On the Trail of Nicolaus Copernicus in Toruń

more than a year ago

A name synonymous with astronomy and its most revolutionary idea, Nicolaus Copernicus is the guy who presented that controversial idea of a heliocentric universe ie. the sun is the centre of the universe, not the earth!

While we can excuse the archaic idea of the known 'universe' being our own neighbourhood solar system, it's safe to say that Copernicus was on the money and his calculations of other planetary orbits were done so with remarkable accuracy. His work De revolutionibus orbium coelestium would help revolutionise the science of astronomy and influence many great minds to come. However, it is a lesser-known fact that the man originally known as Mikołaj Kopernik was a Pole, born and raised in the prosperous medieval city of Toruń on February 19, 1473. Having spent the first 18 years of his life as a citizen of privilege here, there are a number of key sites around Toruń connected with Copernicus and his family.

The famous statue of Nicolaus Copernicus holding a globe in Toruń's Medieval town square.


St. John's cathedral where Copernicus is believed to have been baptised.

Where was Nicolaus Copernicus born?

Nicolaus Copernicus, also known as Mikołaj Kopernik, was born in the Polish city of Toruń on February 19, 1473. His father, Nicolaus the Elder, was a wealthy merchant from Kraków, married to Barbara Watzenrode, Nicolaus the younger's mother. While the Kopernik family owned two properties in the Medieval old town area, including the House of Copernicus on ul. Kopernika in Toruń's Medieval centre, it is unclear which of these sites were his actual place of birth. Copernicus is believed to have been baptised in St. John's Cathedral, where a now-popularised side-chapel and his purported baptismal font are on display.

Following the death of his father in 1483 and the patronage of his uncle, Lucas Watzenrode the later Prince Bishop of Warmia, historians believe that he probably attended the school associated with St. John's Cathedral, followed by studies at the Cathedral school in nearby Wrocławek. Due to his uncle's position in the church, it is clear that Copernicus was being groomed to follow a similar career path.

House of Copernicus - Where did Copernicus live?

While his exact place of birth is open to debate, historians agree that Nicolaus Copernicus and his family certainly resided at Dom Kopernika (ENG: The House of Copernicus) at ul. Kopernika in Toruń. In the 21st century, the House of Copernicus is now a comprehensive museum of the astronomer's life and work, as well as a general history of astronomy.

As the museum's permanent exhibition begins in the building's arch-roofed cellar, you are a fantastic interactive overview of astronomy of the ancient and medieval world is presented under a 3D model of the earth, the planet which humankind understood as the centre of the universe - the 'geocentric' model - for over a millennia before Copernicus' revolutionary ideas. This was largely based on the ideas of the Greek philosopher Aristotle and the Greco-Roman-Egyptian scientist Ptolemy and  were used to justify various scriptures in the bible. In addition to these references, there are a number of predecessors and contemporaries of the famed astronomer detailed here, which help to contextualise the world of science that Copernicus lived in. Emerging onto ground level, the Kopernik and Watzenrode family are presented with an extensive genealogical tree and various interactive profiles of each member, painstakingly compiled by historians and researchers. In particular, we learn about Nicolaus Copernicus' uncle, Lucas Watzenrode, who became the patron of his nephew when his father, Nicolaus the Elder, died in 1483. A high-standing member of the church and later the Bishop of Warmia, Lucas Watzenrode was instrumental in steering Nicolaus Copernicus' career path towards the sciences! As you, the museum visitor, ascend the narrow stairs into the living quarters and storage areas of the upper levels, the furnishings and installations of 15th-century commodities and technology convey how domestic life in a merchant tenement house would have looked in Copernicus' lifetime. 
The House of Nicolaus Copernicus (PL: Dom Kopernik) in Toruń.
So, where did Nicolaus Copernicus study astronomy? Descending into the second half of the museum (Dom Kopernika is actually two gothic tenement houses joined together!), we learn that Nicolaus Copernicus left Toruń to enroll at the University of Kraków in 1491, where he studied Latin, mathematics, geography and philosophy, and, of course, astronomy! He managed to stall on his career in the church, being instead sent to Bolognia in 1495 and later to Padua in 1501 to study canonical law. But, with his interests piqued by some of the greatest of European minds of maths and astronomy, Copernicus' true path had been set. During his time in Italy, he also studied ancient greek, which allowed him to have access to ancient astronomical sources and further develop his ideas, and became associated with notable Italian astronomist Domenico Maria Novara. Returning to Poland in 1503, he began a comfortable life in the region of Warmia as his uncle's right-hand man. At this point of the museum's exhibition, we are introduced to Copernicus' ideas of a heliocentric universe, the formulations of which would culminate in his controversial work De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (ENG: On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). Following Lucas Watzenrode's death in 1512, Copernicus relocated to Frombork, where he continued his work in the administration of Warmia. 
The interactive displays in the starry cellar of the House of Copernicus museum. Photo by Dom Kopernika.
During his time in Frombork, Copernicus continued to observe the skies from the northwestern tower on the city walls that he came to acquire, all the while refining the ideas of his magnum opus. De revolutionibus orbium coelestium was probably completed in the early 1530s, however, its publication is believed to have been delayed due to Copernicus knowing that his controversial work may effect his standing in the church. In 1543, after suffering paralysis from a probable stroke, Nicolaus Copernicus died at the age of 70. Shortly before his passing, with the encouragement of his supporter Rheticus, De revolutionibus was finally been sent to a publisher in Germany.

The famous 'Toruń Portrait' of Copernicus, c.1580
In the decades following its release, Copernicus' work was influential among scientists and astronomers who improved on his mathematical calculations to evolve the understanding of the cosmos and the earth's position in the solar system. But as 'heliocentric' model became more accepted in science, the reaction of established religion in Europe took a very different stance as it challenged the conventions that were accepted in Biblical teachings. This reaction and the spark of the 'scientific revolution' as it is now known are represented by the museum's displays of flames and burnt manuscripts. Both the protestant and catholic churches condemned Copernicus' book, the latter placing it on their list of forbidden readings for more than three centuries. However, Copernicus was no longer alive to take the flack, unlike Galileo Galilei who became a persecuted man for giving veracity to his predecessor's work more than a century later. But, as the last part of the museum shows, the scientific revolution had begun and what Copernicus and Galileo had started would influence the likes of Johannes Kepler, who developed the idea of planetary motion, and then Isaac Newton, who carried the torch with his ideas of universal gravitation.
Jan Matejko's Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God, painted in 1873. In the background is Frombork Cathedral.

Copernicus' Legacy - Places connected with Nicolaus Copernicus in Toruń

As it can be expected, Toruń's local hero is well-represented when it comes to souvenirs and merchandise. In and around Toruń Market Square, you're able to purchase everything from t-shirts to coffee mugs, fridge magnets, calendars and even some other curious feats of merchandising such as matchboxes declaring that he "f***ed the system" in Polish. When it comes Copernicus sightseeing in Toruń, you are is able to visit St. John's Cathedral, where the famed astronomer was baptised and attended school in his youth. The original baptism font (water bowl) are on display. We have already spoken at great length about the House of Copernicus, a fantastic brick gothic tenement house that was once the astronomer's home and is now a comprehensive museum about Copernicus' life and work.

While several copies exist around the city, the original of the famous 'Toruń Portrait' of Nicolaus Copernicus is on display at Toruń's Old Town Hall, which is now a museum of fine art and houses other famous works of Polish art. Thanks to the astronomer's legacy and his contributions to our understanding of the universe, Toruń's Planetarium is a dome-shaped building that presents 40-minute presentations on various cosmic wonders - the size and structure of the Universe, the most popular constellations in the sky, and the secrets of planets and galaxies, just to name a few. While certain aspects of the afore-mentioned venues may be a little more challenging for younger minds, the Planetarium is highly recommended for families with young children! A popular summer evening activity is watching the Cosmopolis Fountain light up, which is designed and laid out in correspondence with Copernicus' heliocentric scheme.
One of the mesmerising cosmic presentations at Toruń Planetarium. Photo by ESA Astronomy.

Read more:
What is Toruń famous for?
Top attractions - What to see and do in Toruń
Top outdoor activities in Toruń
Where is Toruń and how to get there?


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