Author(s) Niceron, Jean-François
Title La perspective curieuse ou magie artificielle des effets merveilleux...
Imprint Paris, P. Billaine, 1638
Localisation Besançon, Bibliothèque municipale, 11518
Subject Perspective


     Father Jean François Niceron (1643-16467), a Minim friar, died at 33. During his life he published two books on perspective and subjects relating to it, arousing great interest, notably in Cartesian milieux, through his fellow scholar and friend, Father Mersenne who was considered to be “the secretary of learned Europe”. The first book, in French, came out in 1683 at the presses of Pierre Billaine, the other, in Latin entitled Thaumaturgus opticus, came out in 1646, barely one month before the author’s death, at the presses of François Langlois. A third posthumous edition was entrusted to Mersenne; after his death the mathematician Gilles Personne de Roberval took on the responsibility; it came out in 1651-52 and was republished in 1663. The 1638 treatise constitutes the basis of these editions whose contents differ somewhat. The frontispiece of the 1638 La perspective curieuse was engraved by Pierre Daret; that of the Thaumaturgus opticus by Charles Audran after a drawing by Simon Vouet. The collaborations among these renowned engravers and this famous painter show the editorial importance granted to Niceron’s work. One detects the portraits of Louis XIII and Mazarin in each of these engravings, all of which, correctly, cause one to sense that the book would not be politically neutral.
Niceron does not write a treatise on perspective alone; that is the subject of book I of this work, properly preceded by the elements of elementary geometry needed to understand it. He presents the classic construction taken from Vignola’s second rule with comments by Ignazio Danti, but he is also aware of “the other good authors”, notably “Monsieur Desargues, who has brought forth a general and very effective method, which he has invented, with still several other fine secrets for Architecture and Perspective which he will announce to the public when it pleases him”. The Desargues-Du Breuil controversy of 1642 would be such that this praise would not be repeated in the following edition. In order to show his virtuosity in this area and correct those “who have written about Perspective and particularly those who have dealt with five regular bodies” while being mistaken or even while abandoning geometrical drawings, he adds six plates on the learned representation of the Platonic solids and a few others to the two plates on perspective. However the celebrated representations of star polyhedra, which would make his reputation, during his time as today, only appear in the other editions.
The three other books, which for Niceron make up the most important part of his work, present the “refinements of curious Perspective”, which he also calls “artificial Magic”. This magic which he associates with the wizards of Persia, has nothing to do with “illicit practices and communications”. It produces “the finest and most admirable effects to which man’s art and industry can reach”, as for example “the bronze head made by Albert le Grand, which spoke…”. For Niceron, perspective is a rational art which enables one to make deceptive drawings with marvelous effects, hiding the truth on purpose in order better to reveal it. Book II refers precisely to anamorphoses, and quite particularly to deformed figures drawn rigorously according to the laws of perspective, by choosing a vanishing point far from the center and a very short distance from the painting. The figures only seem well proportioned if they are observed from the right point of view. In the following chapter, Niceron uses “the principles of trigonometry”.
Book III is a treatise on catoptrics dealing with mirrors - flat, cylindrical and conical. It is a matter of drawing a deformed figure on a ground-plan, in which the reflection in a mirror, for example, cylindrical, is a well-proportioned image. This device filled the curious of that period with enthusiasm; Simon Vouet drew a few examples and Jean-Louis Vaulezard “has written very well on this subject” in his Perspective cilindrique et conique of 1630. Niceron’s construction was inspired by the latter publication but he notices that it was done “without observing the angles of incidence or reflection, and without a determined distance or height of the eye” therefore he does not claim that it is perfect but only “familiar and intelligible” and that it insures “a fine impression”.
Book IV is partly a book on dioptrics showing how a telescope fitted with a lens cut suitably can isolate some parts in order to produce a new one from them. In this part he mentions Descartes’s Dioptrique. In this book is added the study of anagrams, for the art of the “word under the word” comes naturally into this book devoted to “the image under the image”. But Niceron’s examples are not neutral. For example, in order to illustrate the use of his telescope (pl. 23-24), he draws “about fifteen Ottomans dressed like Turks”, with the sultan of the period, Amurah IV, and “when one comes to look through the telescope, instead of these Ottomans, one sees only the portrait of his Majesty”, viz. Louis XIII. This is propaganda; this “silent painting” is accompanied by a more explicit poem on the French king “He who must defeat the Empire of the Ottomans / He who will cause fleurs de lys to spring forth from the Crescents of the infidel race of the Mohammedans”. In the same way, he shows that a single verse in the Bible produces several anagrams “dealing with the capture of La Rochelle and the defeat of the rebels”.
Niceron has multiple interests in these disorded images, which change according to whether one looks directly or diagonally, or are transmitted by the intermediary of mirrors and telescopes. It is a matter of showing the frailty of appearances, of promoting doubt and allowing oneself to be guided by reason according to a totally Cartesian approach. But in other respects, although it was not clearly made explicit, the Minim friar obviously uses the metaphor of the anamorphoses in order to imply that by seeing with the eyes of faith the apparent chaos of the world vanishes.

Jean-Pierre Manceau (Tours) – 2013


Critical bibliography

N. G. Poudra, Histoire de la perspective ancienne et moderne..., Paris, Corréard, 1864.

F. Siguret, “Jean-François Niceron: le dess(e)in politique”, Communications, 34, 1981, pp. 25-40.

J. Baltrušaitis, Anamorphoses ou Thaumaturgus opticus. Les perspectives dépravées – II, Paris, Flammarion, 1984.

P. Hamou, La vision perspective (1435-1740), Paris, Payot & Rivages, 1995.