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Under the skies of Bahia

Valentin Stansel’s astronomy observations were mentioned in Newton’s Principia

Reproductions kindly loaned by Carlos Ziller CamenietzkiFrontispiece of the highly praised UranophilusReproductions kindly loaned by Carlos Ziller Camenietzki

Looking at the skies and taking note as accurately as possible on celestial phenomena had never been a problem for the Czech Jesuit priest Valentin Stansel (1621-1705). It did not matter whether he was in European cities or in the city of Salvador, in the 17th century. Stansel, a renowned mathematician, conceived and wrote most of his works in the colonial capital of the Portuguese Empire and published them in Prague and in Rome. In 1687, Stansel was quoted by Isaac Newton in the latter’s Principia. The English physicist had read an article by Stansel, published in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions. The article described a comet that Stansel had observed in 1668 and Newton used the information in his book. This was quite an achievement for a priest who had planned to teach mathematics in China instead of coming to Brazil.

The Far East was very popular among the Jesuits until the mid 1650’s. The Jesuits had focused on mathematics since the end of the 16th century and this was one of the reasons that enabled Jesuit missionaries to be sent toChina to help reorganize the Chinese calendar, for example.

This warm reception motivated young priests to volunteer for missionary work in that part of the world. Born in Olmutz, a town in Moravia, which is now part of the Czech Republic, Valentin Stansel studied philosophy and mathematics at the University of Prague. He became a professor, conducted experiments and studies on natural philosophy, and had written at least one book by 1654. He left for Rome the following year, a mandatory stopover for any traveler from Eastern Europe on his way to the missions. InRome, Stansel studied under Athanasius Kircher – a mathematician and a prominent leader in the Society of Jesus at that time – and built up a relationship network with other Jesuit natural philosophers. In 1657, he left for Lisbon, where he taught while waiting for an opportunity to travel to China. After a number of setbacks, Stansel finally travelled to Brazil. The Society of Jesus had decided to send a visitor (a kind of intervener), Jacinto de Magistris, to Brazil, in order to keep locally based Jesuits from getting involved in political struggles. Magistris took Stansel with him in 1663. The Czech priest was 42 years old when he came to Brazil, where he achieved his major accomplishments as a natural philosopher, at the Colégio de Salvador school. “He didn’t like the Brazilian Jesuits at first and complained about the lack of books and interlocutors,” says historian Carlos Ziller Camenietzki, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “Stansel wrote to Kircher, asking to return to Europe. But then he adapted, made friends and interacted with other priests and scholars.” At the time, Salvador was home to such prominent people as Antonio Vieira, his brother Bernardo, Gregório de Matos and Alexandre de Gusmão, among others.

Stansel was also reputed to be a good astronomer. He observed celestial bodies and published books in Prague and Rome, as well as articles in journals, always within the scope of the Society of Jesus. One of his observations on comets, made in 1668, was published in Italy’s Giornale dei Letterati, in September 1673. The article was translated and published in London’s Philosophical Transactions. This was the source of Newton’s information on the comet, as Newton directly quotes Stansel’s work. The astronomy reports of 1664/65 and 1668, prepared in Salvador, were published by Stansel’s peers from Prague in Legatus Uranicus ex Orbe Novo in Veterem, in 1683. Two years later, Stansel wrote Uranophilus Caelestis Peregrinus, a highly praised fictional dialogue about three characters that take a stroll in outer space while discussing Heaven and Earth.

Valentin Stansel wrote a total of nine works, including pamphlets and long essays, five books on religion and a number of short texts. “This is a huge production, even taking into account the standards of that time,” says Carlos Ziller. Stansel’s work, however, had been long forgotten and the study of his work only resumed in the 1990’s.