A special exhibition ‘The Noble Dane: Images of Tycho Brahe’ has recently opened in the Museum with, as its centrepiece, the newly restored painting in the Museum’s collection of a scene from the life of the sixteenth-century astronomer. The cost of the restoration was met in part by a grant from the South Eastern Museums Service.
The globe in the painting seems to have been formed by applying a series of cut-out and coloured constellations to a set of brass meridian ribs, and has a complex movement beneath. While individual elements depicted in the globe are known from other examples, Ender’s painting may be a valuable record of a lost mechanism of an original design; it is difficult to imagine him inventing the piece himself.
Other instruments in the painting are probably too small and commonplace for individual identification, with the possible exception of the equatorial or zodiacal armillary on a stand in the bottom left corner. This is a small version of an observing instrument Tycho had on Hven. Also on the floor are a brass quadrant and a pair of compasses; on the desk with the globe are another pair of compasses, a model of Ptolemy’s rulers, a level and a sand-glass; there is a clock among the miscellaneous objects on the shelves behind, while to the right of these a square, a semicircular protractor and a vertical circle hang on the wall.
The Tycho in this picture, however, has a perfect nose and also lacks the scar on his forehead included in other portraits. It is surprising for a painter in this genre to miss so exotic and distinguishing a feature, especially one that evokes other characteristics of the noble astronomer.
The exact occasion Ender may have had in mind in planning his composition remains a mystery. Some allusions in the picture can be guessed at, but that is all. It is known, for example, that Tycho demonstrated a ‘mechanism’ that Rudolph had noticed among Tycho’s effects and that Rudolph remarked that, although he had one or two similar devices, they were smaller and constructed differently. This seems to have been an astronomical mechanism as Rudolph declined Tycho’s offer to present it to him, saying that he would have his ‘astronomer’ make something similar.
Tycho had some dealings with monks while he was in Prague, complaining that he was disturbed by their nocturnal devotions, while the monks in their turn did not appreciate the close proximity of a heretic enjoying the patronage of the Holy Roman Emperor. One of the sources available to Ender that deals with Tycho’s disagreements with the monks was J. H. Mädler’s Populäre Astronomie published in Berlin in 1852.
In 1600, when Tycho was asked to live nearby on the Hradschin and was received in audience by the Emperor, Rudolph was disturbed by many anxieties, not least the astrological significance of the dawning of a new century. Some reports implicate Tycho in alarming prognostications around this time, but no specific event has been traced to explain the scene and to identify the other characters in the picture.
The title of the exhibition, ‘The Noble Dane’, is chosen from among several respectful epithets applied to Tycho by the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed. Pierre Gassendi, in the first biography of Tycho published in 1654, had already referred to him as ‘nobilis Danus’. Nobility was the quality most commonly attributed to Tycho. He was indeed a member of a Danish noble family, but it was not mere lineage that gave Tycho his lasting image. He practised astronomy in a princely manner and on a grand scale.
Although Tycho benefited from the generous patronage of Frederick II, notably through the use and revenues of the island of Hven, he did not serve the King in the traditional manner of the court astronomer. Rather, Tycho ruled his island as a fiefdom, as is reflected in Victor Thoren’s recent biography of Tycho: The Lord of Uraniborg.
‘Uraniborg’ or ‘Heavenly Castle’ was the name Tycho gave to one of the buildings he constructed on Hven. There and in a second observatory building, ‘Stjerneborg’ or ‘Starry Castle’, he erected a remarkable range of instruments for astronomical measurement, from armillary spheres after the manner of Ptolemy to large quadrants of bold and original designs.
Tycho’s instruments were built in his own workshops and his books were printed on his own presses. With the help of an extensive staff of assistants he carried out an ambitious programme of work, effectively re-establishing the observational basis of astronomy. Gassendi observed that if Hipparchus could be regarded as Atlas, Tycho was another Hercules.
Tycho was held in enormous respect by generations of astronomers. While there is no doubt that his achievements gave him a special place in the history of astronomy, he fashioned his own image in a striking and individual manner.
Tycho’s grand and emphatic self-presentation may sit uneasily with the image of him offered in the picture by Ender, where he performs a more traditional courtly service before a patron whose attention is less than complete. By the time of this scene, Tycho had lost favour in Denmark and had been obliged to seek patronage elsewhere. Although Rudolph was keen to accommodate this prominent addition to his entourage, Tycho’s situation was much more constrained than it had been on Hven.
Tycho, however, was careful to raise his work above such worldly concerns. Linking nobility with astronomy itself, he wrote in the Mechanica that: ‘the person who cultivates divine Astronomy ought not to be influenced by ignorant judgements, but rather look upon them from his elevated position, considering the cultivation of his studies the most precious of all things, and remaining indifferent to the coarseness of others. And when statesmen or others bother him too much, then he should leave with his possessions. ‘If Tycho was careful to build his own image during his lifetime, his reputation was frequently recruited to other causes after his death. As is illustrated in the exhibition, his image was used in a large variety of ways by later generations of astronomers.
One of the first such uses was by Willem Janszoon Blaeu, who worked under Tycho at Uraniborg. Many of his star positions were derived from Tycho’s observations and Blaeu included a portrait of the astronomer on a celestial globe of his dated 1603.
Such was Tycho’s reputation in the eighteenth century that the London instrument-maker George Adams adopted Tycho’s portrait as his shop sign, so that the address of his premises in Fleet Street became ‘at Tycho Brahe’s Head’.
These are only a few examples of the appropriation of Tycho’s image. The illustrated title-page of Kepler’s Rudolphine Tables and frontispieces of several of Johannes Hevelius’s books are other instances from the seventeenth century. The relationship of Hevelius, however, with Tycho’s legacy, is more personal. He is one of two astronomers – the other being John Flamsteed – who could be said to have cast themselves in the image of Tycho. Hevelius’s rooftop observatory in the city of Danzig was named ‘Sternenburg’ after Tycho’s ‘Stjerneborg’.
Hevelius’s identity with Tychonic practice in astronomy offered positive associations when building an observatory but, almost a century after the observations made at Uraniborg, it raised questions about the status of his results. This is clear from the reaction of some of his contemporaries, particularly in regard to his reluctance to adopt the newly introduced telescopic sights.
Robert Hooke, for example, while being careful to preserve the reputation of ‘the Noble Ticho’, charged Hevelius with ignoring subsequent progress in practical astronomy. John Flamsteed, likewise, doubted whether Hevelius, for all his work, was actually improving on the accuracy of Tycho’s observations at all: ‘it will be difficult’, he wrote, ‘to judge whether wee ought to make use of Tychoes Catalogues or his when they come forth.’
Nevertheless, as his career progressed, Flamsteed increasingly identified himself with ‘the noble Tycho’ or ‘the noble Dane’. Like his distant mentor, Flamsteed was devoted to astronomical measurement, was responsible for equipping an observatory from scratch, received patronage from the king while also meeting many of his own costs and was, he believed, beset by enemies and detractors. Officially called ‘Astronomical Observator’, Flamsteed preferred to style himself ‘Mathematicus Regius’ – Tycho had been imperial mathematician in Prague.
The well-known engravings of the Royal Observatory and its instruments, commissioned by Flamsteed’s patron Jonas Moore from Francis Place, were probably part of a scheme to publish an account of the observatory in the manner of Tycho’s Mechanica. As its first incumbent, Flamsteed had to fashion the image of the occupant of the Royal Observatory. Tycho, ‘the greatest prince among astronomers’, was a valuable resource. He even took the trouble to acquire from Denmark a portrait of Tycho, now in the Bodleian Library.
In his efforts to assert authority over his own observations, Flamsteed could deploy the association between astronomy and nobility represented by Tycho. In an age more attracted to the construction of theories in astronomy, of which Newton’s Principia was the outstanding example, Flamsteed attributed a higher morality to laying down a secure store of measurements than to following the uncertain and transient goal of theory. It was a judgement he believed he shared with his noble predecessor.
Eventually Flamsteed would also identify with Tycho in his tribulations. Not only did he see himself as Tycho, but he even began to call Edmond Halley, whom he saw as a dangerous enemy, by the name ‘Raymer’, after Tycho’s own detractor Nicolai Reymers Ursus. Forced by the ‘Visitors’ to the Observatory to account for his performance and surrender his observations, Flamsteed complained bitterly he had even been treated ‘worse than ever the noble Tycho was used in Denmark’.
The power of Tycho’s image was not limited to Europe. In about 1670 the Flemish Jesuit missionary in China, Ferdinand Verbiest, was given charge of the Imperial Observatory in Beijing and set about re-equipping it with a new set of instruments. He chose Tycho as his model and the Mechanica as his text, building an observatory on the Tychonic model.
The Museum has a rare original set of the illustrations, not included in the exhibition, detailing the form and construction of the instruments for the Beijing observatory, printed in China around 1674 on a total of one hundred and five separate sheets of paper approximately 390 x 460mm in size.
Here are instruments from Uraniborg – such as the altazimuth quadrant, the bipartite arc and the great celestial globe – refashioned in China, modelled directly on the Tychonic precedent but with eastern decoration. The sights are of Tycho’s design and the arcs are divided by transversals as he had done.
Most surprising of all is that Verbiest has built two armillary spheres, instruments tried but condemned by Tycho and not attempted by Hevelius. There is even a zodiacal armillary – the most complex and impractical of instruments for measurement, originally described in Ptolemy’s Almagest.
The Jesuits were using European astronomy to persuade the Chinese of the superiority of the Christian tradition that had produced it, so why choose to present them with an astronomical technology a century old and obsolete in the West? One proposed explanation is that it was the best that could be handled with the available labour and materials.
Another explanation could be that the Jesuits were more comfortable in a Tychonic astronomical tradition, since it adhered to a stationary earth and eschewed the heretical hypothesis of Copernicus. But part of the answer may lie in the continuing rhetorical power of Tycho’s instruments, evoked most tellingly by the majestic geometry of a large armillary sphere. As was the case when Tycho dedicated his Mechanica to Rudolph, the noble Dane’s Heavenly Castle still offered the most appropriate model for the Emperor’s observatory.