Saccheri entered the Jesuit order in 1685, and was ordained as a priest in 1694. He taught philosophy at Turin from 1694 to 1697, and philosophy, theology, and mathematics at Pavia from 1697 until his death. He was a protege of the mathematician Tommaso Ceva and published several works including Quaesita geometrica (1693), Logica demonstrativa (1697), and Neo-statica (1708).
He is primarily known today for his last publication, in 1733 shortly before his death. Now considered the second work in non-Euclidean geometry, Euclides ab omni naevo vindicatus (Euclid Freed of Every Flaw) languished in obscurity until it was rediscovered by Eugenio Beltrami in the mid-19th Century.
Many of Saccheri's ideas have precedent in the 11th Century Persian polymath Omar Khayyam's Discussion of Difficulties in Euclid (Risâla fî sharh mâ ashkala min musâdarât Kitâb 'Uglîdis), a fact ignored in most Western sources until recently.
It is unclear whether Saccheri had access to this work in translation, or developed his ideas independently. The Saccheri quadrilateral is now sometimes referred to as the Khayyam-Saccheri quadrilateral.
The intent of Saccheri's work was ostensibly to establish the validity of Euclid by means of a reductio ad absurdum proof of any alternative to Euclid's parallel postulate. To do this he assumed that the parallel postulate was false, and attempted to derive a contradiction. Since Euclid's postulate is equivalent to the statement that the sum of the internal angles of a triangle is 180°, he considered both the hypothesis that the angles add up to more or less than 180°.
The first led to the conclusion that straight lines are finite, contradicting Euclid's second postulate. So Saccheri correctly rejected it. However, today this principle is accepted as the basis of elliptic geometry, where both the second and fifth postulates are rejected.
The second possibility turned out to be harder to refute. In fact he was unable to derive a logical contradiction and instead derived many non-intuitive results; for example that triangles have a maximum finite area and that there is an absolute unit of length. He finally concluded that: "the hypothesis of the acute angle is absolutely false; because it is repugnant to the nature of straight lines". Today, his results are theorems of hyperbolic geometry.
* Martin Gardner, Non-Euclidean Geometry, Chapter 4 of The Colossal Book of Mathematics, W.W.Norton & Company, 2001, ISBN 0-393-02023-1
* M. J. Greenberg, Euclidean and Non-Euclidean Geometries: Development and History, 3rd edition, W. H. Freeman, 1994.
* O'Connor, John J. & Robertson, Edmund F., "Giovanni Girolamo Saccheri", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive