"Thinking 3D" at the Bodleian

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.

Max Brückner's polyhedral models in the book Polygons and Polyhedra: Theory and History (Vielecke und Vielflache: Theorie und Geschichte) by Max Brückner, 1900. Image credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. (Middle) Leonardo da Vinci's sketch of an arm, from the working notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, now in the Royal Collection. 

Want a little perspective on how artists and scientists have turned their ideas into three-dimensional graphic form over the last 500 years? Thinking 3D: From Leonardo to the Present, an exhibition that opens today at the Bodleian Libraries, aims to provide it, showcasing books, manuscripts, drawings, and prints that illustrate the challenge of communicating three dimensions on two-dimensional media. According to a press release, "Thinking 3D shows how technological advances, from the invention of the printing press and new illustration techniques to photography, stereoscopy and 3D modeling, have allowed authors and artists to share their ideas with the world."

We asked the exhibitions co-curators, Daryl Green, librarian at Magdalen College, Oxford, and Dr. Laura Moretti, senior lecturer in art history at the University of St. Andrews, to tell us more about this exciting fusion of art and science.

Tell us about the idea behind this exhibition? Did it originate in wanting to celebrate Leonardo da Vinci's quincentennial?

Leonardo wasn't the initial protagonist of Thinking 3D, but he certainly anchored our exhibition at the Bodleian from a very early stage. Thinking 3D is a research project which we established which looks at the history and development of communicating three-dimensional observations and concepts. Understanding how Leonardo perceived and transmitted the three-dimensional world is the seed from which Thinking 3D has grown. Leonardo's work will be the opening protagonist of the exhibition at the Weston Library, considering his ways of observing, analysing and communicating on paper the reality around him. However, aside from one contribution, Leonardo's work wouldn't be seen by a printing press until the 17th century.

The Bodleian exhibition, Thinking 3D: From Leonardo to the Present, is the hub which provides context to a pan-Oxford project will then look at the influence the rise and development of three-dimensionality on artists, mathematicians, draughtsmen, and designers over the last 500 years, via partner exhibitions, talks, symposia and conferences. Categories such as geometry, mathematics, architecture, astronomy, and natural and physical sciences will constitute the themes of the satellite exhibitions and public events.

What is the Codescope, and what role does it play in the exhibition?

The Codescope is a cutting-edge tool to explore one of Leonardo's most concise notebooks, the Codex Leicester, now owned by Bill Gates. You can see him talking about it here. The Bodliean exhibition is the first time in the UK that the Codescope will be publicly available, complementing loans from Leonardo's notebooks to the exhibition held by the Royal Collections and the British Library. It, like the physical notebook sheets, show how complex Leonardo's thinking was in grappling with issues of three dimensionality, and how his ideas, if published, would have changed scientific thinking from the late 15th century.

Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford ​​​​​​​

Sebastiano Serlio's magnum opus was a seven-volume series on the theory and history of architecture. Here, in his Third Book (1544), we see dissections of the Colosseum in Rome, a two-page spread depicting a full floor-plan, perspective drawings, and face-on illustrations.

Do you have a favorite piece in the exhibition? Tell us about it.

Laura: my favorite piece is Serlio's Third Book on Architecture (1544 edition). We show in the case his representation of the Colosseum in Rome (pictured above). What I find particular brilliant here is the way in which Serlio and the publisher Francesco Marcolini managed to put on the surface of two pages such great level of detail and information about this extremely complex building. I trained as an architectural historian, and Serlio's books on architecture were revolutionary for the discipline. I have been studying them through my entire career as a scholar, and seeing one of them out there is great.

Daryl: It's hard to choose, but the book which embodies Thinking 3D the most is probably Kepler's Mysterium Cosmographicum. In grappling with understanding the relational distance between heavenly bodies, Kepler applied the five platonic solids and their relationship to each other to explain what his calculations found. The illustration that he devised has been seen regularly and is a fantastic example of applying the geometrical lens to the wider world. However, for this exhibition we also wanted to see if we could actually bring Kepler's model to life.

In addition to those pictured here, highlights of the exhibition include extraordinary anatomical books that used flaps and pop-up features to educate people about the human body; illustrations of the moon that Galileo produced based on his first observations of the lunar surface through a telescope in 1609; and the first geological map of Mars produced from data from NASA's Mariner 9 mission in 1971-72. Thinking 3D is on view through February 9, 2020.