The Poeticon Astronomicon, by Gaius Hyginus, The Allen Press (1985)

{Ed. Note: This is an article from Books and Vines contributor DlphcOracl, who originally introduced us to the wonders of The Allen Press. As a book collector, amateur astronomer and history buff, this book from the L&D Allen Press is amazing!}.

From prior numerous prior articles readers of Books and Vines should now have a passing familiarity with the L&D Allen Press.  The Allen Press was a husband and wife team that produced a body of work rivaled by few private presses in the twentieth century and they remain one of the finest and least known of the great private presses.  Because they did nearly all of the work in producing their beautifully crafted handmade books, all printed on dampened papers using a 19th century hand press, the Allens produced only one book (rarely, two) per year in small editions of between 100 to 140 copies. Obviously, they could ill afford to select a work for publication that would be poorly received.  As a result, the Allen Press studiously avoided the pitfall common to many private presses, namely, publishing works with a limited potential audience. Surprisingly, however, this did not result in a steady stream of mainstay classics already well represented by earlier private press publications.  The Allens had great faith in their ability to discover hidden gems worthy of once again seeing the light of day in private press format and even more faith that their subscribers and readers had adventurous reading spirits and would be receptive to these titles. Many of these dated to the High or Late Middle Ages or the Early Modern Renaissance (1000 to 1500 A.D.), works such as The Mirrour of the World by William Caxton, The Great Polyglot Bibles, Dialogues of Creatures Moralized, The Brothers by Terence, and today’s feature: The Poeticon Astronomicon.

The inspiration came to the Allens during one of their frequent visits to Venice. An integral part of a Venice trip was a visit to the Marciana Library which they entered from the Piazzetta San Marco.  Here they were greeted by glass enclosed cases of ancient manuscripts and incunabula, including the 1482 edition of The Poeticon Astronomicon published by Erhard Ratdolt.  It was printed in Latin and Ratdolt commissioned a series of 48 woodcuts depicting the constellations to accompany Hyginus’ text.  The playful, whimsical, primitive woodcuts, the first to show the figures of the constellations with stars in a printed book,  captured the Allens’ fancy and they decided this work would be an ideal undertaking.

Hyginus was a first century A.D. writer and his Poeticon Astronomicon is a fanciful compendium of scientific treatise summarizing the thoughts of the day regarding the movement of stars and planets and the structure and organization of the universe, a star atlas of constellation figures and a collection of tales and myths from antiquity relating to the constellation figures and persona.  It is the latter (Chapter Two) that is the jewel of this book because is is an important source for some of the more obscure Greek myths. It should be noted that the positions of various stars which overlay the 48 woodcut images often bear little resemblance to the descriptions given by Hyginus in the text or the actual positions of the stars in the sky.   An intergalactic voyager reliant upon the figures and diagrams of the stars and constellations in the Poeticon Astronomicon would more likely be engulfed by a black hole than to reach his intended destination.  Nevertheless, inaccuracies aside, this opus was a cornerstone Renaissance work of the fifteenth century and the Greek, Roman and medieval images of the constellations served as a template for future sky atlas renderings of the constellations and the Ratdolt woodcut images survive to this day.

Hyginus’ text is divided into four sections:

  • Book One: Prohemium.  Making Account of the World and the Sphere, and the Parts of Both.
  • Book Two: Tales of the Heaven Signs, i.e., Greek and Roman mythology.
  • Book Three: Description of the Heavenly Figures.  This is the chapter with the star atlas of 48 woodcuts depicting the constellations.
  • Book Four: Laying Out the Five Circles among the Heavenly Bodies; and of the Planets.

The Allen Press publication represented the first translation of the Poeticon from the Latin into English and it includes all of the 48 woodcuts of the Ratdolt fifteenth-century first printed edition.   In addition to the information contained in the colophon: the book is bound in a durable natural linen cloth fabricated in Holland and they are enclosed in a slipcase covered in the same natural linen. On the front cover an enlarged version of the Orion Woodcut is printed in sky blue. The title is printed on the spine in vermillion and each of the four chapters opens with a large initial, hand colored in vermillion.  The title page woodcut is hand-colored in vermilion, purple and raw sienna.  The books are hand sewn on tapes for durability.

About the Edition

  • Designed, hand-printed, and bound by Lewis & Dorothy Allen
  • Text typeface is Monotype Garamond Bold, set by Mackenzie-Harris, and re-set by hand
  • The display type is Solemnis, set by hand
  • The all rag paper was handmade at the Barcham Green Mill, England, and printed damp on an 1882 Albion hand press
  • The woodcuts, although slightly enlarged, appear exactly as printed by Ratdolt in 1482, without retouching
  • The translation from the Latin is by Mark Livingston, B.A. Williams College, assisted by D. Neel Smith, Ph.D. cand. (classics), University of California, Berkeley
  • The translation is based on Ratdolt’s edition, corrected against Bernhard Bunte’s variorum edition (Leipzig, 1875)
  • Text and illustrations produced with the kind cooperation on The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, and The Hungington Library, San Marino
  • Limited to 140 copies


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The Poeticon Astronomicon, The Allen Press, Book in Slipcase (Spine)
The Poeticon Astronomicon, The Allen Press, Front cover of book with slipcase, both covered in linen cloth
The Poeticon Astronomicon, The Allen Press, Prospectus, page one
The Poeticon Astronomicon, The Allen Press, Prospectus, page two
The Poeticon Astronomicon, The Allen Press, Inside end paper and free end paper
The Poeticon Astronomicon, The Allen Press, Title page
The Poeticon Astronomicon, The Allen Press, Colophon
The Poeticon Astronomicon, The Allen Press, Prolegomenon (introduction) by Mark Livingston (translator)
The Poeticon Astronomicon, The Allen Press, Opening page of Book One with engraved initial letter. Diagram of earth with its Circles (zones)
The Poeticon Astronomicon, The Allen Press, Sample text page #1
The Poeticon Astronomicon, The Allen Press, Opening page Book Two with engraved initial letter
The Poeticon Astronomicon, The Allen Press, Opening page Book Three with engraved initial letter
The Poeticon Astronomicon, The Allen Press, Sample illustration #1 : Draco, the Dragon encircling Urfaminos, the Lesser Bear
The Poeticon Astronomicon, The Allen Press, Sample illustration #2: Boetes, the oxherd
The Poeticon Astronomicon, The Allen Press, Sample illustration #3: Hercules, the kneeler
The Poeticon Astronomicon, The Allen Press, Sample illustration #4: Cassiopeia
The Poeticon Astronomicon, The Allen Press, Sample illustration #5: Cancer, the Crab and Leo, the Lion
The Poeticon Astronomicon, The Allen Press, Opening page of Book Four with engraved initial letter

4 thoughts on “The Poeticon Astronomicon, by Gaius Hyginus, The Allen Press (1985)

  1. I’ve yet to see an Allen Press book that isn’t beautifully produced, has an interesting text and makes you want to see more.

    This particular book is intriguing and a work of art.

    Thank you again DlphcOracl

  2. Every time you post another Allem Press book. I am deeply affected by the care and skill the Allens brought to their books. A young collector could do worse than concentrating on acquiring Allen Press books. Their books make Easton Press and Folio Society LEs seem like the lower strata of book collecting.

  3. A really remarkable book. The Allen Press is seriously undervalued. The Allens were great printers and understood and had passion for real books of the past. In that they followed the principles of Morris as they thought there was a new way to present the great early printed books. Thank you for the detailed description.

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