Jean François Niceron

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Jean-François Niceron (1613 – 22 September 1646) was a French mathematician, Minim friar, and painter of anamorphic art, on which he wrote the ground-breaking book, La Perspective Curieuse (Curious Perspectives).


Jean François Nicéron.jpg

Jean François Nicéron was a mathematical prodigy. He studied under the famed mathematician Minim friar, Marin Mersenne, at the College de Nevers. In 1632, at the age of nineteen, he joined the Order of Minims. He visited Rome twice during his life.

Nicéron was an artist of some note and was interested in the use of anamorphosis in religious art. He was acquainted with the leading scientists in France and Italy, such as Fermat, Descartes, Cavalieri, and Kircher, and was aware of all the latest theoretical developments. Intent on finding a scientific solution to the problems presented by perspective, Niceron worked out the geometric algorithms for producing anamorphic art and in 1638 published his definitive treatise under La perspective curieuse ou magie artificielle des effets merveilleux which is roughly translated as "The curious perspective or artificial magic of marvelous effects."

As number of scientific societies were forming in the early 1630s, Nicéron took advantage of the opportunities and became a member of the 'Circle of Mersenne' which was named after his mentor, Father Marin Mersenne. The connection he had established with these societies led him to become associated with some of the top intellectual people from Paris and Rome: He knew Fermat, Desargues, Gassendi, Descartes, Roberval, Maignan, Kircher, and Cavalieri. These relationships with the academic world helped him stay up to date with intellectual advancements. He closely followed optics and geometry, and used this acquired knowledge to create the anamorphic paintings for which he is known. In 1638 at the age of 25 he wrote his book on the subject. He died before he was able to complete La Perspective Curieuse.[1]

The lexicographer, Jean-Pierre Nicéron, was his nephew.[2]

He died in 1646, in Aix-en-Provence, aged only 33.

His portrait was engraved by Lasne.


  1. La perspective curieuse, 'Magie articielle des effets merveilleux de l'optique par la vision directe, Paris, 1638, in-fol., reissued together with l'Optique and the Catoptrique by P. Mersenne, ibid., 1652, in-fol. Niceron reworked it, augmented it by a large number of observations and translated it into Latin under the title: Thaumaturgus opticus, sive amiranda optices, etc., Paris, 1646, in-fol. This first part was to have been followed by two others, but the death of the author prevented this.

The 1663 edition can be downloaded from [1]. The 1638 edition is better. It used to be on [2].

This richly illustrated manual on perspective revealed for the first time the secrets of anamorphosis and trompe l'oeil. It contained the first published reference to Descartes's derivation of the law of refraction. First published in 1638 with 25 plates only, Niceron's work was later enlarged by Roberval in a far inferior edition (1663). Together with the first edition, posthumously published, of a scholarly work on optics and catoptics by Mersenne (1588–1648). In his major work, following the latest theoretical developments, Niceron concentrated primarily on the practical applications of perspective, catoptrics, and dioptrics, and on the illusory effects of optics, then traditionally associated with natural magic. Divided into four Books, the first Book presents briefly the fundamental geometrical theorems, and then develops a general method of perspective, borrowing heavily from Alberti and Dürer. The second Book addresses the problem of establishing perspective for paintings executed on curved or irregular surfaces, like vaults and niches, and presents the general technique of anamorphosis. Here Niceron shows, for example, how to construct on the interior surface of a cone a distorted image which, when viewed from the end through the base, appears in proper proportion. Book three discusses and fully explains the anamorphosis of figures that are viewed by reflection from plane, cylindrical, and conical mirrors. Book four deals with the distortions created by refraction. The added work on optics by Niceron's colleague and confrère Mersenne contained the author's final contributions to optics, including experimental studies of visual acuity and binocular vision and a critical discussion of current hypotheses on the nature of light.

  1. L'Interprétation des chiffres, ou Règle pour bien entendre et expliquer facilement toutes sortes de chiffres simples, tirée de italien et augmentée, particulièrement à l'usage des langues française et espagnole, Paris, 1641, in-8°. This work has been translated in part by Ant.-Marie Cospi.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Curious Perspectives". BibliOdyssey. Retrieved 30 April 2015. 
  2. ^

Further reading[edit]

  • "name", in Louis Gabriel Michaud, Biographie universelle ancienne et moderne : histoire par ordre alphabétique de la vie publique et privée de tous les hommes avec la collaboration de plus de 300 savants et littérateurs français ou étrangers, 2nd edition, 1843–1865
  • P. J. S. Whitmore: The Order of Minims in Seventeenth-Century France [3]
  • A. De Rosa, edited by : Jean François Nicéron. Perspective, Catoptric and Artificial Magic, with critical editions of La Perspective Curieuse (Paris 1638) and of the Thaumaturgus Opticus (Paris 1646), Aracne edizioni, ISBN 978-88-548-6032-2, 24 x 28 cm, 488 pp, Roma 2013 [4].
  • A. De Rosa, Through a glass darkly: the life and work of Minim Jean François Nicéron, in “Bollettino Ufficiale dell’Ordine dei Minimi”, n° 5, year LI, January–March 2005.
  • A. De Rosa, The Optik's Apocalipse. The twin anamorphosis by Emmanuel Maignan and Jean-François Nicéron, in “Ikhnos”, Siracusa 2006.
  • A. Bortot, C. Boscaro, A. De Rosa, C. Monteleone, E. Trevisan, Memory and oblivion. Discovery and digital survey of J.-F. Niceron's mural anamorphosis, in "Acts of XVI ASITA National Conference", ISBN 978-88-903132-7-1, Vicenza 2012 [5]
  • G. D’Acunto, Jean-François Nicéron's Thaumaturgus opticus: between scientific precision and natural magic, in “Bollettino Ufficiale dell’Ordine dei Minimi”, n° 2, year LII, April–June 2006.
  • I. Rizzini, Jean-François Nicéron's Thaumaturgus opticus: notes on translation from Latin, in “Bollettino Ufficiale dell’Ordine dei Minimi”, n° 4, year LI, October–December 2004.
  • A. De Rosa, G. D'Acunto, La vertigine dello sguardo. Saggi sulla rappresentazione anamorfica, Cafoscarina, ISBN 8888613315, Venezia 2002 [6].

Other sources[edit]

  • The painting at the Museum of the History of Science in Florence [7]
  • The Galileo project [8]
  • Mersenne's ‘’catoptrique’’ contains Niceron’s plates
  • First World Exhibition on Jean François Niceron at University Iuav of Venezia from 22 of April until 31 of May 2013 [9]
  • Joe Frawley, "Curious Perspectives", Joe Frawley Music (ca476) (November 7, 2011). Music composed by Joe Frawley [10] for the exhibition "Jean François Niceron: Perspective, catoptrics & artificial magic", University Iuav, Venice, Italy, April 22 - May 31, 2013 [11].