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Sun and Stars, Agostino Cesareo's Navigation Manual

A Treatise on Navigation by Observation of the Sun and Stars

A Treatise on Navigation by Observation of the Sun and Stars, Cesareo, Agostino, ca. 1587, State Library of New South Wales, SAFE/MLMSS 9978

Agostino Cesareo’s manual for navigating the Eastern Mediterranean and the South Seas represents an extraordinary chapter in the story of navigational texts. 

Dated 1587, and written in Italian, this manuscript is one of several produced by Cesareo in the hope of securing a patron to fund the manual’s publication. Surviving copies of the work are dedicated to powerful Italian noblemen. 

According to maps historian Chet Van Duzer, Cesareo’s manuscripts provide technical information on the art and craft of navigation, as well as offering ‘a window into literary networks’ in sixteenth-century Italy. Although Cesareo lived at a time of widespread production of atlases, charts and other navigational treatises, his own manual was never published. 

A highlight of this work is its depiction of the Southern Cross (or Crux, Latin for cross), a constellation that would later evolve from an aid for navigation to a symbol of Australia. In a letter to Guiliano de Medici, Andrea Corsali described the constellation as a cross ‘so fair and beautiful, that no other heavenly sign may be compared to it as may appear by this figure’. (This letter is on permanent loan to the Library from the Bruce and Joy Reid Foundation.)

The page in Cesareo’s treatise featuring the Southern Cross reads, in translation: ‘Rules for counting in the navigation/sailing. It will be a good habit while sailing to not make mistakes in counting, and this will not be possible without the following notes …’

The manuscript also features several ‘volvelles’ — wheel charts made of paper, with rotating parts. Volvelles have been produced for centuries to assist in making calculations across a variety of subjects, and early examples can be found in astronomy books.

The increase in the information available for pilots and navigators throughout the sixteenth century inspired a growing fascination with exploration beyond Europe. Navigational treatises such as Cesareo’s set solid foundations for voyages to the Pacific, Australia and Antarctica. 

This beautiful manuscript volume offers significant insights into a period of early achievements in navigation, and makes a wonderful addition to the Library’s collections on this subject. 

Written by Rachel Franks, Coordinator, Education & Scholarship, State Library of New South Wales, 2017

Translation by Monica Galassi, Project Officer, Indigenous Services

This article first appeared in SL magazine summer 2017–18

Collection References
‘A Treatise on Navigation by Observation of the Sun and Stars’, Agostino Cesareo, 1587

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