Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Mirror That Does Not Reflect (2009)

The Mirror That Does Not Reflect: Saet’lo Xiromant’ia
  (a 17th-Century Georgian Astronomical Manuscript)
and the Almanacco Perpetuo of Ottavio Beltrano (1639)

    Timothy P. Grove, Biola University

        International Conference in Honor of the 50th Anniversary
of the National Centre of Manuscripts

                  Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia

     21 October 2009

Saet’lo Xiromant’ia is a unique astronomical manuscript preserved at the National Centre of Manuscripts in Tbilisi.  The manuscript [Q 867], comprising 126 quarto pages, is beautifully written in black and red ink and contains numerous hand-drawn illustrations. This manuscript presents a fascinating miscellany of information on a number of subjects. It has been described and its contents summarized by Irakli Simonia.[1] No title appears either on the binding or at the beginning of the text—the title Saet’lo Xiromant’ia ("zodiacal chiromancy") was apparently suggested by the first illustration (10v) of a human hand labeled with the principal lines used in palmistry, along with their planetary associations; indeed, the third chapter (10r – 13v) is a short treatise on astrological chiromancy.
Much of this manuscript is clearly original, including the extremely interesting preface.  However, a careful study of the text reveals that its writer drew upon several sources from Western Europe. Internal evidence suggests that this manuscript was compiled around 1670 with the collaboration of an Italian speaker (perhaps one of the Capuchin missionaries who were dispatched to Georgia in 1661).[2] Several passages point to the input of an Italian speaker, as on 36v, where the Latin word caelum is transcribed as chelum, or on 46v, where four parts of a diagram are labeled with the letters ani, bani, chini, doni (i.e. A, B, C, D; where the Georgian convention would be ani, bani, gani, doni).  In both cases, the use of the Georgian letter chini reflects a uniquely Italian pronunciation of the letter C.  It seems likely that one of the Italian missionaries arrived with a collection of recent books in Latin and Italian.  As we shall see, at least three of these books were used in the compilation of Saet’lo Xiromant’ia.
The opening chapter of Saet’lo Xiromant’ia (1r – 5r) begins with an allusion to Job 37:7 (“He seals the hand of every man”), which the author connects to the practice of palmistry—codinaroba romelsa ec’odebis latinurad k’iromancia (“the knowledge which is called Chiromancy in Latin”). Here we have the first indication that parts of this work are based on Western sources.

1.  Rodrigo de Arriaga’s Cursus Philosophicus (1632)

The writer proceeds to a very interesting discussion of the structure of the heavens, and in this connection (1v) cites a certain “nobleman” (munajibi) named “Ariaga,” who he says was “of Arabian race” (romeli iq’o arabi guarita), and who is supposed to have addressed various questions as to the number, nature, and composition of the heavens. This person was none other than the Jesuit Rodrigo de Arriaga Mendo (1592-1662), a professor at Valladolid and Salamanca, and at Prague from 1625.[3] In light of this, the Georgian writer’s comment that he was “of Arabian race” is quite puzzling.           
Arriaga’s Cursus Philosophicus (Antwerp, 1632) was extremely influential. Arriaga was one of the first philosophers to take cognizance of Galileo’s telescopic discoveries and to examine their philosophical implications: non multis autem ab hinc annis propter quorumdam Mathematicorum & Astronomorum diligentes observationes, quas, novis exquisitisque instrumentis adiuti, invenerunt, & praecipue tubi optici subsidio, caelorum structura penitus a nonnullis inverti coepit. (Disputatio Unica Caelestis, sectio iii).[4] [“Not many years ago, because of the careful observations of a number of astrologers and astronomers which they made with the aid of excellent new instruments, especially the telescope, some began to completely overturn the structure of the heavens.”] This statement accords very well with the known concerns of the writer of Saet’lo Xiromant’ia, who makes reference to Galileo’s telescopic discoveries in chapter eight (21v).[5] Arriaga refers to a number of recent scientific discoveries, including the four satellites of Jupiter (iii.3.25), sunspots (iii.3.28), and the diurnal visibility of stars from the bottom of a mineshaft  (vi.68). In the 5th edition of his Cursus Philosophicus (1669), Arriaga describes how he replicated Galileo’s experiments with falling bodies by dropping heavy objects from the cupola of the Prague Cathedral and from the parapets of Karlstein Castle.[6]
            The specific passage referenced by the writer of Saet’lo Xiromant’ia is the Disputatio Unica Caelestis, found on pages 497-508 of the 1632 edition of Arriaga’s Cursus Philosophicus. Here, Arriaga addresses a number of questions: the composition and uniformity of the heavens, their number and their motions, whether the heavens are animate or inanimate, whether they are corruptible or incorruptible, and whether they are solid or fluid.[7] These correspond more or less to the questions inventoried in Saet’lo Xiromant’ia and attributed to “Ariaga”: whether the heavens are composed of four elements, whether they are spiritual, whether they are perfect, whether they are solid, whether they are self-illuminated, and whether they are manifold.
Both Arriaga and the writer of Saet’lo Xiromant’ia frequently quote the Scriptures to support their ideas. One of the verses cited in Saet’lo Xiromant’ia (II Corinthians 12:2) is also cited by Arriaga in the section entitled De numero caelorum (iv.1.48), in connection with the opinion of St. Ambrose and others that there are three heavens. Arriaga ends by rejecting this opinion, concluding that the heavens number not three or eleven, but nine (iv.2.52). Still, it seems likely that the writer of Saet’lo Xiromant’ia was following Arriaga in bringing this passage to bear on the same question.
            After this reference to Arriaga comes a fascinating but difficult passage, in which the writer seems to be stating that the celestial spheres are self-similar in the same way as an object and its reflection in a mirror. Thus, the earth is like a mirror which reflects the heavens, and hell lies in the depths of this same mirror. Hell is located at the center of the earth, and comprises four concentric circles, the second of which is designated “Limbo”—a Roman Catholic idea which again suggests Western influence. The writer proceeds to delineate the precise diameters of each of these circles in Georgian leagues (aghaji), as well as a value of for the diameter of the earth itself, according to “the earth-measurers who in Latin are called Cosmographers” (kueq’nis mzomelni romelsa ec’odebis latinurad k’ozmograpini).           
Later, in the context of a discussion of the probable dimensions of the sphere of the Moon, the writer concludes, “but we concur with Ariaga the Arab that the moon is one-third the size of the earth” (3v: magram chven vimoc’mebt ariaga arabsa rom mtovare ars kueq’anis mesamedis odeni). Arriaga’s Cursus Philosophicus does touch briefly on this idea, which arises from the apparent size of the earth’s shadow during a lunar eclipse (Disputatio Unica Caelestis, v.55).

2. An Unidentified Astrological Work

Another source, as yet unidentified, provided the basis of the planetary descriptions found on pages 5r – 9r. We know this because the top half of page 7r has been left blank, with a note in the margin:  zoharis ambavi ak’lda dedans (“description of Venus is missing from the original”).

3. Ottavio Beltrano’s Almanacco Perpetuo (1639)

One of the more interesting features of Saet’lo Xiromant’ia is its cryptic reference to a western philosopher named “Beltrano,” whom the author compares to Aristotle and praises in the highest terms: beltrano munajibi iq’o erti vinme aseti mecnieri rome chuns dros amistana mecnieri da gonieri ar gamosula tu es arist’ot’elis dros q’opiliq’o imasac ars axsenebda da aman q’ovltatvin ase gvarad gaadvila es varsk’ulavt mricxveloba tu romels c’elic’ads romels tveshi romels k’virashi romels dgheshi romels zhamshi romels burjze romels nac’ilshi dabneldeba mze anu mtovare gvauc’q’ebs (30r) ["The noble Beltrano was a scientist who for wisdom has no equal in our times.  Had he lived at the time of Aristotle, then the latter would have paled before him.  He greatly simplified astronomy, and could determine in which year, in which month, in which week, on what day, in which degree, in what constellation, and in what minute eclipses of the Sun and Moon would take place."][8]    
I have succeeded in identifying this person as Ottavio Beltrano (fl. ca.1620-1671), a printer, bookseller, and miscellaneous writer who worked in Cosenza, Naples, Terranova, and Ancona.  Beltrano’s Almanacco Perpetuo (“perpetual almanac”) was first published in 1639, and proved to be an extremely popular work in Italy, where it appeared in numerous editions throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Beltrano’s Almanacco Perpetuo was itself based upon the earlier Almanacco Perpetuo di Rutilio Benincaso (1593).
A careful comparison of the two texts has established that several sections of Saet’lo Xiromant’ia incorporate both text and illustrations drawn from an early edition of the Almanacco Perpetuo.  These include page 30r, the series of eclipses (31r – 35r), pages 36v and 46r – 47v, the Tables of Houses (48v – 54r), the horoscope for 21 June 1635 (58v – 59r), the Perpetual Almanac (60v – 74r), and additional material on pages 76v and 99v.           
In its original form, Saet’lo Xiromant’ia presented a 28-year “perpetual almanac” covering the years 1652 through 1679, along with three further 28-year cycles (1680-1707, 1708-1735, 1736-1763). At some point, strips of paper were glued over the original dates, in order to update the almanac by 84 years.  It appears that the latest date listed (74r) corresponds to the year 1847.  Thus, Saet’lo Xiromant’ia remained in constant use throughout the entire 18th century and probably into the 19th.
It appears probable that the manuscript was written during the second half of the 17th century and that its writer made use of an early edition of Beltrano’s almanac which began with the 1652-1679 series.  Another indication that Saet’lo Xiromant’ia was written during the 17th century is that the eclipses illustrated on pages 31r – 35r are those of 1652-1664; this is the same series of eclipses described by Beltrano.
The Georgian writer’s adaptations of Beltrano’s illustrations are extremely interesting, involving numerous mirror-reversals and other mysterious changes.  A comparison of the illustrations in the two works reveals that the Georgian illustrator has made no fewer than 25 left-right reversals; in most cases, only certain elements of Beltrano’s illustrations have been reversed, while in a few cases the entire composition has been subjected to a mirror-reversal. It may be that these mysterious reversals have something to do with the several references to a “mirror” (sark’e) in the opening chapter of the manuscript.           
Some of the illustrations found in Saet’lo Xiromant’ia demonstrate remarkable innovations in the iconography of astrological representations—innovations which may be unique to this manuscript. For example, one of the first things that caught my eye was the curious representation of the crab (Cancer) on page 68r, with a crescent-shaped head.  I have made a careful study of the iconography of the sign Cancer, as portrayed in numerous books and manuscripts from Europe and the Near East, but can find no precedent for this. However, since the moon rules the sign of Cancer, it seems probable that this highly original variant was intended to suggest a crescent moon.
Another very interesting anomaly is the fact that both Venus and Saturn are portrayed holding mirrors.  In both cases, the mirror is held in the figure’s left hand. While Venus is often conventionally represented as a woman holding a mirror, I can find no precedent in the astrological literature for Saturn holding  a mirror.  Both Beltrano’s Almanacco Perpetuo and Saet’lo Xiromant’ia portray Saturn in this way. Not only are both Venus and Saturn holding mirrors, but they appear on facing pages (69r – 70v)—another sort of mirroring.


Saet’lo Xiromant’ia is truly a unique and mysterious book.  It raises many questions which remain unanswered. When viewed alongside Vakht’ang VI’s Georgian translation of a work by ‘Ali Qushji of Samarqand (Kmnulebis Codnis C’igni, 1721), the use of Western sources by the writer of Saet’lo Xiromant’ia reveals that Georgian intellectuals of this period were open to a complex network of cultural and scientific influences from both the East and the West.

[1]Irakli Simonia, “Little Known Aspects of the History of Georgian Astronomy,” Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 4(1) (2001), 59-73.
[2]Cyril Toumanoff, “Georgia, Church in Ancient,” in The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2d ed.
[3]Leen Spruit, Species Intelligibilis: From Perception to Knowledge (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 327-30.
[4]Rodrigo de Arriaga, Cursus Philosophicus (Antverpiae: Ex Officina Plantiniana Balthasaris Moreti, 1632), 499. Universidad de La Rioja. Biblioteca Digital de Derecho. (accessed March 14, 2009).
[5]Simonia, 69.
[6]Peter Robert Dear, Discipline & Experience: The Mathematical Way in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 85.
[7]Arriaga’s cosmological ideas are discussed by Edward Grant in Planets, Stars and Orbs: The Medieval Cosmos 1200-1687 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 349-52.
[8]Simonia, 69.

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