From Leonardo to the Present, New Exhibition Explores History of Conveying 3D on the Page

Mar 07 2019

Thinking 3D: From Leonardo to the Present
21 March 2019 – 9 Feb 2020
Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford
Free admission, no booking required

Thinking 3D: From Leonardo to the Present, a new exhibition at the Bodleian Libraries, explores how artists and scientists have learned to convey three-dimensional objects on the page over the last 500 years. This unique exhibition features rare drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, displaying his virtuoso talent for representing 3D observations and ideas in graphic form, and showcases some of the Bodleian Libraries’ finest books, manuscripts, prints and drawings.

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.

For centuries artists, illustrators and scientists have wrestled with the challenge of how to communicate three dimensions on two dimensional media. How did architects show plans for buildings and represent 3D objects on paper? How were observations of astronomy and the natural world realistically depicted? The exhibition shows how new techniques revolutionised the way that ideas in the fields of anatomy, architecture, astronomy and geometry were relayed and ultimately how this has influenced how we perceive the world today.

Timed to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, Thinking 3D shows how Leonardo and his contemporaries made great strides in the realistic depiction of 3D forms. Art and science come together in this exhibition, which will appeal to anyone interested in the history of technology, ideas and communication.

Co-curators Daryl Green, Librarian at Magdalen College, Oxford and Dr Laura Moretti, Senior Lecturer in Art History at the University of St Andrews, said: “Thinking 3D explores how art, technology and science have influenced each other over the centuries, allowing three-dimensional concepts and observations to be shared from the mind of the author to the mind of the reader, and dramatically expanding our understanding of the world around us.”

Highlights of the exhibition include:

  • The first ever printed illustration of an icosidodecahedron, a complex geometric shape, which featured in the only book that Leonardo illustrated in his lifetime, Divina Proportione (1509)
  • Leonardo’s ground-breaking drawings, lent by Her Majesty The Queen from the Royal Collection and from the British Library, showing his ability to ‘think on paper’ and explain 3D problems with 2D media
  • Extraordinary anatomical books that used flaps and pop-up features to educate people about the human body
  • Striking illustrations of the moon that Galileo produced based on his first observations of the lunar surface through a telescope in 1609
  • The first geological map of Mars produced from data from NASA’s Mariner 9 mission in 1971-72
  • A specially commissioned 3D model of a 17th century geometric statue housed at the University of Oxford’s History of Science Museum
  • Small tactile 3D models of geometric shapes that visitors can handle

Visitors to Thinking 3D will also be able to use the Codescope on loan from Bill Gates. The Codescope is an interactive way to explore The Codex Leicester, one of Leonardo’s notebooks which focuses on water and its properties. By using a digital touchscreen, visitors can turn the pages of a virtual version of The Codex Leicester and can explore transcriptions, translations and animations that explain more about Leonardo’s work.

Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian, said: “Thinking 3D is a rare opportunity to learn from some of history’s greatest artists and thinkers who turned three-dimensional communication into a highly skilled art. This fascinating exhibition also showcases the pioneering work of modern practitioners and researchers from the University of Oxford in the fields of anatomy, architecture, astronomy and geometry.”

The Thinking 3D exhibition at the Bodleian Libraries will be accompanied by a range of smaller exhibitions and events across Oxford’s museums and gardens in 2019 as part of the Thinking 3D research project.

During the Bodleian Libraries’ exhibition’s year-long opening period, five practitioners and researchers will take turns to curate one section of the exhibition devoted to 3D communication in their discipline.

  • Robin Choudhury, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Oxford and Clinical Director of the Oxford Acute Vascular Imaging Centre, will be curating a case highlighting contemporary 3D depictions that enhance early anatomical representations of the heart and brain. This will be on display from 21 March – 13 June. The exhibit will explore Leonardo’s observations of the human aortic valve using in vivo four-dimensional imaging (the fourth dimension being time). Choudhury will give a public lecture about his work on 2 April, 2019 as part of the 2019 Oxford Literary Festival.
  • Steven Balbus FRS, Savilian Professor of Astronomy and Head of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford, will curate a case about three-dimensional representations of data in astronomy from 14 June – 5 September. He will give a public lecture about his work on 27 June.
  • Jim Eyre OBE, cofounder of WilkinsonEyre and the architectural mastermind behind the recent refurbishment of the Bodleian’s Weston Library, and Christy Anderson, Professor of Renaissance and Baroque Architecture at the University of Toronto, will be curating a case about the use of 3D modelling and imaging within architecture from 6 September – 31 October. Eyre will give a public lecture about his work on 16 October.
  • Frances Kirwan DBE FRS, Savilian Professor of Geometry at the University of Oxford, will curate a case about geometry from 1 November – 9 February and will be giving a public lecture in November.

Thinking 3D will be accompanied by an engaging programme of free talks and events at the Bodleian’s Weston Library. These include a lunchtime lecture by the curators Daryl Green and Laura Moretti on 21 March and a Library Late event on 12 June. For more information visit

An accompanying publication to the exhibition, Thinking 3D: Books, Images and Ideas from Leonardo to the Present will be released by Bodleian Library Publishing in October 2019 and is available for pre-order at £35 from Edited by Daryl Green and Laura Moretti, the book is a collection of essays from international experts in the histories of geometry, astronomy, anatomy and architecture. For early material or review copies, please contact Emma O’Bryen at or 07505 695641.