Looking Upwards: Stars in Ancient and Medieval Cultures


Piero Boitani
Sapienza University of Rome, Professor of Comparative Literature, Roma, Italy

Series: Contemporary Cultural Studies
BISAC: HIS037010

This book recounts the exciting tale of human beings’ relationship with the stars. It covers that tale from prehistory and antiquity to the Middle Ages, going as far as the year 1400 CE, the year of Geoffrey Chaucer’s death in England. This volume is not an astronomy textbook, nor a history of astronomy. It is a book that intends to explore, or present, the image of the stars that, throughout history, humanity constructed for itself: the image, that is, as it was transmitted through literature, the visual arts, and music. In doing so, it was of course impossible to avoid those frequent and fruitful moments when the arts encountered science, philosophy, and religion. Looking Upwards is the result of this constant historical interweaving.

The lodestar for this book was the search for cosmic poetry, for beauty, and for the sublime – for the enthusiasm and the terror that writers, painters, and composers of all ages and continents have directed towards the stars. From the dawn of human civilization to the end of the fourteenth century, Looking Upwards traces the human passion for the cosmos – in chronological order and West to East geographic movement – from Paleolithic caves to Egyptian pyramids, in Ur of the Chaldees (from where Abraham came), in classical Greece and Rome, from medieval Europe to Persia, India, China and Japan. Domes of Heaven in Constantinople and Ravenna, in Jerusalem and Granada, star vaults and mosaics, frescoes and stone engravings appear all over the planet. The music of the spheres resonates from Pythagoras to Shakespeare, from the songs of Native Americans to those of the Australian Aborigines. Homer’s poetry influences Virgil, Boethius inspires Dante, the Bible and Arabic literature are reflected in the work of Shelomoh Ibn Gabirol, ‘Omar Khayyâm and Hâfez find a new life in Edward Fitzgerald and Goethe, the Râmâyana reverberates in Kâlidâsa, and Du Fu finds companionship in Japanese haikus. Looking Upwards is a book of world literature, because people all over the world can sing, with the Abenaki of North America: We Are the Stars Who Sing. (Imprint: Nova)

Table of Contents

Table of Contents


Note on Texts, Translations, and Editions


Chapter 1. At the Beginning

Chapter 2. The Morning Stars

Chapter 3. Stars of the Empire

Appendix A

Chapter 4. The Ways of the Dark Night

Chapter 5. From Dream to Apocalypse

Chapter 6. Divinity, Life, Perfume: The Music and Dance of the Spheres

Chapter 7. The Music of the Spheres

Chapter 8. The Vaults of Heaven

Appendix B

Chapter 9. Caelatum: Creation and Chiseling

Chapter 10. Flaming Cusps

Chapter 11. Black Brocade

Chapter 12. The Beauty of Lakes

Chapter 13. Snow White

Chapter 14. We Are the Stars Who Sing

Appendix C

Chapter 15. Sparks and Embers

Chapter 16. From Eternal Nymphs to Beautiful Stars

Chapter 17. Blissful Light, Clear Beams


Index of Names

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