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Ratdolt - first publisher of Euclid

What Moritz Cantor says about Ratdolt

(pages 265-268 of Moritz Cantor, Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Mathematik, vol. II, translated by Richard Froese)

... Already in our investigations of Regiomontan, we were obliged to leave Germany with him, and look around in Italy. We could have found the name of many a learned astronomer in the letters of Regiomontan, but did not follow this up. Only the name of Bianchini had to be named in passing, and also Jakob von Speier, a German, who, as we know, lived in Italy.

We must mention one more German in Italy, who, without being a mathematician, rendered services to mathematics that cannot be overestimated. Erhard Ratdolt was a member of family of artists from Augsburg, and is said to have been born around 1443. After he had already practiced the printer's trade in his home, he went to Venice in 1475 and founded a famous printing business there, which he ran for 11 years. Then he returned to Augsburg where he continued his business with undiminished distinction to an old age. He is said to have died in 1528. The reason we mention him here is because of his 1482 edition of Euclid Not without importance is the fact that it was he who, for the first time, reproduced mathematical figures in this edition. He gives great emphasis to innovation in the dedication to the Duke Mocenigo of Venice, which itself contained a novelty, namely the first use of gold impressions in printing. The scarcity of mathematical printed works, he says, is due to the previous impossibility of producing figures. After much work, he says he can reproduce geometric figures as easily as parts of letters. Even experts in the field of printing are not sure how to interpret this sentence. Perhaps he meant the production of figures from individual parts consisting of line segments and arcs, which may be combined as words are from letters. Even if Ratdolt really was the first to reproduce mathematical figures, the first follower came along in the very same year, 1482: Mattheus Cordonis von Windischgrätz used woodcuts in his Padua edition of von Oresme's De latitudinibus.

Much more important than the pioneering figure reproduction, was that after 1482 the knowledge of geometry could now easily spread through the availability of a printed edition of the Elements. How great a need this filled can be measured by the quantity of new editions. Already in the first year, 1482, there were two editions, which however differed only on the first page. Of course, it is impossible to decide if one should really speak of a new edition, or merely a reprinting. No reason for the second version is known. Another printing occured in 1486 in Ulm by Reger, again in 1491 by a Magister Leonardo of Basel, but without the dedication to the Duke Mocenigo, who had died in the mean time. And in the year 1500 the new editions really start coming. However we will not mention them because they contain a different text than the printings before 1500. The latter give, as could be expected, the version of Campanus, translated from the Arabic, which had been quite widely disseminated as a manuscript. Campanus is mentioned in the rarer of the two 1482 editions. It seems that whoever was in charge of the scientific aspects of the edition thought regarded the role of Campanus as the owner of the Theon edition regarded the role of Theon. Namely, the added material of Campanus is printed together with the proofs in smaller letters than the theorems, and headings such as "Euclides ex Campano" or "Campanus" or "Campani addito" or "Campani annotatio", as one can find in later editions, are missing. We have no doubt that it was Radolt himself who pursued this direction. For in the early days of printing, the printers were usually well educated and often edited their own books. Where this was not the case, it was not usual to suppress the name of the editor.

It is striking that the title page of the 1482 edition that emphasizes the additions of Campanus, fails to mention that Euclid's elements had been translated from the Arabic. It has been correctly observed that such silence can be understood in two ways. After all, one is silent about things one does not know, but also about things that everyone knows. In this case the latter interpretation is probably correct. It was commonly known that the version of Euclid that was annotated by Campanus came from an Arabic source. How could one think otherwise, when the text contains words such as "helmualym" and "helmuariphe", words whose origin is clear even when their meaning is not. Perhaps is was exactly these words that were at fault when, as we have seen earlier even Regionmontan, who was well versed in Greek, made the mistake of thinking that the mathematician Euclid was Euclid of Megara, and even worse, thought he had written in Arabic. Incidentally, Ratdolt, whom we now leave, had a business relationship with Regionmontan, for whom he printed a Calendar in 1476. This Calendar contained especially beautiful decorative borders. The contract for this printing must have agreed upon shortly before Regionmontan's death ...