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  • Writer's pictureSeb Falk

How did an Italian astrolabe end up on the New Zealand passport?

Updated: May 12, 2020

A few years ago I enjoyed a blog post in which National Maritime Museum curator Rebekah Higgitt wrote about the “navigation” theme of the new New Zealand passport design.  Higgitt discussed the use of John Harrison’s H1 clock as an illustration in the passport.  She also noted that the description on the New Zealand government website mentioned an astrolabe, which piqued my interest.  I tried to find out more, but the website didn’t include pictures, and none of my Kiwi friends had new-style passports.

So I forgot about it… – until last week when a friend of mine was talking about the designs that have been proposed to replace the current NZ flag.  I took the opportunity to ask to see his passport, and bingo! Here it is:

I was intrigued by the distinctive design and decided to see if I could find similar astrolabes in any published museum collections.  It didn’t take me very long to track down this one:

This is astrolabe 50257 at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford.  You don’t have to be an expert to spot the similarities.  But the question is, are those similarities remarkable? How unusual is this design?

To answer that question, let’s go back to basics for a moment.  The similarity you notice – the dark pattern of rings, heart shape and so on – is the rete of the astrolabe.  It was made by cutting holes in a sheet of brass, so that it resembles a net (that’s what rete means in Latin) or, as Chaucer thought, a spider’s web.  It sits inside the mater of the astrolabe, and rotates around that big pin in the middle.  Each of the pointers on the rete marks a star, making the rete a moving star map, able to simulate the daily (apparent) motion of the heavens around the earth.

This overall layout, with the rete turning above a plate engraved with a grid of coordinates and a horizon for a particular latitude, is by far the most common form of an astrolabe.  The basic concept goes back to Ptolemy in the 2nd century CE, and the instrument had this settled form, with the mater, interchangeable plates for various latitudes, the rete and rule (which also moves, as you can see from its differing position in the two pictures above), by the time John Philoponus wrote a description of it in the early 6th century.

But that still left a lot of flexibility for individual designers and craftsmen.  They could choose which stars to include on their rete, but more noticeably, the supporting brass “net” could be almost any shape, as long as it included that smallish eccentric (off-centre) circle which is the ecliptic, mapping the Sun’s annual progress through the zodiac.  Craftsmen expressed their flair through ingenious designs – a favourite trick, as you can see here, was to make the rete symmetrical, even though the stars obviously weren’t.

As far as I know, this particular design of rete is unique.  Luckily the astrolabe itself has the name of its designer on the back: Giovanni Domenico Fecioli of Trento, in the far north of Italy.  We also have the name of the man who commissioned it: Giulio Cesare Luchino, of Bologna.  The latitude of Bologna is 44° 30′, which matches the astrolabe’s single latitude plate.  It’s dated 1558, just when the popularity of astrolabes in Europe was at its peak.

Image courtesy of HSM Oxford

In technical terms there’s nothing particularly remarkable about this astrolabe, but the design is an attractive one.  The illusion of interlocking circles at the bottom of the rete was a popular motif in that period – compare, for example, this one by the prolific Arsenius workshop in Louvain.  Arsenius was famous for his tulip-shaped designs (can you see the tulip?), and Fecioli’s rete doesn’t quite match the delicacy of Arsenius’s intricate brasswork, but it’s still beautiful, and I’m sure it was much prized (and proudly displayed) by Luchino.

I have no idea why the New Zealand government chose a Fecioli astrolabe as an illustration for their passports.  But it’s worth saying a few words about the place of this instrument in the overall design scheme.

Here’s what their website says about it:

The passport’s new design evolved from the concept of navigation and our evolution from a place of discovery, to a place of destination and follows the journeys of the earliest explorers of New Zealand through to the journeys made by Kiwis today. Themes of arrival and departure, navigation and time are represented figuratively and metaphorically throughout the passport.

And about pages 20-21 specifically:

The astrolabe and chart – the astrolabe is an astronomical instrument used by astronomers, navigators, and astrologers. Its many uses included: locating and predicting the positions of the sun, moon, planets and stars; determining local time using local longitude and vice-versa; surveying and triangulation. 

Of course the theme of navigation is perfect for a passport.  But the astrolabe’s place in that theme is less certain.  It was a multifunctional compendium of astronomical and astrological functions, not particularly suited to use at sea.  It’s true that the mariner’s astrolabe was a popular navigational device (I made and tested one for a previous blog post), but that was a quite different instrument.  It’s certainly highly unlikely that Fecioli’s beautiful piece ever went offshore.

Even if it had, it could never have been used to determine longitude (or to predict the positions of the Moon or planets).  The relationship between longitude and time was well known in the age of the astrolabe, and astrolabes could certainly be used to find local time.  But longitude is a relative measurement (these days we measure it east or west of Greenwich); if you want to go from local time to local longitude, you also need to know the time at the reference point (e.g. Greenwich) from which you’re measuring longitude.  Local time was easy to find, but when Fecioli made his astrolabe, a reliable, robust method of keeping reference time – a clock that could withstand ocean passages – was still 200 years away.

But local time itself is unattainable with the astrolabe pictured in the passport, because the designers have cut off the suspension ring and throne that attaches it to the mater.  The ring is crucial for sightings of the Sun or a star, because the astrolabe has to hang vertically.  Without it, the astrolabe is no longer an observational instrument.

That may seem like nitpicking, but it tells us something about the way astrolabes are (and were) seen.  They have always had symbolic value, representing astronomical knowledge as well as artistry and the owner’s wealth and status.  Today in many museums they are presented as art objects, out of context and, often, supported from below rather then suspended by the ring (admittedly for sound preservation purposes).  They now seem to symbolise ancient, arcane knowledge, and this symbolic value trumps accuracy, much like the “save” icon in most computer programs is a 3.5″ floppy disk, though you’re unlikely to be storing your work on those any more.

Of course I don’t mind that – I’m happy people find astrolabes evocative and attractive.  And, as I say, they’ve always had symbolic value.  But once in a while it’s worth reminding ourselves of the specific contexts where, for a thousand years, they were also complex scientific objects with practical purposes.

Update, 25/08/2015: I wrote to the New Zealand Passport Office to see if I could find out more, and received a very friendly response.  The officer wrote: “I have spoken directly with some of those involved in the design process of the latest version of the New Zealand passport, which was produced in 2009 and the astrolabe design appears because it is a symbol for travel and a relatively complex shape. […] The specific astrolabe was not chosen for any particular reason except that it fit with the overall theme.  I was unable to ascertain whether the astrolabe featured in the book is the specific 16th century Italian you have identified but your analysis would suggest that it is the case.  Unfortunately I am not able to be more specific than that.   Thank you very much for writing to us and I have noted with pleasure your compliment for our ‘beautiful’ passport.”

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