Missed Marvels: Why You Should Read Riccioli
Updated: Nov 27
Giovanni Battista Riccioli was a Polymath who was certainly a big talking point in the modern age. He was by all means the next successor in a great line of Scientists. Kepler corrected Tycho Brahe's work, and Riccioli made many corrections to Kepler's work. Riccioli tested, affirmed, and propagated Galileo's physics with meticulous experiments. But he wasn't just a great scientist. He was a philosopher, and perhaps a statesman of sorts.
His Almagestum Novum, was not only the most comprehensive Astronomical Textbook of the 17th century, but also a treatise on epistemology, and more surprisingly, a building block for the political ambitions of the Grimaldi family in Monaco. He wrote numerous other works, each as impressive as the next.
The Almagestum Novum or New Almagest was written with a clear intention to write a work that would replace Ptolemy's original Almagest that had been the standard text in Astronomy for over a millenium. This is why the frontispiece in the book contains an image of Ptolemy, sitting down and looking up, while his Ptolemaic model lies discarded at his feet. Riccioli wanted to write a textbook that would cover all knowledge available in the sphere of Astronomy. Anyone who read and understood it could be considered an expert Astronomer.
So why did Riccioli come out of fashion? Was it because the anti-clerical movement of the 19th century? Is it because school textbooks are being dumbed down? Is it due to the complexity and length of his works? Or is it because of the demise of literacy in Latin?
I think it's perhaps a mixture of the last two that made Riccioli's great and protracted works inaccessible to too many readers. Latin literacy has dropped, but when it is used, the focus would usually be on either Classics or Church matters. Even in the Modern age with wider Latin literacy in Academia, works like the Almagestum Novum were a tough read. Copies would have only been owned by the fairly wealthy, and they certainly weren't very portable.
I've studied the two volumes of the Almagestum Novum at the British library, and I was certainly grateful that they offered me a trolley for transporting them to my desk. The text is written in tiny print on huge, heavy, folio sized books. Riccioli's grammar was excellent, or rather we could say he could write in sentences that would make Cicero seem simple.
This may perhaps sound like I'm trying to discourage you. But no, this is where a new translation project can solve the problems and help us rediscover this historical gem. Through translation, we can not only read the text in our own tongue, but it can be made available with a more readable and accessible grammar. Commentaries and annotations can help us understand not just the text presented to us, but the context it was written in.
So why should you read Riccioli, and why in particular should you read the Almagestum Novum?
His works give us a profound insight into the mid 17th century. He is a very competent historian and chronologer, who presents the views of many people from history and from his own time.
The Almagestum Novum is an important document in the history of Monaco. At the time, the House of Grimaldi were trying to align themselves with France. A curious link was found between them and supposed Royal French ancestors. This link was propagated inside the Almagestum Novum as well as in other books. Scientific texts were political in that they helped disseminate a worldview and show your state to be culturally advanced - something that can also be seen in the way Galileo worked for the Duke of Tuscany and had the Tuscan Ambassadors promote his work.
Riccioli's astronomical observations were ground-breaking. Amongst other things, Riccioli studied and mapped the moon. He named the craters and set the standard for lunar nomenclature. He was the first to publish the observation of a double star. His careful observations were used to correct errors by Tycho and Kepler.
Riccioli was a pioneer of the scientific method. He not only wrote about how to do it, but he himself ran experiments with incredible degrees of accuracy and vast datasets.
His work shines a light on the Galileo affair, a topic that has been shrouded in myth by both lovers and haters of the man.
Riccioli presents us with a good understanding of the need of reform and the justification of the Gregorian Calendar.
The Almagestum Novum chronicles well the Catholic Church's rejection of Astrology, and what the arguments for and against it were. This process of creating a demarcation theory precedes all the better known recent attempts.
Most importantly, this is a work that really shows us the truth about the history of science: it develops in funny ways, without the linear progression that is supposed to be true. Riccioli invented the concept of the Coriolis force, but couldn't measure it, so assumed the Earth must be stationary. The Coriolis force wouldn't be measured for over a century. Who doesn't love such irony?
The English Translation of the first section of the Almagestum Novum is now on sale.
Michal is a Software Developer with over a decade of experience, the majority of which he has worked on complex Transport systems. In his spare time he translates Ancient Science texts - doesn't everyone?
If you learnt anything here, or enjoyed reading this, please support Michal by buying his new translation of Riccioli's Almagestum Novum.
Some of his other writing and interactive content on Science and Transport can also be found on his blog.