The rare book collections of the 'Galileo of Graphics' Professor Edward Tufte

Professor Edward Rolf Tufte was born in 1942 in Kansas City, Missouri, to Virginia Tufte (herself a professor of English) and Edward E Tufte, but spent his youth in California before achieving a BA and MS in statistics from Stanford University and a PhD in political science from Yale.

Tufte can only be described as a polymath:  Having taught courses related to politics at Princeton University he then taught a series of statistics courses and began to make a big name for himself in information design starting with his book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

Not that this was an easy start - Tufte self-published the book, and had to have the faith to take out a second mortgage to cover it.

Now his books have received over 40 awards for content and design, and the New York Times has described him as the 'Galileo of Graphics'. Sometimes his work has brought him directly into the public eye, for example his criticism of NASA engineers' use of PowerPoint, made in the wake of the Columbia disaster.

A measure of the high regard in which Tufte is held is shown by his appointment by President Barack Obama earlier this year to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's Recovery Independent Advisory Panel. Clearly a master of making information transparent will be useful in seeing through financial murk.

Tufte is also a highly regarded artist, especially regarding sculpture, and has even opened his own gallery, ETModern in New York.

Aside from all of this, Tufte has amassed an impressive collection of rare books which are now going under the hammer at Christie's. He sees his collecting as immediately relating to his own work and has already delivered a talk at the auction house: Rare Books and Their Relation to My Books.

Extract from Hypnerotomachia
Extract from Hypnerotomachia

The selection of works certainly gives an idea of what that title means.  The highlights of the sale include a limited edition book of prints by Picasso, and first editions of Francesco Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius.

Hypnerotomachia, which contains 172 woodcuts reliably attributed to the Paduan miniaturist Benedetto Bordon, is an enigmatic tale of love lost and regained the most celebrated illustrated printed book of the Italian Renaissance. As Tufte puts it:

""Hypnerotomachia is lusciouslyvisual, and its 468 pages conjure up ancient architecture, stupendously elaborate gardens, an operatic love story, and 4 parades. Love, landscape, and architecture are described in a lush sensual language of dreamy impossibility."

The 1610 work Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger) by the original Galileo Galilei is in most ways a very different work. The book is generally considered to be the foundational work of modern astronomy, being the first work to detail Galileo's observations using a telescope.

Extract from Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius
Extract from Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius

The book announces the discovery of craters on the moon, a multitude of stars beyond those few seen by unaided eyes, and the four satellites of Jupiter. Tufte finds a similarity between the two works:

"Both books describe wonderful new objects and narrate complex events; both weave words around images together in elegant and vivid arrangements.

"Of course the substance differs: Hypnerotomachia islimited because the stuff must be made up; The Starry Messenger addsseveral orders of magnitude to understanding Nature's amazing reality"

Christie's sale takes place tomorrow, December 2 in New York, and provides a rare opportunity to see a great collection from a great collector which displays a fascinating theme throughout.


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