An ancient medieval astrolabe with Arabic, Jewish and Christian writings rediscovered in Verona

Can a single object tell us the story of a disappeared world? Yes, this is the case withastrolabe medieval “rediscovered” a Verona by the doctor Federica Gigantehistorian ofUniversity of Cambridge. The astrolabe is one astronomical instrument thanks to which you can calculate and identify the positions of the stars, based on the day of the year, the time and the latitude you are in.

By pure chance, the young researcher, specialized in the study of contacts between the Islamic world and Europe in the early modern period, found on the site of the Miniscalchi-Erizzo Museum Foundation of Verona a photo of an astrolabe belonging to the collection. Wanting to study the object further, the historian went to Verona to see it personally. The outcome of the research, published in the journal Nunciuswas amazing.

What is an astrolabe

An astrolabe is one instrument composed of several moving parts which, through a more or less faithful reproduction of the celestial sphere and the rotation of its components, allowed us to calculate theheight and position of the stars. During the Middle Ages and the early modern period it was an object essential for the scientiststhe navigation and theastrologywhich at the time was considered a real branch ofastronomy.

The astrolabe of Verona

The astrolabe studied in Verona by Dr. Gigante, created in copper alloyhas the particularity of having writings engraved on it Arabic and in Jewish And Western numbers. Based on comparisons with other known medieval astrolabes, it is likely that the Veronese example was made by Arabized Sephardic Jewish community in the 11th century Spain. Not all parts of the instrument were created at the same time, but the study of the Arabic and Hebrew writings present has allowed us to roughly reconstruct what type of travel he had the astrolabe.

To suggest the origin Judeo-Arabic-Spanish there are more details of the artefact. Among the engravings in Arabic are the times of the Islamic prayertwo Arabic names probably translated from Hebrew, Isḥāq And Yūnusor Isaac and Jonah, but also the latitudes of two Spanish cities: Toledo And Cordoba. As a probable testimony of a first change of hands of the object, subsequent engravings can be observed, always in Arabic, of latitudes compatible with the North Africa.


At an unspecified time, the astrolabe changed hands once againthis time in the direction ofItaly. What makes us understand this is the presence of the engravings in Hebrew, made subsequently and which turned out to be translations or corrections of those in Arabic.

Whereas Spanish Sephardic Jewish communities used theArabic as main languageit is likely that the astrolabe moved in a context always of Jewish culture, but where Arabic was not understoodprobably the Jewish communities of medieval Italy.

The Hebrew engravings, in turn, were added by two different hands, one more decisive, the other more uncertain. We know that in Verona in 12th century lived one of the most important Jewish communities in Italy at the time, and we also know that at that time, among the Jewish scholars and scholars of the city instruments such as astrolabes were in circulation.


After some time, the astrolabe changed owners once againbecause in addition to the Arabic and Hebrew writings, corrections were added (which in some cases turned out to be incorrect!) engraved with our Western numbers.

At the end of the 17th centurymore than half a millennium after its creation, the astrolabe was part of the collection of ancient objects of the Veronese count Ludovico Moscardo. Over the last few centuries this has merged into the current collection of objects of the Miniscalchi-Erizzo Museum Foundation.

The Veronese astrolabe, with its complex and fascinating history, is proof of how knowledge, knowledge And exchanges occurred continuously among intellectuals Muslims, Jews And Christians in medieval Europe. Each of them left a trace of themselves by engraving something on the Verona astrolabe, allowing us to shed light on a world of dialogue and research from almost a millennium ago.