Niceron, Jean-François

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(b. Paris, France, 1613: d. Aix-en-Provence, France, 22 September 1646)

geometrical optics.

Niceron was the eldest child of Claude Niceron and Renée Barbière. He studied under Mersenne at the College de Nevers in Paris and then entered the Order of Minims, where he took his second name to distinguish him from a paternal uncle, also named Jean. In 1639 Niceron was appointed professor of mathematics at Trinitá dei Monti, the order’s convent in Rome. From 1640 he also served as auxiliary visitor for Minim monasteries. The frequent travels required by the latter post weakened his already frail health, and he died at the age of thirty-three while visiting Aix.

Having been a student of Mersenne, Niceron shared his mentor’s broad interest in natural philosophy as well as his penchant for gathering and disseminating news of the latest developments. Niceron’s journeys to Rome brought him into contact with many Italian scientists, to whom he communicated the results of French investigations and whose work he in turn forwarded to Paris. In 1639 Niceron informed Cavalieri of the work of Fermatt, Descartes, and Roberval on the quadrature and cubature of curves of the form y = xn and on the properties of the cycloid. Niceron’s revelations concerning the cycloid angered Roberval, who apparently wished to keep his results secret until he could publish them or use them in the triennial defense of his chair at the College Royal. Not knowing the true source of Cavalieri’s information, Roberval accused Beaugrand of having betrayed confidences. The affair seems to have become something of a cause célèbre until Cavalieri clarified matters in 1643 (see Cavalieri’s letters in Correspondance de Mersenne, C. de Waard et al., eds., XII [Paris, 1972], passim). In 1640 Niceron returned to Paris with the first copies of Cavalieri’s Geometria indivisibilibus … promota.

While in Italy in 1639–1640, Niceron measured the declination of the magnetic compass in Ligurno, Rome, and Florence. From 1643 to 1645 he collaborated with a group of scientists in Rome (including Magiotti, Baliani, Kircher, Ricci, and Maignan) in conducting experiments suggested by the work of Galileo. It was from Niceron that Mersenne first heard of Galileo’s death (see Niceron to Mersenne, 2 Feb. 1642, Correspondance de Mersenne, XI, 30–34).

Niceron’s major work, however, dealt with perspective and geometrical optics. His Perspective curieuse (1638) defines the range and nature of the problems he addressed; later editions of the work simply provide more detail. Although aware of 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. The work is divided into four books, of which the first presents briefly the fundamental geometrical theorems that are necessary for what follows; it then develops a general method of perspective collineation, borrowing heavily from Alberti and Dürer. Book II, which is addressed to the problem of establishing perspective for paintings executed on curved or irregular surfaces (for example, vaults and niches), presents a general technique of anamorphosis; that is, the determination of the surface distortions necessary to bring a picture into perspective when viewed from a given point. Niceron showed, for example, how to construct on the interior surface of a cone a distorted image which, when viewed end on through the base, appears in proper proportion.

Book III discusses the anamorphosis of figures that are viewed by reflection from plane, cylindrical, and conical mirrors. He explained how to draw on a plane surface a distorted figure which, when viewed by means of a cylindrical mirror standing perpendicular to the plane, appears in normal proportion. Book IV deals with the distortions created by refraction. Here Niceron abandoned any effort at general treatment and concentrated instead on constructing an optical device consisting of a polyhedral lens that gathers elements of one figure and unites them into another, totally different figure. The discussion contains perhaps the first published reference to Descartes’s derivation of the law of refraction (1638) and thus gains some historical significance.

Later editions of Niceron’s work, particularly the Latin version of 1646, do not differ from the 1638 edition in their basic content. Although clearly a capable mathematician, Niceron was interested more in practice than in theory. Sympathetic to the natural magic still current in his time, he tended to view optics as the art of illusion rather than the science of light.


I. Original Works. Niceron’s major works are La perspective curieuse ou magie artificielle des effets merveilteux de Voptique, par la vision directe; la catoptrique, par la réflexion des miroirs plats, cylindriques et coniqques; la dioptrique, par la réfraction des crystaux … (Paris, 1638; expanded Latin version of I and II under title Thaumaturgus opticus, seu admiranda optics … catoptric es … dioptrices …, Paris, 1646; 3rd ed., heavily edited by Roberval, together with Mersenne’s L’optique et la catoptrique Paris, 1651; 4th ed., in Latin and French, Paris, 1663); and L’ interprétation des chiffres, ou règle pour bien entendre et expliquer facilement toutes sortes de chiffres simples, tirée de l’italien d’ Antonio Maria Cospi, augmentèe et accommodèe particulièrenient á l’usage des langues française et espagnole (Paris, 1641). Of Niceron’s correspondence, only two letters survive, both written to Mersenne and published in Correspondance de Mersenne, Cornelis de Waard, et al., eds. (Paris, 1932- ), X, 811–814 (8 Dec. 1641); XI, 30–34 (2 Feb. 1642).

II.Secondary Literature. See Maria Luisa Bonelli, “Una lettera di Evangelista Torricelli a Jean François Niceron,” in Convegno di studi Torricelliani (Fuenza, 1959), 37–41; Robert Lenoble, “Roberval ‘edileur’ de Mersenne et du P. Niceron,” in Revue d’histoire des sciences et de leurs applications, 10 (1957), 235–254, and Mersenne, ou la naissance du méchanisme (Paris, 1943), passim; and Correspondance de Mersenne, VIII–XII, passim, with a short biography in X, 811.

Michael S. Mahoney