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From Adler's Collections: A 400 Year-Old Celestial Globe

This four-inch-diameter brass celestial globe originated from Italy or Germany, probably in the 1600s, although it is neither signed nor dated. As a celestial globe, it shows stars and constellation figures arranged around the celestial sphere, rather than continents arranged around the terrestrial sphere — as would appear on a terrestrial globe.

All 48 of the “classical” constellations—those described by Ptolemy in the second century of our era—appear on the globe, plus a handful of newer ones. The constellation figures are elegantly engraved, in a style associated with 16th-century cartographer François Demongenet. Their names are also inscribed, in Latin. Evidently the globe was made in Europe.

A brass globe was a luxury item. When you pick this one up, you immediately notice how heavy it is — although it is not nearly as massive as a solid brass globe would be. This poses a bit of a mystery. There is no seam, so it was not made by separately hammering two half-globes into shape and joining them. Making a hollow metal sphere was in fact a tricky task in the 1600s. Islamic globe-makers had devised an ingenious technology to make seamless metal globes (search the web for “lost wax casting”). Globe historians, however, have not found that European globe-makers of the time knew or used the lost wax technique. Pending more sophisticated scientific study, then, this globe remains more than a little mysterious. We simply do not know how such an object could have been made, at the time it was made. A direct investigation, cutting it open and looking inside, might answer the question, but is not an option for obvious reasons.

The globe has an interesting recent provenance. Found in northeastern Italy (near Bologna) after the Second World War by an American G.I., it was brought back to the United States, where it was privately held by his descendants in Kansas for over half a century. Before recommending its purchase, Adler curators spent more than a year contacting museums in the region of Italy where it was found. None of them had records of anything like this that had disappeared or otherwise gone missing during or after the Second World War. (None of them, indeed, had records of the existence of anything like this.)

The Adler’s Board of Trustees purchased the globe for the Adler Collection in honor of former President Paul H. Knappenberger, Jr., on the occasion of his retirement. We are delighted to own and display this extraordinary example of an early European brass celestial globe.

 Written by Bruce Stephenson, curator of collections at the Adler Planetarium.

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