The Book of Michael of Rhodes: A Fifteenth-Century Maritime Manuscript

In the fifteenth century, a Venetian mariner, Michael of Rhodes, wrote and illustrated a text describing his experiences in the Venetian merchant and military fleets. He included a treatise on commercial mathematics and treatments of contemporary shipbuilding practices, navigation, calendrical systems, and astrological ideas. This manuscript, “lost,” or at least in unknown hands for over 400 years, has never been published or translated in its entirety until now.

In 1966 the manuscript resurfaced, but was bought up by a private collector.  Then, in the year 2000, a new owner allowed unprecedented access to the manuscript to the  Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology.  A special project was started in 2003 with an international team of scholars working on the various subjects and topics raised by the manuscript.  They are led by Dr. Pamela O. Long, an independent historian of Medieval and Renaissance science and technology, Dr. David McGee, Research Director of the Burndy Library, and Dr. Alan M. Stahl, Curator of Numismatics at Princeton University.

In the spring of 2009, we interviewed these three scholars during the International Congress on Medieval Studies:

9780262135030The outcome of this project is a three-volume book:

Volume 1 is a facsimile of the manuscript, reproduced in full color. The text is written out by hand and beautifully illustrated (probably at least in part by Michael himself), featuring color diagrams and illustrations of naval architecture, original drawings of astrological signs, calendrical charts, and a coat of arms Michael devised for himself.

Volume 2 contains a transcription of the handwritten text in the medieval Venetian dialect of Italian and, on facing pages, its translation into modern English. Michael’s book includes the first extant treatise on naval architecture, a 200-page treatise on mathematics in the tradition of medieval and Renaissance abacus manuscripts, texts on navigation including portolans (sailing directions), and Michael’s autobiographical service record—unique for Venice in this period and noteworthy for being the personal record of a man of non-noble status and foreign birth.

In volume 3, nine experts, including the editors, discuss the manuscript, its historical context, and its scholarly importance. Their essays examine the Venetian maritime world of the fifteenth century, Michael’s life, the discovery of the manuscript, the mathematics in the book, the use of illustration, the navigational directions, Michael’s knowledge of shipbuilding in the Venetian context, and the manuscript’s extensive calendrical material.

See also:

The Michael of Rhodes website – great online resource with portions and images from the manuscript

The World of Michael of Rhodes, Venetian Mariner  -  by Pamela O. Long

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