THE CURIOUS PERSPECTIVE
Preface to Jean François Niceron’s book
We see four chubby putti, these perennial characters in Baroque allegory, deeply absorbed in studying arcane geometrical devices. One of them stares intently at an anamorphic cylinder, which serves to render an utterly distorted image recognizable. Another two study the ways of representing perspective in drawing, while the fourth, standing in a stone gateway, examines an inverted conical mirror suspended from the center of the vault overhead. One is tempted to visualize Plato’s admonition inscribed over the arch (as it was allegedly engraved at the door of his Academy in Athens): “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter.” Indeed, the mood of the image here is defined by the rigor and melancholy of geometry, in stark contrast to the angelic innocence and childish abandon of the putti. These putti appear in a copper engraving by Pierre Daret, featured on the opening page of La Perspective Curieuse (“The Curious Perspective”), a famous book published by Jean François Niceron, a Minim friar. The no fewer than fifty illustrations of the book, which boasted three editions between 1638 and 1652, were quickly appropriated by draughtsmen of a geometric bent and, in general, by artists of a scholarly disposition, who went on to use it for centuries as a sort of venerable reference. The artists I have in mind can be categorized, according to Nietzsche’s famous taxonomy, as belonging to the Apollonian school, who regarded the precise construction grids of the book as the emblem of their craft. I confess to have profited the most myself from Father Niceron’s book when, many years ago, I began to dabble in drawing anamorphic images, both oblique and catoptric. I was probably inspired by his double persona as learned educator and creative artist, as well as by his pioneering role, if not in the description of conventional methods of perspective drawing, then certainly in the erudite treatment of anamorphism.
Of course, taking a cue from the putti and the Bible, we may recall that the curiosities of perspective were hardly confined to pious and solemn contexts in those days. One of the earliest examples of anamorphosis using a cylindrical mirror was probably the image of an elephant familiar from Simon Vouet’s painting (or, to be more precise, from a copy thereof engraved by Hans Tröschel around 1625), in which a cylindrical mirror placed on a garden table is admired by a circle of satyrs. The little devilkins – hairy, hooved and horned – giggle and chuckle as they point to the miracle in amazement, suggesting that, despite all the efforts of the good monks to the contrary, the general public continued to think of anamorphic images as some kind of satanic sleight of hand, a Mephistophelean practice. I said monks on purpose, for in those days, around the middle of the 17th century, a number of Father Niceron’s fellow brethren in the order engaged in studying the oddities of geometry. Their chapterhouse in Place Royale (today Place des Vosges) in Paris was home to a remarkable workshop, where the fathers of geometry (Marin Mersenne, Emmanuel Maignan) worked alongside with, and drew inspiration from, such renowned men of learning in geometry, optics, and philosophy as Pierre de Fermat, René Descartes and Tomas Hobbes.
The period art historians refer to as the Baroque increasingly aimed at integrating the new achievements of science. Owing to the work of Kepler and Newton, the static outlook of the Renaissance gradually yielded to the articulation of a broader, more dynamic world view, in which conventional paintings based on a central perspective were replaced by novel vantage points, distorting angles, and a constructive approach. The mushrooming perspective books of the age featured more and more illustrations that fit the “curieuse” descriptor. Glued to the word perspective, these became particularly suitable to express the notion of anamorphosis – a term unknown when Niceron published his book, and even when he died at the lamentably young age of Christ. The phrase was to be coined four years later by a German Jesuit named Gaspar Schott, in his book Magia Universalis, published in 1650.
Beyond he achievements in science in the strict sense of the word, advances in technology proved conducive to curiosities of perspective. One could enumerate a long list of increasingly perfect and affordable mirrors and lenses, but that the invention of the mechanical watch also had an influence on the popularity of anamorphosis is more difficult to believe – but it is true! This is because the geometrical skills used in the construction of sundials were very similar to those required for drawing an anamorphic image, as made sunny clear by Emmanuel Maignan’s 1648 book, Perspectiva Horaria. When the spring-loaded mechanism displaced the sundial in the time-keeping department, the poor sundial-makers found themselves out of a job, and cross-trained to become artists specializing in anamorphosis.
By all likelihood, the good Niceron thought of himself as a mathematician or theologian rather than an artist, although his works of art, which were intimately linked to his scientific and scholarly endeavors, must have been quite influential in their own right. Regrettably, his anamorphic tour de force, the wall painting Saint John the Evangelist on the Island on Patmos, never survived despite his having executed it twice: first in the Minim monastery of Trinità dei Monti in Rome, and then in the Minorite chapterhouse in Place Royale. Both perished in the tempests of history; the one in Rome was destroyed by Niceron’s own fellow countrymen under Napoleon’s command in 1798. Still, a few smaller-scale works of his remain with us, including four anamorphic pictures using a cylindrical mirror, kept at the Palazzo Berberini in Rome.
We cannot be sure that he cast in paint all the copper engravings published in his book, but a few he probably did, including anamorphic portraits of some of the rulers, leading politicians and other dignitaries of his day. More often than not, this meant the reigning king, Louis XIII. Interestingly, next to the many contemporaries, La Perspective Curieuse includes the portrait of a king from a century before, Francis I, which Niceron used to demonstrate the operation of the tabula scalata. This was the name for a sort of pleated image, which from the frontal perspective reveals no more than strips of material glued together in an accordion-like pattern, but when viewed from a different angle or through an appropriately placed mirror, shows a recognizable image – in this case, one coalescing into the portrait of the French king, as confirmed by the inscription. But what was Francis I doing among the notables of 17th-century history? The answer is that Niceron probably adapted the reproduction of a former, perhaps even well-known, anamorphic portrait, made 124 years previously, contemporaneously with the monarch. Now, who else could, in 1515, the date indicated on the print, have done an anamorphic portrait of the young Francis? None other than the king’s own protégé, the preeminent researcher of optics and perspective, the artisan who cobbled together many an ingenious mechanical device: Leonardo da Vinci. If this is indeed true, it would solve the perennial question of whether the vain king tried to persuade his aging friend to immortalize his image. In any case, Leonardo – by then weary of painting at 63 years of age – must have been more in the mood for constructing a playful, magical representation than a conventional tableau. It is possible that, in the early 1600s, Leonardo’s tabula scalata was still around to be seen and tested in operation by Niceron. If it was, he probably simply copied it. While this is admittedly just a conjecture, it seems safe to say that the problems raised in his book preoccupied Niceron not just as a mathematician but as a polyhistor. He had personal ties to Descartes, who elevated the problems of optical and geometrical science to the higher plane of philosophy, as well as to Athanasius Kircher, who transposed those problems to a more practical level. He was also intimately familiar with the work of most creative minds devoted to the subject, contemporary or erstwhile. In the preface to his book, he invokes Alberti, Dürer, Vignola, and Jamnitzer (if I read the name Jamnitserus correctly), while the entire work is suffused with the spirit of his perspectivist predecessors, Piero della Francesca and Leonardo da Vinci.
By creating a compendium of “curious perspectives,” Father Niceron accomplished more than simply offering the synthesis of a visual domain inhabiting the no man’s land between art and science. He also formulated a recommendation of what I believe was a radically new orientation, in which the hitherto passive stance of the spectator is replaced by active participation – if you will, interaction. The viewer contemplating an anamorphic image not simply “completes” the work of art, to quote Marcel Duchamp’s famous dictum, but he “makes” himself, in the sense of determining his own identity as a spectator. The person facing a “curious perspective” does not pay attention to the image presented to his retina so much as he focuses on the relationship between the work and himself. He must concentrate on where his own exact position is demarcated within the space created or, to be more precise, delineated by the angles of vision emanating from the work, in which his slightest deviation from that position will alter the meaning of the image. While he is busy doing just that in physical space, he cannot help but observe in himself the mechanism of reception and appreciation as it operates in the spiritual domain of the anamorphosis. In this way, artistic practice and perception are enriched by a metaphysical dimension. Indeed, you will feel both more independent and more vulnerable when contemplating a virtual perspective by Niceron or his kindred in spirit. You will respond to the wonder that the creation of the image is, even as you will feel left alone with this illusion, which does not literally exist in reality, except in your own mind. It is this attitude, amply confirmed by the existentialist philosophers, which drove many artists of the 20th century to rediscover anamorphic experiments and attempt to revive the “curious perspective,” which had been variously described as a technique, a genre, or a world view. From the above-mentioned Marcel Duchamp to Salvador Dali, from Jan Dibbets to Williem Kentridge, from Patrick Hughes to Felice Varini, the list of otherwise very different artists all influenced by anamorphosis could go on forever.
Musing over Mice Lasne’s 1642 print portrait one may be forgiven to assume that the ascetic, slightly built monk clad in a miserly sackcloth robe, a vegetarian of puritanical convictions given to pondering dreary mathematical problems, must have been a sour, joyless chap. But Niceron was surely cut from a different cloth. He spent much of his leisure time inventing linguistic games, exemplified by the ingenious anagram he concocted as a caption for the penultimate illustration in his book, which clearly implies a young Bohemian happy to smile at the world, including himself. What he did was take his ecclesiastic Latin name FRATER IOANNES FRANCISCUS NICERONUS, as it appeared on the title page of Thaumaturgus Opticus, and shuffled the letters until they coalesced into the question RARUS FERIENS TURCAS, ANNON CONFICIES?, literally meaning “What have you composed from these scattered Turks?” This curious interrogative sentence can only be understood with reference to drawing No. LXIX on Table 24, one of the many illustrations in La perspective curieuse, which shows the turbaned heads of twelve Ottoman pashas. When viewed through a tube lined with a special mirror prism shown on the previous page – a one-off sample of which James Hunt, the English translator, exegete, and expert analyst of the geometrical constructs of the book has actually fabricated – the cunningly executed drawing reveals the portrait of Louis XIII of France.
Perhaps a late acolyte like myself cannot be blamed for not resisting the temptation to continue the anagrammatic game with the name of FRATER IOANNES FRANCISCUS NICERONUS. Indeed, I can easily imagine myself in the curious space of the copper engraving on the cover – “A FANCY TREASURE IN CIRCUS OF NONSENS’” – as one of the nosey children musing over the beautifully arched vault: “CURIOUS INFANT CARES ON FINENESS ARC.”
Translated by Péter Balikó Lengyel