a few Mediterranean cities differed from the one calculated by the Alexandrian astronomer. In addition to the efficient cause, they added observation of lunar rotation, an activity thanks to which Copernicus saw the Earth’s satellite eclipsing the star Aldebaran (part of the constellation Taurus) in 1497.

At Bologna, in addition to astronomical observation with his teacher Novara, Copernicus also had the opportunity to study a number of Greek treatises that had not yet been translated. This was thanks to his knowledge of Greek, which had been taught at Bologna in a specially created course since 1453; the professor at the time was the humanist Antonio Urceo Codro. It is also possible that Copernicus got his hands on Archimedes’s treatise The Sand Reckoner, in which the ancient Greek mathematician reported the heliocentric system proposed by Aristarchus of Samos in the third century BCE.

After four fruitful years at Bologna, Copernicus took the occasion offered by the Jubilee to go to Rome in 1500, where he gave a series of scientific talks that won him praise in the papal milieu.

He then returned to Poland, where he was made a canon, then headed back to Italy, first to Padua, to study Medicine, and then to Ferrara, where he took a degree in Law in 1503.

He then returned to his uncle in Frauenburg to serve as his secretary and physician, replacing him after he died in 1512, and proving himself to be an excellent administrator (his essay on coinage De monetae cuderidae ratione was received with considerable interest).

This was the period during which Copernicus’ first scientific work began to circulate: the NicCopernici de hypothesibus motuum coelestium a se constitutis commentariolus. It was a short, handwritten pamphlet, and the wording of the title (with the term hypothesibus) was meant to pre-empt possible ecclesiastical censure, since within it he was presenting the principles of a heliocentric system, albeit only in the form of postulates. For this first text, Copernicus purposely avoided including scientific demonstrations and proofs, presenting his discovery as mere logical supposition.

In the meantime, he continued his research at Olsztyn Castle, having become its administrator in 1516, responsible for the land register, justice and inland revenue.

He spent the last years of his life in Frauenburg, where he was joined in 1540 by the professor Georg Joachim Rheticus  (a protégé of Philip Melanchthon), who left his post at Wittemberg specifically to work alongside the great master.

With Copernicus’s consent, the young astronomer had the pamphlet Narratio prima printed in Danzig (now Gdańsk) and, in 1542, a treatise on trigonometry, which was later included in the second book of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. The latter was published shortly before the death of its author in 1543. It was printed in Nuremberg by Johann Petreius with a dedication to Paul III. For the edition of the complete work, Rheticus had turned for help to the theologian Andrew Osiander who, anonymously and arbitrarily, appended a premise to the work that presented it as a mathematical treatise, useful for calculations but without value for cosmology or physics. This premise was used as judiciary proof in 1615 when Cardinal Bellarmine tried to defend Foscarini and Galileo from accusations of heresy, specifically in virtue of their connection to a work that presented itself to the reader as merely metaphysical. The following year, the two were condemned along with their writings, as was De revolutionibus, until then considered innocuous, thanks to the famous premise.

Copernicus was not only criticised by representatives of Catholicism, but also by distinguished Protestant thinkers: Luther in his Table Talk and Melanchthon in his Initia doctrinae physicae; even Tycho Brahe, while an admirer of the Pole, was not stingy with his reservations about the work.

It was, however, appreciated by intellectuals who were not well-versed in the subject, first and foremost Giordano Bruno, but also mathematicians like Giovanni Antonio Magini, who was chosen in 1583 to replace Galileo as professor of Astronomy at the University of Bologna, where he taught material contained in De revolutionibus that concerned only the method of calculation and not the broader heliocentric vision.

Copernicus was of course not the first to argue that the Earth moves around the Sun: there were numerous proponents of this theory in antiquity, which he himself cited (Hicetas, Philolaus, Heraclides Ponticus, Ecphantus and Aristarchus), and there were also scholars closer to his own time who asserted the centrality of the Sun (Antonio Pelacani, Paolo Veneto, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, the Neoplatonists Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, and the Aristotelian-Averroists Celio Calcagnini, Girolamo Fracastoro and Giovan Battista Amico), but what Copernicus did, wrote and demonstrated had truly irreversibly marked the history of human thought. He laid down the milestone of modernity, studying the universe with the inductive method and linking together astronomy, cosmology and physics.

The next steps were taken by Galileo, who checked Copernicus’ principles, and Kepler, who corrected his theories. From there forward there would be no turning back.