La Jolla Map Museum adds rare, Italian astronomical calendar to collection

This volvelle (wheel chart) astronomical calendar, the newest edition to the collection of the Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla, was created circa 1455 and once helped monks at a monastery in Verona tell time.

If you go
■ What: Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla
■ When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays and the first and third Saturdays of the month
Where: 7825 Fay Ave., Suite LL-A
■ Admission: Free
■ Contact: (858) 653-6277
■ Website:

By Pat Sherman

A colorfully detailed, astronomical calendar that once reminded monks in a monastery in Verona, Italy of Easter’s approach — considered by some to be “arguably the ultimate ancestor to the analogue computer” — is the latest addition to the permanent collection of the Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla, 7825 Fay Ave., Suite LL-A.

The item can be viewed for free at the museum during regular hours, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays and the first and third Saturdays of the month.

Known as the San Zeno Astrolabe (devices historically used by navigators, astronomers and astrologers to locate positions of the sun, moon and stars, determine local time and cast horoscopes) the object was made of ink on wood and vellum (animal skin) circa 1455.

These zodiac illustrations were likely added to the astronomical calendar 50 years after its creation.

It was housed in an abbey once attached to the Basilica of San Zeno in Verona Italy for over three centuries — even after the community was decimated by the bubonic plague in the 1600s. The abbey was destroyed in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and the calendar seemingly disappeared.

“The first thought was that it had been looted, but it appears as though it was taken by a family and kept, and then went to another family a little later on before it came onto the market in 2010,” map museum director Richard Cloward said of the object, believed to be the only one of its kind to have survived the Medieval Period. “Interestingly, the Italian government had never asked for it back.”

Cloward said museum founder Michael Stone purchased the astrolabe through a private party in New York City, via Italy, but would not disclose its value.

Photos by Pat Sherman

The astrolabe served as the primary timekeeper for the monks, who saw and used it daily to organize their devotional schedule.

Its three dials could be rotated by hand to chart the phases of the moon, the zodiacal calendar of the stars, the amount of daylight occurring on any given day and the feast days and times of the saints to whom the monks intended to pray. It was placed in such a way that it would have been seen by all of the monks several times each day — as they left the dormitory for midnight liturgy, as they returned to bed and as they returned to church in the morning. It was, in effect, the monk’s clock, allowing them to tell the time based on sunrise, sunset and the position of the sun in the sky.

“These little tags say, in Latin, ‘good,’ ‘bad’ or ‘indifferent,’ ” Cloward said, pointing to a particular area of the wheel. “Under those signs of the zodiac, it was ‘good,’ ‘bad’ or ‘indifferent’ for bloodletting — it served all sorts of purposes.”

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Posted by Pat Sherman on May 28, 2014. Filed under A & E, Art Galleries & Institutions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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