Some books alter the course of history; others have profoundly influenced the way we see ourselves. Books can change the wider world, and also change our personal worlds; no two people, if invited to nominate the ten most influential books of all time, would present the same list. Titles likely to appear would be as diverse as the Bible, the Qur’an, Niccolò Machiavelli’s The prince, Charles Darwin’s On the origin of species, Karl Marx’s Das kapital, Mao Zedong’s ‘Little red book’, Simone de Beauvoir’s The second sex and Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch.

This year in World of the book, we celebrate books that have challenged and changed humankind’s perception of itself and its place in the natural world, drawing on mathematical, scientific, artistic and philosophical perspectives.

The elements of geometry by Euclid

Page from Euclid's The Elements

Euclid, Preclarissimus liber elementorum Euclidis perspicassimi: in artem geometrie incipit … (Most distinguished book of the elements, by the most perspicacious Euclid: It begins with the art of geometry …), Venice, Erhardus Ratdolt, 1482 & detail

At an intrinsically intellectual and emotional level, we humans want to understand how our physical world functions and how we fit into that environment. The study of geometry (from the Greek root words ‘geo’, earth, and ‘metron’, measurement) is the study of spatial relationships, and has been a branch of enquiry since at least 3000 BCE.

Building on the centuries of knowledge he inherited, the Greek Alexandrian mathematician Euclid (c 325–265 BCE) compiled and extended humankind’s geometric knowledge in a work popularly known as The elements of geometry. This text formed the basis of geometric theory for the next 2100 years, until the late 19th century. Like many ancient works, Euclid’s theories were preserved by Arabic scholars and ‘rediscovered’ by Western Europeans after the Crusades brought people from each region into contact with each other. We are reminded that the pursuit of understanding is a global one, and the preservation of knowledge is a shared endeavour that – at its best – transcends differences of geography, temporality, religion and culture.

The beautiful edition on display in World of the book – published in Venice in 1482, just 30-odd years after the dawn of printing – is the first mathematical work illustrated with printed diagrams, and the first printed edition of Euclid’s work: a significant edition of a significant work. Euclid’s Elements remains the world’s second-most published book (after the Bible), with more than 1000 editions issued from 1482 to the present day.


On the revolutions of celestial spheres by Copernicus

Copernicus De revolutionibus

Nicolaus Copernicus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the revolutions of celestial spheres), Basil, Ex officina Henricpetrina, 1566

From the study of the earth, our display takes us next to the study of the universe and the earth’s place within it. While it is a fallacy that medieval Christians thought the world was flat – its spherical shape had been known since at least the 3rd century BCE and medieval Europeans inherited that knowledge – they did believe the earth to be the centre of the universe, in accordance with the Christian understanding of the formation of the universe as described in the biblical Book of Genesis.

The work of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) was a powerful challenge to that worldview, and forever changed our understanding of the universe. Originally printed in 1543 as De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the revolutions of celestial spheres), Copernicus’ book presented the heliocentric solar system model, wherein the planets rotate around the Sun, contradicting the Church’s belief that God created the Earth as the centre of the universe. Copernicus was not the first to propose this idea: that honour goes (as Copernicus acknowledged) to the Greek scholar Aristarchus of Samos (c 310–c 230 BCE). Aristarchus’ theory was not accepted by his contemporaries and thus was ignored by subsequent centuries of astronomers, until Nicolaus Copernicus took up the torch for heliocentrism in the midst of the European Reformation, some 1600 years later.

Copernicus died just after De revolutionibus was published, and so did not live to see the controversy it caused. Both Catholics and Reformers alike took issue with his work. In 1616, partly in response to Italian scientist Galileo Galilei’s defence of the Copernican model, the Catholic Church issued a decree suspending the work until alterations to the text were made, intended to make Copernicus’ theory appear hypothetical. In 1633, Galileo would be tried and tortured by the Inquisition and ultimately sentenced to life under house arrest, for his refusal to recant his ‘heretical’ belief in heliocentrism. He died in 1642.

The library holds both a second edition of Copernicus’ book from 1566 (pictured here) that bears the signs of this censorship (text crossed out by hand, and in some places the paper destroyed by the censor’s ink’s acidity), and a third edition from 1617 (on display in World of the book) that features Copernicus’ famous diagram. In 1758, the Catholic Church lifted its prohibition on heliocentric theory, and in 1835, Copernicus’ and Galileo’s books were removed from the banned book index.


Treatise on painting by da Vinci

Da Vinci's Treatise on painting

Leonardo da Vinci, Traitté de la peinture de Leonard de Vinci (Treatise on painting), Paris, Jacques Langlois, 1651

An equally famous contemporary of Galileo – and a fellow Italian polymath – is the author of the next book in our display: Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). During his extraordinarily productive life, Leonardo planned to write and publish three major books – on painting, anatomy and architecture – but none was completed by the time of his death in 1519. His pupil Francesco Melzi inherited his papers, which he copied and assembled into manuscript volumes on these topics and others.

The first printed editions (in French and Italian) of Leonardo’s Treatise on painting were published from Melzi’s manuscript versions in Paris in 1651, with drawings by the French artist Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) that were modelled on Leonard’s sketches (both originals and those copied by Melzi) as preserved in Melzi’s manuscripts. On display in World of the book is a first French edition of the Treatise.

Leonardo’s writings about painting are part of the renaissance genre of the ‘paragone’, or ‘comparison’, in which different arts were compared in order to argue the supremacy of one over the others. In Leonardo’s view, painting triumphed over music, poetry and sculpture, because he considered the sense of sight to be preeminent in humankind’s experience and interpretation of the world:

The eye which is said to be the window of the soul, is the principal means by which senso comune [a term meaning an interior sense or psychology] may so copiously and magnificently confer the infinite works of nature, and the second way is the ear, made noble by being told about things that the eye has seen. If you historiographers or poets or mathematicians, had not seen things with your eyes, badly would you be able to refer to them through your writings.[1]

Over 5000 pages of Leonardo’s original manuscripts survive to us today, in collections around the world, including in Italy and England. In each original notebook, Leonardo leapt from subject to subject (including anatomy, architecture, engineering, optics, and drawing/painting), investigating different fields of knowledge as part of a coherent, lifelong quest to better understand humans and their world. Melzi and others cut up and reordered sections to separate Leonardo’s vast output to create volumes about single subjects, channelling Leonardo’s wide-ranging genius into manageable slices for a wider audience. An unintended side-effect of this organisation is the illusion – familiar to us today, thanks to 19th-century intellectual practice – that these different fields are unrelated: that the arts, sciences and human psychology are separate spheres. Leonardo himself recognised these various branches of knowledge to be inextricably entwined, with developments in each shedding light on the all the others. He emphasised sight above the other senses because he believed observation of nature to be the key to human learning, and drawing (or painting) as the best method to record that learning.

This cultural attitude – now closely associated with Leonardo as the quintessential ‘Renaissance man’ – to the connection between creative art and empirical science, and to the centrality of human senses in empirical methods of learning, helped create the fertile environment in which thinkers such as René Descartes (1596–1650) blossomed in the 17th and 18th centuries, the period often called the Enlightenment.


Philosophical works by Descartes


René Descartes, Opera philosophica (Philosophical works), Amsterdam, Danielem Elsevirium, 1677

Descartes is a key figure in the history of Western European philosophy, and one of his main concerns was to establish whether or not knowledge can in fact be validated independently of the senses. Popularly, he is best remembered for his observation ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ – ‘I think, therefore I exist’ – which first appeared in his 1637 text Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la vérité dans les sciences (Discourse on the method of rightly conducting one’s reason and of seeking truth in the sciences). This text was ready for publication in 1633, but Descartes decided to delay it while the drama of Galileo’s punishment by the Inquisition unfolded throughout the middle years of that decade.

When the Discours was finally published, it included an essay titled ‘Dioptrics’, in which Descartes examined the properties of light and the anatomical foundation of human perception of the physical world. Like Leonardo and others before him, Descartes was fascinated by the intersection of anatomy, perception, emotion and meaning in human experiences of the physical world: his lifelong interest in optics was a key part of his efforts to analyse and describe humankind’s metaphysical nature, and our subjective experiences of the objective world.


From philosophy, religion, art and science to politics and the rise of ideologies, books enable new ideas to reach broad audiences across the globe and across time: reading these works by Euclid, Nicolaus Copernicus, Leonardo da Vinci and René Descartes, we hear the voices of people of past centuries, whose ideas have shaped our present reality. The potency of the printed word is reflected in the fact that throughout history books have regularly been censored, banned and burned. In the digital age, books and the ideas within them can be shared more widely than ever before, and they retain – perhaps even extend – their potential as powerful agents of change.


[1] Translation by Claire J. Farago, in Leonardo da Vinci’s paragone: A critical interpretation with a new edition of the text in codex urbinas, Brill Studies in Intellectual History (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1992),  pp. 209–11.

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This article has 2 comments

  1. I cannot thank Anna enough for her Dome at Dusk talks, Anna makes me want to research and read more on each topic she discusses.

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