Author(s) Niceron, Jean-François
Title La perspective curieuse... Divisée en quatre livres...
Imprint Paris, F. Langlois’ widow, 1652
Localisation Paris, BnF, V-1663 (Gallica)
Subject Perspective
Transcribed version of the text


     As early as 1638, Niceron had planned to improve and finish the Perspective curieuse with a book written in Latin, distinctly more ambitious. Eight years later, in August, 1646, François Langlois finished printing the Thaumaturgus opticus which repeated parts of the preceding treatise and developed it notably with a treatise on light and shadows. Niceron’s death on September 22, 1646, then Langlois’s death in 1647 impelled his widow Madeleine Collemont to publish a new French version of La perspective curieuse which was turned over to the capable hands of Father Marin Mersenne (1588-1648), Niceron’s mentor, friend and confrere. But after Mersenne died September 1, 1648, the mathematician Gilles Personne de Roberval (1602-1675), “Royal Professor of Mathematics at the Collège de Maistre Gervais and at the Chair of Ramus in the Collège Royal de France” was given the responsibility of editing the work which was finished on September 25, 1651, with a publication date of 1652. In this way, the four books that Niceron had planned, expanded by himself, reviewed after his death by Mersenne and then by Roberval, can be found in La perspective curieuse of this posthumous edition in French.
The first book, preceded by a short reminder of rules of geometry, is a treatise on perspective. Whereas this part contained only 15 propositions, it had 37 in 1646 and 1652. The bitter quarrels, around 1642, among Desargues, Bosse, Du Breuil, Migon and Curabelle, and in which the publisher François Langlois played an active role, probably imposed greater precision on Niceron. References about the quarrels can be found in Niceron’s various judgments of Desargues. In 1638 Niceron wrote, “Monsieur Desargues, who brought to life a general and very effective method, invented by him”, whereas in 1636 he removed the honor of the invention from him and accused him of having plagiarized Danti, Vignola, Alleaume and Vaulezard. In spite of this evaluation, in his propositions 36 and 37, illustrated by figures 34, 35 and 36, Niceron gives a clear and original explanation of the Arguesian method.
On the other hand in the 1652 edition it cannot be Niceron (who was not acquainted with Abraham Bosse’s treatises) but in all probability Mersenne who did justice to Desargues by writing “those who have read and understood the universal method of M. Desargues in which one uses no point outside of the field of the work, a method brought to light by the excellent engraver M. Bosse in 1647 confess that it surpasses in practical brevity everything that has been proposed up to the present day and that he was right in 1636 to claim to be the inventor of the universal method…” (p. 83). Likewise Niceron was probably not the author of the foreword which concludes book I, but rather the anti-Cartesian Roberval. In this text (pp. 87-88) the work of Giovanni Battista Benedetti is admired whereas Desargues’s treatise on conic sections is criticized for having been written “in too brief or too obscure a way” and “because it used terms which were not ordinary and repelled several people”. A few lines further the author also suggests that “M. des Cartes made his Philosophy with propositions, in order that one see the reasons of Mechanics which he uses as supports and that linear demonstrations oblige one to adopt what he believes he can demonstrate”.
The second book is clearly more developed than in 1638, since it goes from 7 to 12 propositions, followed by 11 new propositions. Here Niceron studies the anamorphoses resulting from debased perspectives obtained by choosing a nonstandard position of the eye. He adds to it “the description and the use of the Catholic or universal instrument of Perspective” and a short “Treatise on light and shadows”. In this last chapter he does not speak of “the nature or the essence of light” but only of the properties necessary to perspective and drawing shadows.
The third book is a treatise on catoptric anamorphoses using flat, cylindrical and conical mirrors to deform and then above all correct the distorted images. The fourth book sets out a dioptric method using a telescope fitted with a lens cut suitably in order to produce a new figure from a collection of several figures. One will notice that all the 1638 accounts on the anagrams, full of religious or political motives, were deleted. They were no longer up to date.
The second part of the book is L’optique et la catoptrique by Mersenne, a posthumous book dated 1651 “recently brought to light after the Author’s death”. The printer’s “foreword to the reader” indicates that this work is taken from “two short treatises on optics, and on Catoptrics, almost complete and the printing begun, but for some reasons could not be continued until now”. There is also a six-page development by Roberval on squaring the circle. It is likely that Roberval, writing as Mersenne, put across many of his own ideas. Robert Lenoble attributes proposition IV of the Catoptrique ou des miroirs (pp. 88-92)completely to Roberval.
The 1652 book has the advantage of being a clear presentation of the theories on optics which were held prominently during the first half of the 17th century.

Jean-Pierre Manceau (Tours) – 2014


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.