An old astrolabe was recently discovered in a museum in the Italian city of Verona. It dates back to the 1100s, which makes it one of the oldest astrolabes ever found. Astrolabes are early scientific calculators that could measure time, distances, the position of stars, and even make horoscopes predicting the future.

The newly discovered astrolabe has inscriptions written in Arabic and Hebrew. This shows it was used by Muslims, Jews, and Christians in Spain, North Africa, and Italy over several hundred years.

As the astrolabe changed hands between different owners and cultures, people added translations and corrections. This demonstrates that scientific ideas were exchanged between cultures during medieval times.

The expert who studied this astrolabe is named Dr. Federica Gigante. By examining its special features and inscriptions, she figured out it was originally made in Muslim-ruled Spain in the 1100s. The inscriptions match the latitudes of Spanish cities, like Cordoba and Toledo.

Dr. Gigante believes the astrolabe was possibly made in Toledo, which back then was an important center where Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived, studied, and worked side-by-side.

Later owners of the astrolabe added Hebrew inscriptions, translating zodiac sign names and other terms into Hebrew. This signifies that at some point, the astrolabe likely traveled to Italy, where local Jews no longer spoke Arabic. However, the Hebrew additions contain a mistake about latitude, suggesting they weren’t written by an expert at using astrolabes.

Some numbers were also lightly scratched on in the Roman numerals we use today. Dr. Gigante thinks these were even later additions made by Latin or Italian speakers living in Verona. Amusingly, some of their “corrections” were actually wrong, proving the original Arabic values were more accurate.

Astrolabes themselves were like an ancient smartphone—a portable model of the universe you could hold in one hand. The user could set the movable parts to determine all kinds of information. As years passed, the astrolabe changed hands between many owners:

First, it was made in Muslim-ruled Spain by an artisan named Yūnus for a man named Isḥāq. Later owners added lines for Muslim prayer times. At some point it traveled to Morocco or Egypt based on added inscriptions.

It then likely made its way to Italy, where local Jews translated terms into Hebrew so they could use it. Finally, in Verona, some Latin or Italian speakers tried modifying it but made sloppy mistakes.

After all those centuries of adventurous traveling, the astrolabe finally wound up preserved in Verona’s Museum of Miniscalchi-Erizzo, newly discovered by Dr. Gigante.


Sources

University of Cambridge | Gigante, Federica. “A Medieval Islamic Astrolabe with Hebrew Inscriptions in Verona: The Seventeenth-Century Collection of Ludovico Moscardo“, Nuncius 39, 1 (2024): 163-192, doi.org/10.1163/18253911-bja10095


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