Interactive: Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus (The Visual Agency)

Visualisation is a powerful tool, not just for making sense of large sets of abstract numbers, but also for exploring large sets of digital heritage. Methods of data visualisation can be used to interact with massive amounts of digitized content. They help navigate a multitude of files and explore their metadata in a well-arranged manner.

One such piece is a new interactive project presenting the Codex Atlanticus, an enormous collection of drawings and writings by the hand of Leonardo da Vinci. Initiated by Milan-based The Visual Agency and produced in collaboration with the Biblioteca Ambrosiana (which keeps the original codex), the application provides a tool for exploring this incredible collection. Let’s take a look.

General Overview showing individual sheets of the codex © The Visual Agency

Leonardo da Vinci is well-known as one of the most prolific artist of the Italian Renaissance, and more specifically has a reputation as the most science-minded among the Renaissance artists. He has conducted in-depth research in several scientific fields, such as anatomy, mathematics, technical construction or architecture. How do we know that he did that? We have an incredible wealth of drawings and writings from his hand which were handed down to us through the centuries.

Leonardo was famous already by the time he died, and his fame only grew over time. Several decades after his death, many of his notebooks were acquired by sculptor Pompeo Leoni. He re-arranged much of the material, cutting things out, gluing drawings together, and trying to sort by topic, and subsequently sold various collections of Leonardo’s work. One result of this process is the massive Codex Atlanticus, an enormous collection of 1119 sheets containing countless drawings and lots of writing on a broad variety of topics.

Each diagram represents one sheet of the codex (each with two digital images for front and back page) © The Visual Agency

Why do we need an application for that? 

It has become completely normal for us that any kind of content (text, image, video – whatever, really) is available and accessible at any given moment from anywhere. But if you think about it, it’s neither normal nor trivial. The physical Codex Atlanticus (which consists of 12 leather-bound volumes) is extremely precious, one of a kind, and stored in an old library in Milan, Italy. For conservational reasons, access to the original codex is restricted to only very few people.

The massive efforts of heritage organizations worldwide to digitize cultural objects have created an extremely rich body of digital copies of museum and archive objects. Likewise, the Biblioteca Ambrosiana had digitized the codex but hadn’t made that material publicly available. Now, like the Ambrosiana, many organizations are considering how to make use of this enormous amount of digital content on their servers. Remember: the codex has 1119 sheets, each with a front and back page (recto/verso). How do you allow users to get an overview of all these pages, explore individual pages, investigate specific topics or questions?

General view with a number of sheets selected © The Visual Agency

What does it have to offer? 

The Codex Atlanticus interactive works like a visual browser for the codex. The general overview (screenshot above) provides a starting point for exploring the codex. In the style of thumbnail views for digitized books, this view uses small multiples to show all individual sheets (see diagram above). In addition to providing access to the two digital copies for each sheet (front and back page), each diagram features two more important data layers: Topics covered on each page, and date created (all of which had been determined “manually” through drawn-out art historical research over many decades).

Each of the sheets works like an individual diagram as they are color coded according to the topics covered on them. I am a book person, and doing a lot of my research online I have become very used to the use of thumbnail views to browse through big books. It allows you to scan the contents of a book extremely efficiently. In this view for instance, you can easily see how Pompeo Leoni, the compiler of the codex, has tried to group sheets according to topics. While there is quite a bit of color noise all throughout, you can easily see some clusters, such as the intense grouping of  topics relating to Tools and Machines in the beginning and again towards the end. Through the middle part, topics of Geometry and Algebra dominate. This is a really powerful way to literally provide an overview at a glance.

The date of creation is a second important dimension of information here. I really like how this has been integrated into the general view. By default, the small multiples representing the sheets are organized in their order of appearance in the codex. However, a toggle allows to re-arrange that order and show all sheets by date of creation. Two diagrams along the top show further relations: the number of topics per page (through the pages of the codex). As the order of the pages in the codex is random, I would have wished to see that for the chronological order, as only then this information seems relevant to me (in which phases of his life was Leonardo pondering many or just one topic?). The diagram on the right shows how many pages of these were produced in which years. This would help scholars place the contents of the codex in the larger context of Leonardo’s work life.

The individual sheet view features the two pages in high-resolution images, and includes the topic information on the left. A useful feature is the array of similar pages on the right. This looks to me like a useful tool to efficiently browse the enormous variety of topics in the codex.

Individual sheet view © The Visual Agency

So what’s the take-away? 

This is a brilliant and timely use case for how a large corpus of digitized content can be made accessible in an interactive piece, using methods of data visualisation to help the users navigate massive amounts of content. Up to now, only a few people had access to the repository of digital copies of the drawings, and next to nobody had access to the original. Now, the codex is accessible in full, in high-resolution images (which Biblioteca Ambrosiana provided in a laudable move to support the digital presentation of its most famous treasure).

And what’s more, not only can users seamlessly browse the pages, but the inclusion of the metadata (date of creation and topics/subtopics) allows to search the codex for specific topics such as flat geometry or birds’ flight. As I mentioned earlier – much of my research happens through digital databases which are available online. Well-designed and well-conceived projects that intend to provide access to digital heritage material have an incredible impact on projects like my own book History of Information Graphics, simply for the fact that they open windows to something you wouldn’t otherwise be able to look at, not even remotely.

The web-based application (built using vue.js) was initiated by The Visual Agency Milan and produced in cooperation with Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the institution which holds the codex. Explore it here. An interactive installation with touch screen was installed at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana. Images in this article are used by permission from The Visual Agency. An article by the designers sharing some background information is available on medium.  

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