The First (Printed) Portuguese Sphere

This is the second in a set of posts on editions of Sacrobosco’s Sphere produced in Spain and Portugal. In around 1510, an anonymous Portuguese translation of the Sphere appeared in Lisbon (probably). This is, to my knowledge, the first printed Sphere in any European vernacular, although there were certainly vernacular translations in manuscript both earlier and later. This Portuguese translation, titled Tractado da Spera (Treatise on the sphere) was appended to a treatise on navigation titled: Regimento do estrolabio & do quadrante pera saber ha declinaçam & ho logar do soll em cada hora in dia & asy pera saber ha estrella do norte (Rules of the astrolabe and the quadrant to find the declination and the place of the sun every hour of the day and also to know the north (pole) star). This short treatise contained instructions for using a mariners astrolabe and quadrant and tables of declinations of the sun. This was information that could be used for navigation, and the book was published in a small handy format that could conceivably have been carried on a sea voyage.

This particular Sphere translation sticks very close to Sacrobosco’s original text. (I compared the Portuguese edition to Lynn Thorndike’s edition of Sacrobosco’s Sphere.) The translator did not include commentary (which was very common in editions of the Sphere in both Latin and vernacular languages). There are three exceptions to this adherence to the original. First, almost all references to classical poetry in Sacrobosco’s original text (e.g. Virgil and Lucan) have been removed (see pages 36, 39, 43, 44, 46, 50, and 51 in facsimile edition). It is possible the poetry was deemed to be irrelevant to the more practical character of this sphere, a practicality indicated by its being joined to a text on navigation. Or it was felt that the Latin poetry would be unfamiliar to the imagined readers of this text. Second, in at least two places there are references to works of Aristotle that are not in the original (p. 28 On generation; p. 29, Meteorology). And finally, this translation of the Sphere ends with a Portuguese translation of a letter originally written in Latin by Hieronymus Münzer (1437/1447 – 1508) to King João II of Portugal. Münzer was a Nuremberg physician, humanist scholar, traveler and one of the authors of the famous Nuremberg Chronicle. His letter, dated 1493, advises King João to seek a westward route to China. Here’s a rough and ready translation of the letter:

Letter sent from Hieronymus Munzer, German doctor from the city of Nuremberg, in Germany, to the most Serene King Dom João II of Portugal, on the discovery of the Ocean Sea [i.e. the Atlantic] and of the province of the Great Khan of Cathay, translated from Latin into Portuguese by master Alvaro de la Torre, master of theology, of the order of St. Dominic, preacher to the said lord king.

To the most Serene and invincible John, King of Portugal, of the Algarve and maritime Mauritania, and first discoverer of the islands of Madeira, Fortunate, Catheridés and Azores, Hieronymus Munzer, medical doctor, German, recommends himself humbly.

Since you already inherited from your uncle, the most Serene Prince Henry, the glory of having spared no trouble or expense to know the earth [to discover the sphericity of the earth, in the Portuguese version] and that, by your industry, you made the seas of Ethiopia and Guinea, with their maritime peoples, up to the tropics of Capricorn, tributaries, so that [they deliver to you] their goods, such as gold, grains of paradise, slaves, pepper and other things, and that by this means you have gained praise and immortal glory, and also a very big advantage for you, there is no doubt that soon the Ethiopians, who under the appearance of humans are like beasts, having no knowledge of divine worship, will strip off, thanks to you, their bestiality and embrace the Catholic faith. Considering these things, the invincible Maximilian, King of the Romans, whose mother is Portuguese [This phrase is in the Latin but missing in the Portuguese. Maximilian’s mother was Eleanor of Portugal, daughter of King Edward of Portugal], wanted by my letter, though imperfect, to invite your majesty to look for the very rich oriental country Cathay. For Aristotle, at the end of the second book of On the Heavens, Seneca, in Book V of Natural Questions, similarly Pierre d’Ailly, the most learned scholar of his day, and many other illustrious men, have said that the beginning of the habitable Orient is very close to the end of the habitable West. The proof is in the elephants, which abound in these two places, and similarly in the reeds which the storm from the east throws on the coast of the Azores islands. Similarly, there are many, and if I may say so, very certain pieces of evidence from which we may conjecture, in an almost certain way, that this sea can be sailed in a few days up to Oriental Cathay. And do not let yourself be troubled by Alphraganus and others without experience, who say that only a quarter of the land is above the sea level, and that the earth in the other three quarters is drowned under the sea, because in things pertaining to the dwelling of the earth, we must believe rather the experience and probable stories than fantastic imaginations. You certainly know that many authoritative astronomers have denied that there is any habitable land in the tropics and in the equinoctial regions. But you have proved by experience that these things were false and foolish. There is no doubt that the earth does not extend below the water, on the contrary it is the water that is lower. To this is added the roundness of the earth. You also have abundant resources and wealth and very knowledgeable mariners who also wish to gain immortality and glory. O what glory you will get if you make the habitable Orient known to your Occident! And what profit the trade will give you, because you will make the islands of the East tributaries, and many times their astonished kings will easily submit to your authority. Already the Germans, Italians, Ruthenians, Poles, and the Scythians, who live under the dry star of the north pole, praise you as a great prince, as does the Grand Duke of Muscovy, and it is not many years since under this so-called dry star, was newly discovered the large island of Grulanda, which has 300 miles of coastline, where there is a large colony under the lordship of the aforementioned grand Duke. But if you complete this expedition, you will be exalted by praises as a god or as another Hercules. And on this trip you will also have, if it pleases you, a companion, Lord Martin Behaim, sent by our King Maximilian, specially to run it, as well as many other experienced sailors, who, from the Azores, navigate by their industry the width of the sea using the quadrant, the cylinder, the astrolabe and other instruments. They will fear neither cold nor calm as they sail towards the eastern shore by a very moderate temperature of the air and the sea. There are many and endless reasons that can acquire glory to thy majesty. But what good is the spur to one who runs? And you yourself with your knowledge, you examine everything thoroughly. And therefore to write too much about this thing, is to prevent the running to reach the goal. [I pray] that the Almighty keep you in your intention, and that when the sea voyage is finished, you and your knights are celebrated immortally. Be well. From Nuremberg, city of Upper Germany, on 14 July in the year of salvation 1493.

As I noted, this little book was far from a luxury production. There is only one extant copy of the book, in the Bavarian State Library (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek). I have not been able to examine the one remaining copy, but one presumes a factor in the very low survival rate was the cheapness of the book, which probably struck very few readers as a treasure to be protected and passed down. (I have relied on a facsimile edition produced in 1914.) The illustrations in this Sphere are copied from ones in earlier versions (a fairly common phenomenon in Sphere illustrations which tend to be relatively constant across editions). Most of the illustrations in this Portuguese Sphere are identical to those in a Venice edition of 1478 printed by Guglielmo Anima Mia. A few examples of these illustrations follow.

Some appear to be mirror images, suggesting that the woodcutter traced an existing image onto a new block. An example follows.

It is clear that the printer did not go to the expense of creating new woodblocks specifically for this book. Further, the quality of the print is rather low. In the treatise on the astrolabe, the tables of latitudes look distinctly wonky.


In 1914, Joaquim Bensaude produced a facsimile edition of this Portuguese sphere with an introduction. He did a considerable amount of detective work in tracing the publication history and provenance of this text. In what follows, I draw on his work and add what I have been able to put together about this anonymous Sphere. The portion of the title page where one might have found the place of publication and the name of the publisher has been damaged.


Bensaude estimates that the book was published in about 1510, and probably in Lisbon. There is a later Portuguese book that contains the same translation of the Sphere with the added letter by Münzer, but a different treatise on the use of the astrolabe. This book is also anonymous and only one remaining exemplar exists, in a library in Evora. Bensaude surmises that this Sphere plus treatise on the astrolabe combination is later than the book in Munich because the treatise on the astrolabe is more advanced and contains data for more southerly latitudes. He puts the production of this later text sometime around 1518, and at the latest 1521. He also believes that the Munich text is probably a reprint of an earlier text (though he does not give any explanation for this belief). Given that the letter from Münzer is dated 1493, there may well have been an earlier version of this Sphere translation produced closer in time to the receipt of the letter by King João II, but if so, this earlier edition has not survived.

The reason there is a copy of this Portuguese sphere in Munich is that this copy originally belonged to the German humanist Conrad Peutinger (1465 – 1547). One of Peutinger’s heirs, Ignaz Peutinger, donated the library to a Jesuit college in Augsburg in 1715. This library eventually became part of the Bavarian State Library. This is one of those rare editions of Sacrobosco’s Sphere where the original owner, and several subsequent institutional repositories, are known. Conrad Peutinger assembled one of the largest private libraries in Europe. (At his death he owned around 200 manuscripts and 10,000 printed books.) He collected many books and manuscripts having to do with geography, travel, and navigation, and was very interested in the overseas “discoveries” of the Portuguese in Africa and the “New World.” He had a number of Portuguese books and manuscripts in his collection. Many of these appear to have been sent to him by Valentim Fernandes, a German printer who moved to Lisbon and was active as a printer there from 1494 to 1518.

Peutinger had multiple connections to Portugal and multiple reasons for being interested in Portuguese voyages of exploration. Let’s take a closer look at our reader, Conrad Peutinger. Born into a wealthy Augsburg family, Peutinger was educated at the universities of Basel, Padua and Bologna. He was acquainted with the leading humanist scholars of his age. He achieved a high-level administrative position in the city of Augsburg, and eventually became one of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I’s chief confidants, advisors and diplomats. In this role, he may certainly have been aware of Maximilian’s overture, through Münzer, to the Portuguese King João II, to convince him to support an expedition to China by sailing across the Atlantic ocean. Peutinger had other reasons to be interested in and familiar with Portuguese voyages. He was married to Margarethe Welser, member of a wealthy Augsburg patrician family. The Welsers were merchants with far ranging operations. They were the first Germans who, after the discovery of the Indies, established a sales office in Lisbon. They were also the first Germans who joined their ships with Portuguese fleets heading East.

I think a reasonable candidate for the printer of this Portuguese sphere is Valentim Fernandes, a German printer who set up shop in Lisbon and was active there between 1494 and his death in 1518 or 1519. In this period there were only about eleven printers active in Lisbon. Fernandes published other books connected to exploration, including a translation into Portuguese (which he prepared) of the travels of Marco Polo (Livro de Marco Paulo, 1502).


Further, he had a close relationship with both the Portuguese court and with Germans resident in or visiting Portugal. He would certainly have been familiar with the representatives of the Welser family. When Hieronymus Münzer visited Lisbon in 1494 on a diplomatic errand for Maximilian I, Fernandes served as his translator. As noted, Fernandes had an ongoing relationship with Conrad Peutinger and sent him a number of Portuguese books. Most famous now is so-called “Valentim Fernandes Codex,” a manuscript collection of multiple texts on the Indies and Africa, most in Portuguese, sent to Peutinger and now also in the Bavarian State Library.

Finally, the letter from Hieronymus Münzer to King João II of Portugal is something of a puzzle. In attempting to tease this out, I have found Douglas Hunter’s book The Race to the New World especially helpful. In the letter of 1493, Münzer informs João II that the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I recommended that João pursue a westward route to “Cathay.” He further recommended Martin Behaim, a man already known to João, to lead this voyage. According to Hunter, what Maximilian, Münzer and Behaim had in mind was a westward passage across the Atlantic to China, but at a much more northerly latitude than the route Columbus had taken in 1492. Hunter notes that there was already doubt that Columbus had actually succeeded in finding a route to the Indies, although Columbus himself vehemently asserted that he had. It would not have been unreasonable for any of the people involved in this scheme to believe that a better route might be found (one that actually ended in the Far East). Münzer visited João in 1494 as an emissary of Maximilian, and it seems likely he discussed the plan further with the Portuguese monarch. However, nothing came of it. In fact, Henry VII of England was the first to authorize and sponsor the voyage Münzer had proposed (on behalf of Maximilian and Martin Behaim) when the Venetian John Cabot pitched the idea to him in 1497.

Given that the Portuguese king did not sponsor such a voyage, why this letter appears in books for Portuguese navigators in 1510 and 1518 is something of a mystery.

Although this Sphere is small and unprepossessing, it reveals a dense network of connections between the Holy Roman Empire and Portugal in the early 16th century, and intense interest in voyages of exploration on the part of a wide variety of people – humanists, diplomates, monarchs, printers and sailors.


Joaquim Bensaude, Histoire de la science nautique portugaise à l’époque des grandes découvertes, vol. 1. Regimento do estrolabio e do quadrante. Tractado da spera do mundo. Reproduction fac-similé du seul exemplaire connu appurtenant à la Bibliothèque Royale de Munich. (Munich: Carl Kuhn, 1914).

Josiah Blackmore, Moorings: Portuguese Expansion and the Writing of Africa (University of Minnesota Press, 2009), on Valentim Fernandes, pp. 25-26.

Hans-Jörg Künast, “Two Volumes of Konrad Peutinger in the Beinecke Library” The Yale University Library Gazette 77.3/4 (2003): 133–142.

Douglas Hunter, The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost History of Discovery (St. Martin’s Press, 2011).

Marília dos Santos Lopes, “From Discovery to Knowledge: Portuguese Maritime Navigation and German Humanism “ in Maria Berbara and Karl A.E. Enenkel (eds.), Portuguese Humanism and the Republic of Letters (Leiden: Brill, 2012), pp. 425-445.

Johannes de Sacro Busto, Sphaera mundi. Add: Georgius Purbachius: Theoricae novae planetarum. Regiomontanus: Disputationes contra Cremonensia deliramenta (Venezia: Guglielmo Anima Mia, 1491). Copy from Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze digitized on Early European Books.

“Valentim Fernandes,” in David Thomas and John A. Chesworth (eds.), Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History: Volume 7. Central and Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and South America (1500-1600) (Leiden: Brill, 2015), pp. 762-765.

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