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Corsali's Southern Cross

One of the earliest appearances of the Southern Cross in print now has a new home at the State Library.

Andrea Corsali was a well-educated Florentine who observed the Southern Cross during a sea voyage in 1516:

“In evidence were two clouds that manifested themselves, of reasonable size and on a continual course in circular motion. Above this formation appeared a wondrous cross in the centre of five stars that surrounds it, like the Wain in the Northern sky, with the other stars that with them wheel around the pole, the most distant at about 30 degrees.”[1]

A sketch of a star constellation in an old printed book, propped up on a map.

Corsali was a long way from home. At the age of 28 he joined a Portuguese voyage to India at the behest of his employer, Guiliano de Medici (ruler of Florence and of the prominent banking family). Although Corsali’s purpose in joining this voyage has not been recorded, most likely the intention was for him to gather intelligence for his Medici patrons, who had substantial investments in trade from India.

Andrea Corsali’s letter reporting back on his voyage was received by the Medici in October 1516. The letter was then printed in Florence by a relatively unknown printer, Johannes Stephanus Papiensis, in December 1516. It was a very small print run, distributed amongst the Medici family. The letter contained a diagram of the constellation, and a woodcut of the illustration was included with the printed letter.

The constellation known as the Southern Cross has long been important to Aboriginal people and other cultures of the southern hemisphere, playing a key role in navigation, spirituality and storytelling. The first European observers of southern skies were struck by the brightness and distinctive shape of the constellation, and the Library’s latest acquisition records one of these early encounters.

Corsali’s voyage took the better part of a year and sailed through the perilous waters around the Cape of Good Hope. Although the existence of the constellation was known from centuries before it had been rarely seen by European travellers. Corsali’s description of the sighting imparts the emotional connection the explorer felt in sighting the constellation:

 [the Cross] “is of such beauty that in my view there is not a single celestial body that can compare with this form that is shown here.” 

In addition to describing the Cross, the letter contains descriptions of places visited on the voyage, including Mozambique, Kolkata and Goa. Corsali wrote in detail about the people he observed, their customs, dress and food. His letter also provided detailed information about Portuguese trade and military activity in these regions. Interestingly, the letter contains an early reference to New Guinea.

The information gathered by Corsali would have had commercial value for the Medici, and they circulated Corali’s report within their inner circle. The whereabouts of the original letter is unknown. There are only four known copies of the printed letter.

The copy recently acquired by the Library has an illustrious provenance, back to the eighteenth century.  It has passed  through the hands of several great book collectors, and is known as the Lord Clark copy, from an earlier owner, the noted art historian Lord Kenneth Clark.

This acquisition is a valuable addition to the Library’s significant collections documenting the history of exploration, science and navigation. It is the only copy of Corsali’s Lettera from its original print run to be held in the southern hemisphere. Two manuscript copies made later than the printed version, are in existence. One of these is on long term loan to the Library from the Bruce and Joy Reid Foundation. This manuscript was created for Andrea Gritti who was Doge of Venice from 1523.

The acquisition was made possible with the assistance of the Library Foundation.

The Lettera has been digitised and is available online through the Library catalogue.

The Library’s edition is now on display in the Amaze Gallery.

Read news of this rare and wonderful acquisition online at the Sydney Morning Herald.


Amy McKenzie, Collection Liaison , Specialist Librarian

[1] Translation from Italian,  by Richard Eden in 1555.