Nicolaus Copernicus 19 February 1473 – 24 May 1543 was a Renaissance-mathematician and astronomer, who formulated a model of the universe that placed the Sun rather than Earth at the center of the universe, in all likelihood independently of Aristarchus of Samos, who had formulated such a model some eighteen centuries earlier.
The publication of Copernicus' model in his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), just before his death in 1543, was a major event in the history of science, triggering the Copernican Revolution and making a pioneering contribution to the Scientific Revolution.
Copernicus was born and died in Royal Prussia, a region that had been part of the Kingdom of Poland since 1466. A polyglot and polymath, he obtained a doctorate in canon law and was also a mathematician, astronomer, physician, classics. scholar, translator, governor, diplomat, and economist. In 1517 he derived a quantity theory of money—a key concept in economics—and in 1519 he formulated an economic principle that later came to be called Gresham's law.
Nicolaus Copernicus was born on 19 February 1473 in the city of Toruń (Thorn), in the province of Royal Prussia, in the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. His father was a merchant from Kraków and his mother was the daughter of a wealthy Toruń merchant. Nicolaus was the youngest of four children. His brother Andreas (Andrew) became an Augustinian canon at Frombork (Frauenburg). His sister Barbara, named after her mother, became a Benedictine nun and, in her final years, prioress of a convent in Chełmno (Kulm); she died after 1517. His sister Katharina married the businessman and Toruń city councilor Barthel Gertner and left five children, whom Copernicus looked after to the end of his life. Copernicus never married and is not known to have had children, but from at least 1531 until 1539 his relations with Anna Schilling, a live-in housekeeper, were seen as scandalous by two bishops of Warmia who urged him over the years to break off relations with his "mistress".
Copernicus' father's family can be traced to a village in Silesia near Nysa (Neiße). The village's name has been variously spelled Kopernik, Copernik, Copernic, Kopernic, Coprirnik, and today Koperniki. In the 14th century, members of the family began moving to various other Silesian cities, to the Polish capital, Kraków (1367), and to Toruń (1400). The father, Mikołaj the Elder, likely the son of Jan, came from the Kraków line.
Nicolaus was named after his father, who appears in records for the first time as a well-to-do merchant who dealt in copper, selling it mostly in Danzig (Gdańsk). He moved from Kraków to Toruń around 1458.Toruń, situated on the Vistula River, was at that time embroiled in the Thirteen Years' War, in which the Kingdom of Poland and the Prussian Confederation, an alliance of Prussian cities, gentry and clergy, fought the Teutonic Order over control of the region. In this war, Hanseatic cities like Danzig and Toruń, Nicolaus Copernicus's hometown, chose to support the Polish King, Casimir IV Jagiellon, who promised to respect the cities' traditional vast independence, which the Teutonic Order had challenged. Nicolaus' father was actively engaged in the politics of the day and supported Poland and the cities against the Teutonic Order. In 1454 he mediated negotiations between Poland's Cardinal Zbigniew Oleśnicki and the Prussian cities for repayment of war loans. In the Second Peace of Thorn (1466), the Teutonic Order formally relinquished all claims to its western province, which as Royal Prussia remained a region of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland until the First (1772) and Second (1793) Partitions of Poland.
Copernicus's father married Barbara Watzenrode, the astronomer's mother, between 1461 and 1464. He died about 1483.
Nicolaus' mother, Barbara Watzenrode, was the daughter of a wealthy Toruń patrician and city councillor, Lucas Watzenrode the Elder (deceased 1462), and Katarzyna (widow of Jan Peckau), mentioned in other sources as Katarzyna Rüdiger gente Modlibóg (deceased 1476). The Modlibógs were a prominent Polish family who had been well known in Poland's history since 1271. The Watzenrode family, like the Kopernik family, had come from Silesia from near Świdnica (Schweidnitz), and after 1360 had settled in Toruń. They soon became one of the wealthiest and most influential patrician families. Through the Watzenrodes' extensive family relationships by marriage, Copernicus was related to wealthy families of Toruń (Thorn), Gdańsk (Danzig) and Elbląg (Elbing), and to prominent Polish noble families of Prussia: the Czapskis, Działyńskis, Konopackis and Kościeleckis. Lucas and Katherine had three children: Lucas Watzenrode the Younger (1447–1512), who would become Bishop of Warmia and Copernicus's patron; Barbara, the astronomer's mother (deceased after 1495); and Christina (deceased before 1502), who in 1459 married the Toruń merchant and mayor, Tiedeman von Allen.
Lucas Watzenrode the Elder, a wealthy merchant and in 1439–62 president of the judicial bench, was a decided opponent of the Teutonic Knights. In 1453 he was the delegate from Toruń at the Grudziądz (Graudenz) conference that planned the uprising against them. During the ensuing Thirteen Years' War (1454–66), he actively supported the Prussian cities' war effort with substantial monetary subsidies (only part of which he later re-claimed), with political activity in Toruń and Danzig, and by personally fighting in battles at Łasin (Lessen) and Malbork (Marienburg). He died in 1462.
Lucas Watzenrode the Younger, the astronomer's maternal uncle and patron, was educated at the University of Kraków (now Jagiellonian University) and at the universities of Cologne and Bologna. He was a bitter opponent of the Teutonic Order, and its Grand Master once referred to him as "the devil incarnate". In 1489 Watzenrode was elected Bishop of Warmia (Ermeland, Ermland) against the preference of King Casimir IV, who had hoped to install his own son in that seat. As a result, Watzenrode quarreled with the king until Casimir IV's death three years later. Watzenrode was then able to form close relations with three successive Polish monarchs: John I Albert, Alexander Jagiellon, and Sigismund I the Old. He was a friend and key advisor to each ruler, and his influence greatly strengthened the ties between Warmia and Poland proper. Watzenrode came to be considered the most powerful man in Warmia, and his wealth, connections and influence allowed him to secure Copernicus' education and career as a canon at Frombork Cathedral.
Upon his father's death, young Nicolaus' maternal uncle, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger (1447–1512), took the boy under his wing and saw to his education and career. Watzenrode maintained contacts with leading intellectual figures in Poland and was a friend of the influential Italian-born humanist and Kraków courtier, Filippo Buonaccorsi. There are no surviving primary documents on the early years of Copernicus's childhood and education.Copernicus biographers assume that Watzenrode first sent young Copernicus to St. John's School, at Toruń, where he himself had been a master. Later, according to Armitage, the boy attended the Cathedral School at Włocławek, up the Vistula River from Toruń, which prepared pupils for entrance to the University of Kraków, Watzenrode's alma mater in Poland's capital.
In the winter semester of 1491–92 Copernicus, as "Nicolaus Nicolai de Thuronia", matriculated together with his brother Andrew at the University of Kraków (now Jagiellonian University). Copernicus began his studies in the Department of Arts (from the fall of 1491, presumably until the summer or fall of 1495) in the heyday of the Kraków astronomical-mathematical school, acquiring the foundations for his subsequent mathematical achievements. According to a later but credible tradition (Jan Brożek), Copernicus was a pupil of Albert Brudzewski, who by then (from 1491) was a professor of Aristotelian philosophy but taught astronomy privately outside the university; Copernicus became familiar with Brudzewski's widely read commentary to Georg von Peuerbach's Theoricæ novæ planetarum and almost certainly attended the lectures of Bernard of Biskupie and Wojciech Krypa of Szamotuły, and probably other astronomical lectures by Jan of Głogów, Michał of Wrocław (Breslau), Wojciech of Pniewy, and Marcin Bylica of Olkusz.
Copernicus' Kraków studies gave him a thorough grounding in the mathematical astronomy taught at the University (arithmetic, geometry, geometric optics, cosmography, theoretical and computational astronomy) and a good knowledge of the philosophical and natural-science writings of Aristotle (De coelo, Metaphysics) and Averroes (which in the future would play an important role in the shaping of Copernicus' theory), stimulating his interest in learning and making him conversant with humanistic culture. Copernicus broadened the knowledge that he took from the university lecture halls with independent reading of books that he acquired during his Kraków years (Euclid, Haly Abenragel, the Alfonsine Tables, Johannes Regiomontanus' Tabulae directionum); to this period, probably, also date his earliest scientific notes, now preserved partly at Uppsala University.At Kraków Copernicus began collecting a large library on astronomy; it would later be carried off as war booty by the Swedes during the Deluge in the 1650s and is now at the Uppsala University Library.
Copernicus' four years at Kraków played an important role in the development of his critical faculties and initiated his analysis of logical contradictions in the two "official" systems of astronomy—Aristotle's theory of homocentric spheres, and Ptolemy's mechanism of eccentrics and epicycles—the surmounting and discarding of which would be the first step toward the creation of Copernicus' own doctrine of the structure of the universe.
Without taking a degree, probably in the fall of 1495, Copernicus left Kraków for the court of his uncle Watzenrode, who in 1489 had been elevated to Prince-Bishop of Warmia and soon (before November 1495) sought to place his nephew in the Warmia canonry vacated by the 26 August 1495 death of its previous tenant, Jan Czanow. For unclear reasons—probably due to opposition from part of the chapter, who appealed to Rome—Copernicus' installation was delayed, inclining Watzenrode to send both his nephews to study canon law in Italy, seemingly with a view to furthering their ecclesiastic careers and thereby also strengthening his own influence in the Warmia chapter.
On 20 October 1497, Copernicus, by proxy, formally succeeded to the Warmia canonry which had been granted to him two years earlier. To this, by a document dated 10 January 1503 at Padua, he would add a sinecure at the Collegiate Church of the Holy Cross and St. Bartholomew in Wrocław (at the time in the Kingdom of Bohemia). Despite having been granted a papal indult on 29 November 1508 to receive further benefices, through his ecclesiastic career Copernicus not only did not acquire further prebends and higher stations (prelacies) at the chapter, but in 1538 he relinquished the Wrocław sinecure. It is unclear whether he was ever ordained a priest. Edward Rosen asserts that he was not. Copernicus did take minor orders, which sufficed for assuming a chapter canonry. The Catholic Encyclopedia proposes that his ordination was probable, as in 1537 he was one of four candidates for the episcopal seat of Warmia, a position which required ordination.
Meanwhile, leaving Warmia in mid-1496—possibly with the retinue of the chapter's chancellor, Jerzy Pranghe, who was going to Italy—in the fall, possibly in October, Copernicus arrived in Bologna and a few months later (after 6 January 1497) signed himself into the register of the Bologna University of Jurists' "German nation", which included young Poles from Silesia, Prussia and Pomerania as well as students of other nationalities.
During his three-year stay at Bologna, which occurred between fall 1496 and spring 1501, Copernicus seems to have devoted himself less keenly to studying canon law (he received his doctorate in law only after seven years, following a second return to Italy in 1503) than to studying the humanities—probably attending lectures by Filippo Beroaldo, Antonio Urceo, called Codro, Giovanni Garzoni, and Alessandro Achillini—and to studying astronomy. He met the famous astronomer Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara and became his disciple and assistant. Copernicus was developing new ideas inspired by reading the "Epitome of the Almagest" (Epitome in Almagestum Ptolemei) by George von Peuerbach and Johannes Regiomontanus (Venice, 1496). He verified its observations about certain peculiarities in Ptolemy's theory of the Moon's motion, by conducting on 9 March 1497 at Bologna a memorable observation of the occultation of Aldebaran, the brightest star in the Taurus constellation, by the moon. Copernicus the humanist sought confirmation for his growing doubts through close reading of Greek and Latin authors (Pythagoras, Aristarchos of Samos, Cleomedes, Cicero, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Philolaus, Heraclides, Ecphantos, Plato), gathering, especially while at Padua, fragmentary historic information about ancient astronomical, cosmological and calendar systems.
Copernicus spent the jubilee year 1500 in Rome, where he arrived with his brother Andrew that spring, doubtless to perform an apprenticeship at the Papal Curia. Here, too, however, he continued his astronomical work begun at Bologna, observing, for example, a lunar eclipse on the night of 5–6 November 1500. According to a later account by Rheticus, Copernicus also—probably privately, rather than at the Roman Sapienza—as a "Professor Mathematum" (professor of astronomy) delivered, "to numerous... students and... leading masters of the science", public lectures devoted probably to a critique of the mathematical solutions of contemporary astronomy.
On his return journey doubtless stopping briefly at Bologna, in mid-1501 Copernicus arrived back in Warmia. After on 28 July receiving from the chapter a two-year extension of leave in order to study medicine (since "he may in future be a useful medical advisor to our Reverend Superior [Bishop Lucas Watzenrode] and the gentlemen of the chapter"), in late summer or in the fall he returned again to Italy, probably accompanied by his brother Andrew and by Canon Bernhard Sculteti. This time he studied at the University of Padua, famous as a seat of medical learning, and—except for a brief visit to Ferrara in May–June 1503 to pass examinations for, and receive, his doctorate in canon law—he remained at Padua from fall 1501 to summer 1503.
Copernicus studied medicine probably under the direction of leading Padua professors—Bartolomeo da Montagnana, Girolamo Fracastoro, Gabriele Zerbi, Alessandro Benedetti—and read medical treatises that he acquired at this time, by Valescus de Taranta, Jan Mesue, Hugo Senensis, Jan Ketham, Arnold de Villa Nova, and Michele Savonarola, which would form the embryo of his later medical library.
One of the subjects that Copernicus must have studied was astrology, since it was considered an important part of a medical education. However, unlike most other prominent Renaissance astronomers, he appears never to have practiced or expressed any interest in astrology.
As at Bologna, Copernicus did not limit himself to his official studies. It was probably the Padua years that saw the beginning of his Hellenistic interests. He familiarized himself with Greek language and culture with the aid of Theodorus Gaza's grammar (1495) and J.B. Chrestonius' dictionary (1499), expanding his studies of antiquity, begun at Bologna, to the writings of Basilius Bessarion, Lorenzo Valla and others. There also seems to be evidence that it was during his Padua stay that the idea finally crystallized, of basing a new system of the world on the movement of the Earth.As the time approached for Copernicus to return home, in spring 1503 he journeyed to Ferrara where, on 31 May 1503, having passed the obligatory examinations, he was granted the degree of Doctor of Canon Law (Nicolaus Copernich de Prusia, Jure Canonico ... et doctoratus). No doubt it was soon after (at latest, in fall 1503) that he left Italy for good to return to Warmia.
Toward the close of 1542, Copernicus was seized with apoplexy and paralysis, and he died at age 70 on 24 May 1543. Legend has it that he was presented with the final printed pages of his Dē revolutionibus orbium coelestium on the very day that he died, allowing him to take farewell of his life's work. He is reputed to have awoken from a stroke-induced coma, looked at his book, and then died peacefully.
Copernicus was reportedly buried in Frombork Cathedral, where a 1580 epitaph stood until being defaced; it was replaced in 1735. For over two centuries, archaeologists searched the cathedral in vain for Copernicus' remains. Efforts to locate them in 1802, 1909, 1939 had come to nought. In 2004 a team led by Jerzy Gąssowski, head of an archaeology and anthropology institute in Pułtusk, began a new search, guided by the research of historian Jerzy Sikorski. In August 2005, after scanning beneath the cathedral floor, they discovered what they believed to be Copernicus's remains.
The discovery was announced only after further research, on 3 November 2008. Gąssowski said he was "almost 100 percent sure it is Copernicus". Forensic expert Capt. Dariusz Zajdel of the Polish Police Central Forensic Laboratory used the skull to reconstruct a face that closely resembled the features—including a broken nose and a scar above the left eye—on a Copernicus self-portrait. The expert also determined that the skull belonged to a man who had died around age 70—Copernicus's age at the time of his death.[
The grave was in poor condition, and not all the remains of the skeleton were found; missing, among other things, was the lower jaw. The DNA from the bones found in the grave matched hair samples taken from a book owned by Copernicus which was kept at the library of the University of Uppsala in Sweden.
On 22 May 2010 Copernicus was given a second funeral in a Mass led by Józef Kowalczyk, the former papal nuncio to Poland and newly named Primate of Poland. Copernicus's remains were reburied in the same spot in Frombork Cathedral where part of his skull and other bones had been found. A black granite tombstone now identifies him as the founder of the heliocentric theory and also a church canon. The tombstone bears a representation of Copernicus's model of the Solar System—a golden Sun encircled by six of the planets.