The Dee-Winthrop copy of Apollonius of Perga

Apollonius Pergaeus (late 3rd century BC - early 2nd century BC).

Apollonii Pergei Philosophi, Mathematicique excellentissimi Opera. Per Doctissimum Philosophum Ioannem Baptistam Memum Patritium Venetum, Mathematicharum Artium in Urbe Veneta Lectorem Publicum. De Graeco in Latinum Traducta, & Nouiter Impressa.... Venice, Bernardino Bindoni for Giambattista Memmo, 1537.

Apollonius Pergaeus (late 3rd century BC - early 2nd century BC) Apollonii Pergei Philosophi, Mathematicique excellentissimi Opera. Per Doctissimum Philosophum Ioannem Baptistam Memum Patritium Venetum, Mathematicharum Artium in Urbe Veneta Lectorem Publicum. De Graeco in Latinum Traducta, & Nouiter Impressa.... Bernardino Bindoni for Giambattista Memmo, 1537.

Folio (303x203 mm). Collation: a-p6. 89 of 90 leaves, lacking the final blank. Roman and italic type. Title-page printed in red and black, within a four-sided border of six different woodblocks, depicting a series of philosophers, poets, and scientists from Antiquity; in the lower panel an enclosed garden with fountains. On the title-page woodcut depiction of the author with his mathematical attributes on a landscape ground. Woodcut vignette, depicting an enthroned pope, with the letters '.S.' and '.P.', on fol. P5v; numerous woodcut diagrams in text. Contemporary Louvain binding of blind-panelled polish fawn calf, over pasteboards. Covers within a frame of blind fillets, with small floral tools in gilt at each outer corner. Central blind fillet-lozenge, a small rampant lion-shape tool in gilt at each outer corner, gilt crowned imperial double-headed eagle at the centre. Spine with five small raised bands, gilt fleur-de-lis and dolphin alternately tooled in compartments. Front pastedown is a fragment of a twelfth-century vellum manuscript on divination in a late-Carolingian hand, rear pastedown is a fragment of a thirteenth-century vellum manuscript Evangeliary in an early Gothic hand with musical notation. Corners worn, spine defective at head and foot, front cover almost detached. In a modern half-brown morocco box, on the spine 'APOLLONIUS OF PERGA DEE-WINTHORP COPY' in gilt on red morocco lettering-piece, and the imprint 'VENICE 1537'. A good copy, the first two leaves slightly browned, a few fingermarks. Some pencilled bibliographical notes on the pastedowns and recto of front flyleaf.

Provenance: the philosopher, mathematician, and astrologer John Dee (1527-1608; his ownership inscription dated 1549 on the title-page, 'Joannes Deeus: Anglus: 1549.', some marginal notes and underlining, autograph table on flyleaf of Ramist systematization of the mathematics in Apollonius, Archimedes, and Eutocius of Ascalon); John Winthrop, Jr. (1606-1676), son of the Massachusetts Bay Colony's first governor, physician, governor of Connecticut colony (ownership signature dated 1631 'John Winthrop. 1631.', and his sigil, the hieroglyphic monad invented by Dee, on the title-page; another ownership inscription on the recto of the front flyleaf, 'Winthropi', combined with a smaller monad symbol); by descent to Waitstill Winthrop (1642-1717) son of John, Jr., chief justice of Massachusetts (signature on the recto of the front flyleaf); Frederick Winthrop of New York (ownership entry dated 18 May 1812 on title-page, 'Fred.k Winthrop New York May 1812); Robert Charles Winthrop (1809-1894, Speaker of the House, senator from Massachusetts); Charles Fraser (presentation inscription on the flyleaf 'Washington, May, 1850'); Arthur & Charlotte Vershbow, acquired from Goodspeed's Book Shop, 1975 (inked note on the recto of the front flyleaf '75-46-14'; ex-libris on recto of front flyleaf; see The Collection of Arthur & Charlotte Vershbow, Christie's New York 2013, lot 33).

An extraordinary association copy, the rare first Latin edition of the first four books of the famous Apollonius of Perga's Conics, once belonging to the philosopher, mathematician, astrologer, and book collector John Dee (1527-1608), one of the most intriguing and enigmatic figures of the Elizabethan age. After Dee's death, the volume was acquired, in 1631, by John Winthrop Jr. (1606-1676), who in the same year crossed the ocean and brought his notable scientific library to Massachusetts Bay, including the Apollonius with the celebrated hieroglyphic monad invented by John Dee. This is the first recorded scientific book to reach the New World, and among the earliest books with an American provenance.

Apollonius' fame rests on the Κωνικά (Conics), the only work of Greek mathematics to rival in importance those of Euclid and Archimedes. Conics investigates the generation and mathematical properties of conic sections, and introduces the terms parabola, ellipse, and hyperbola. Originally in eight books, the first four books survive in Greek, while Books V-VII survive only in the Arabic version (later translated into Latin by Abraham Ecchellensis, and published in 1661), and Book VIII is lost. The editio princeps appeared only in 1710, edited by Edmund Halley. Conics became the canonical treatise on this subject. Held in such high esteem, it was commented on by the most eminent mathematicians of the seventeenth century, including Pierre de Fermat and Isaac Newton.

Another critical historical figure to hold Apollonius in such high esteem was the first owner of the present copy: the famous philosopher, mathematician, and astrologer John Dee.

Dee was born in London and studied at St. John College, Cambridge. In 1546 he was nominated to be one of the original fellows of Trinity College. In 1547 he travelled briefly to Louvain; upon his return to England he brought with him astronomical instruments devised by Gemma Frisius along with two globes constructed by Gerard Mercator. In 1548 Dee obtained his M.A.; that summer he went again to Louvain, where he resided until July 1550, furthering his mathematical studies with Frisius, Mercator, and Abraham Ortelius, and conferring with fellow scholars. During this time he also bought other scientific instruments and numerous scientific books, including this copy of Apollonius' Conics, which he acquired in 1549.

In 1550 Dee lectured on Euclid in Paris, and upon his return in 1551 he became one of the most influential figures of the Elizabethan court. In 1583 he embarked on a six-year journey in Eastern Europe, visiting Poland, in Bohemia and probably in Prague. When he returned to England in 1589, his important position at the court could not be restored. In 1596 he accepted the office of warden of a college in Manchester, and about 1605 returned in his house at Mortlake (London), where he died in great poverty in 1608.

Like Dee's Hermetic philosophy, his sigil – the Monas – is well known. An intricate symbol devised by Dee, the Monas condenses his mystical cosmogony and contains within it the symbols of all the planets and metals. While much of his activity was devoted to Hermetic magic and occult philosophy, including spiritual conversations with angels and spirits, the definition or the myth of the Magus cannot encompass the wealth of his manifold thought and work.

Dee was indeed not only an eccentric Hermetic philosopher or a reincarnation of Merlin at the Elizabethan court, but also a reputed mathematician, and his work bears witness to these broad and deep scientific interests. Thus, beyond the cabalistic, the same monad is also imbued with geometrical and arithmetical significance, as Dee argues in his manifesto Monas hieroglyphica (1564), in which he offers a construction of the monad symbol as a mathematical proof.

Dee's library – the Bibliotheca Mortlacensis, containing over 3,000 manuscripts and printed books – was at that time the largest in Renaissance England, and was at the disposal of his circle of friends, students, scholars, and statesmen. As evinced by the surviving inventory, which he compiled himself in 1583, Dee had collected the most prominent works on mathematics, astronomy, mechanics, optics, cartography, technology, and military and naval sciences, counting among them the Conics: “Apollonij Pergaei Conica latine fo. Ven. 1537” (John Dee's Library Catalogue, no. 74).

As soon as Dee departed for Poland in 1583, his house in Mortlake was raided – probably by his pupils – and many books, scientific instruments, and natural wonders were stolen. When he returned to England, he was forced to sell many of his books to stave off his increasing poverty, and the remaining volumes were finally dispersed upon his death. The volumes that have survived are now located in institutional and private collections in three continents; they are identified by his ownership inscriptions on the title-page, and also often thanks to his additional signs, underlining, extensive marginalia, and fuller notes written – as in the present example – either on pastedowns or flyleaves, or at the end of the volumes, these inclusions being central to the study of his scientific activities.

The American provenance of this copy, which was acquired in 1631 by John Winthrop the Younger, a cosmopolitan intellectual, one of the most important men in colonial English America, and the first colonial fellow of the Royal Society, is equally remarkable. In the 1620s Winthrop began to study natural philosophy and alchemy, becoming an enthusiastic follower of John Dee. He was a passionate collector of manuscripts and books associated with Dee, and used the hieroglyphic monad as his personal mark. It is through Winthrop that John Dee's name, work and influence spread to Puritan New England; in fact, exactly in 1631 Winthrop left for America, following his father, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, bringing with him his considerable scientific library. “Winthrop began to display a special affinity for the English alchemist John Dee. Dee [...] had a special interest in scientific exploration of the New World. He had given instruction and advice to pilots and navigators conducting exploratory voyages to North America. He also conjured angels to ask them of the success of a colony he proposed to establish there, which he intended to call Atlantis” (W.W. Woodward, Prospero's America, p. 33).

Winthrop's library became the largest in the colonies. In 1812 his descendants distributed the collection to Harvard, Yale, and other institutions; the New York Society Library received 290 volumes, including at least two with the Dee provenance (Paracelsus and Gerard Dorn), but Frederick Winthrop evidently decided to retain for himself Dee's Apollonius.

[Prof. Anthony Grafton of Princeton University, who has recently studied the Dee/Winthrop books held at the New York Society Library, has prepared a full report on the present copy, which is available upon request]

STC Italian 34; Dibner 101; Stillwell Awakening, 139; Hoffmann I, p. 205; Essling 667-668; Sander 480; J.O. Halliwell (ed.), The Private Diary of Dr. John Dee, and the Catalogue of his Library of Manuscripts, London 1842; P. French, John Dee. The World of an Elizabethan Magus, London 1972; F. A. Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, London 1979, pp. 75-108; N.H. Clulee, John Dee's Natural Philosophy. Between Science and Religion, London 1988; J. Roberts - A. G. Watson, John Dee's Library Catalogue, London 1990; W. H. Sherman, John Dee. The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance, Amherst 1995; S. Wilkinson, “The Alchemical Library of John Winthrop”, Ambix, 13 (1965), pp. 139-186; R. C. Black, The younger John Winthrop, New York 1966; W. W. Woodward, Prospero's America. John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, Chapel Hill, NC 2010; Philobiblon, One Thousand Years of Bibliophily, no. 91.

$ 540.000