De prospectiva pingendi, Book 3, figure lxiv
Piero della Francesca (c 1412-92)

This month’s Lancet has an interesting article by G.D. Schott, linking Piero della Francesca‘s pioneering orthographic projections to technologies like fMRI:

In the neurosciences today, images of the brain and its constituent structures are typically presented in the triadic orthogonal format, comprising coronal, sagittal, and axial projections. Less commonly, rotated or tilted projections are used. But our forebears are easily forgotten, and here I suggest that the contemporary way in which brain images are displayed can perhaps be traced to the very same projections developed 600 years ago when depicting the head. Moreover, the earliest known illustrations showing the use of these projections were produced neither by an architect nor by a scientist, but by a painter: the Italian Renaissance polymath,
Piero della Francesca (c 1412-92). Piero also introduced other graphic techniques that underpin current brain images: the application of numbered points to identify coordinates on illustrations of the head and the use of sections, or slices.

Piero’s complex technique enabled him to depict a solid, irregular object like the human head accurately from a rotated or angled perspective. Scientists face some of the same challenges today in presenting brain imaging data. In fact, over time the presentation of imaging data has expanded from sequential cross-sections to more complex depictions, including movies, rotatable images, or combination images like this, which can show the brain in its anatomical context:


Bold imaging fMRI
Dr. Frank Gaillard
via Radiology Picture of the Day

By “slicing” the head into numerous sections, Piero had introduced another entirely new idea, and one that underlies much contemporary imaging. And when he was able to accurately display heads turned in various orientations by means of his “Other Method” and auxiliary projection, Piero used a technique that only came to be developed by technical illustrators in the latter half of the 19th century. . .

In medicine today, use of the vanishing point is rarely seen, since radiographic and scan images start with flat, two-dimensional pictures. But tilted and rotated views can be invaluable and obtained by means of appropriately orientated images or computer- generated methods that replace the repetitive manual graphic procedures that Piero had to undertake. Such auxiliary projections may enable complex or overlapping structures to be visualised, an example being rotated views in cerebral angiography which can reveal an otherwise obscured aneurysm.

Piero was concerned with the head and not the brain contained within it, and with painting and not science. But if Piero’s techniques were inspired by architecture and were developed for the artist, the scientist has reaped great benefits too. Thus the brain continues to be represented
using projections first devised in Renaissance Italy to illustrate the head; and for the neuroscientist 600 years later, Piero’s little known illustrations provide a remarkable
legacy of graphic representation that endures to this day.

Read the complete article here (subscription only, unfortunately).

GD Schott. Perspectives, The art of medicine: Piero della Francesca’s projections and neuroimaging today. The Lancet 2008; 372:1378-1379


  1. #1 tessa
    October 29, 2008

    Do you have articles on neuroscience of aesthetics, a work acquaintance Dan Howitt told me you treat this issue sometimes.

  2. #2 Jessica Palmer
    October 30, 2008

    Hi Tessa,

    I’ve been meaning to write about the neuroscience of aesthetics for some time. Mo at Neurophilosophy has written more, here for example. And there are a couple of phenomenal posts at this blog, which is unfortunately no longer updated. Hope this helps!

  3. #3 ML Cohen
    October 30, 2008


    Don’t know if this is the place, but I thought you’d enjoys this from November 08 Trends in Neurosciences:

    Neuroscientists have become increasingly aware of the complexities and subtleties of sensory processing. This applies particularly to the complex elaborations of nerve signals that occur in the sensory circuits, sometimes at the very initial stages of sensory pathways. Sensory processing is now known to be very different from a simple neural copy of the physical signal present in the external world, and this accounts for the intricacy of neural organization that puzzled great investigators of neuroanatomy such as Santiago Ramon Y Cajal a century ago. It will surprise present-day sensory neuroscientists, applying their many modern methods, that the conceptual basis of the contemporary approach to sensory function had been recognized four centuries ago by Galileo Galilei.

    Ciao, M

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