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Shape Shifters


Volvelle in the second edition of Thurneisser’s Archidoxa, 1575, a work on astrology printed at his private press in Berlin. Enlarged detail, right. (Saxon State Library, Universitätsbibliothk Dresden)


3:15-4:15 pm  saturday, october 8

Philip J. Weimerskirch: Leonhard Thurnheisser (1531-1596): Alchemist, Astrologer, Printer, Typefounder, & Papermaker   Mary Catharine Johnsen: From Magic to Science with Johannes Müller von Königsberg 


Longtime APHA member and frequent presenter, Phil Weimerskirch talked about the life of Leonhard Thurneisser (1531–1596) and the books he wrote and printed. He was an alchemist, astrologer, medical practitioner, printer, typefounder and papermaker, among other things. Much has been published about him, but nearly all of it is in German. There have also been two recent exhibitions about his life and work, one in Basle and one in Berlin. 

Thurneisser wrote 57 books, many of which were almanacs that were best sellers and that for a time provided most of his income. His most famous book was the second edition of his Archidoxa a work on astrology that he printed in 1575 at his private press in Berlin.  It has some of the most intricate and beautiful volvelles ever devised. The following year he printed a work on anatomy with numerous flaps. He also wrote books on a wide variety of other subjects.

For a number of years Thurneisser had the use of a former monastery in Berlin, and there he established a factory for producing medicines in addition to his printing and publishing operations. (Elsewhere in Berlin he had a glass factory for making amulets of colored glass.) He had 200-300 employees, including five secretaries to handle his voluminous correspondence. There was a large demand for his medical advice and for casting horoscopes.

Thurneisser had a reputation as a charlatan, and there is a chapter about him in an English-language book on charlatans. He led an amazing life, and the second edition of his Archidoxa remains one of the most elaborate specimens of paper engineering ever produced.


Portrait of Regiomontanus holding an astrolabe in The Nuremberg Chronicles. (Wikipedea)

Mary Catharine Johnsen’s presentation contextualized the contributions of Johannes Müller von Königsberg, more commonly known as Regiomontanus, within the field of fifteenth- and sixteenth- century sciences, mathematics, and printing. Regiomontanus’s frustration with the state of mathematics and its inadequacies for astronomy and astrology drove his efforts at improvement within those fields. His early patrons, including Cardinal Bessarion and Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, provided him with the opportunity of studying in major libraries, copying important manuscripts, and making connections with scholars. While in Nuremberg, Regiomontanus had access to many scientific instruments and communication with scholars across Europe, both of which were important for his work.

Although Regiomontanus printed fewer than ten times, he experimented with new printing techniques, such as tabular data, geometric diagrams, volvelles, and decorated initials. Johnsen presented a theory that Regiomontanus may have used a kind of experimental metal relief printing that utilized metal strips in plaster, in order to create precise diagrams. Johnsen wrapped up the presentation with an overview of the important legacies of Regiomontanus, mentioning those who were impacted by his work, including Nicolaus Copernicus, Albrecht Dürer, and Christopher Columbus.

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