The site John Radcliffe chose for his library lay at the heart of the University. Around it were the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, the University teaching schools, the University library (the Bodleian), the University's ceremonial space (the Sheldonian Theatre) and the University Printing House.
In 1629 William Laud had proposed clearing the space now known as Radcliffe Square to create a 'piazza literaria'. Nearly a century later, Nicholas Hawksmoor envisaged the space as 'Forum Universitatis', the centre of a much wider – and never realized – scheme of city planning and rebuilding. In his designs a statue stands at the centre of the forum, while the Library is attached to the south wall of the Schools, uncomfortably close to Exeter College garden.
By detaching the Library from the Schools and building a free-standing rotunda in the centre of the new square, James Gibbs created what quickly became the most celebrated view in Oxford.
Gough Maps Oxfordshire 2 Bird's-eye view of Oxford by David Loggan, 1675
Gough Maps 57 Regio Prima by Nicholas Hawksmoor, 1713, redrawn
MS. Top. Oxon. a. 26 First plan for Radcliffe Library and Square drawn up by Radcliffe's Executors, 1718
G.A. Oxon. a.46, p. 12 View of the Radcliffe Library, c. 1750
G.A. Oxon. a.46, p. 37 The Radcliffe Camera, c. 1860
G.A. Oxon. a.46, p. 65 Entrance to the Bodleian Library from Radcliffe Square View of Radcliffe Square today