Thursday, January 2, 2014

Larry Witham's "Piero's Light"

Larry Alan Witham is a veteran journalist and author in the Washington D.C. area who has covered current events, history, religion and society, science, philosophy, and the visual arts. After twenty-one years in a newsroom, he now writes and edits books full time. He is the author of over one dozen books.

Witham applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Piero's Light: In Search of Piero della Francesca: A Renaissance Painter and the Revolution in Art, Science, and Religion, and reported the following:
Upon reaching page 99 in Piero’s Light, the story is taking a distinctly philosophical turn. It highlights the revival of Platonism during the early Italian Renaissance. Here, I’m in the middle of a narrative summary on the ideas of Nicholas of Cusa (Cusanus in Latin), an innovative theologian in Rome and a Renaissance Platonist at heart. He was also the probable acquaintance of the real hero of our book, the Italian Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca. This is what I write about Cusanus. He believed that:
The finite and infinite are entirely different in nature. As a consequence, Cusanus said, all things are “immediate to God.” This not only helped break down a universe of hierarchical structures; it also proposed a kind of independence of all things, tethered to God, yet in their motion they are relative to other things in motion (the essence of Einstein’s future theory of relativity). This outlook allowed Cusanus to say the unsayable for his time: “the earth, which cannot be the center, cannot be devoid of all motion.” Though he dabbled in science, Cusanus was not a scientist, and his logic was based in metaphysics. Nonetheless, future thinkers in science, from Giordano Bruno to Galileo and RenĂ© Descartes, cited Cusanus as they pushed back scientific frontiers.
In my interpretative (and somewhat speculative) treatment of Piero as a painter and mathematician, his own Platonist outlook is all important, suggesting that a new kind of artist was afoot at this Renaissance juncture. Piero was a master of geometry as well as the “science” of painting. Platonism, with its dynamic dualism that pitted a world of the senses against a realm of higher “essences,” was an outlook that allowed a late medieval Christian such as Piero to digest his era’s encounter between Greek science and traditional religion.

Of course, what happens on any page 99 has as much to do with book pagination and last minute editorial decisions as with proving a book’s constancy of narrative. The 99 page test is telling, nevertheless. The writer’s goal is to produce a consistent quality in every sentence, with every part of the book living up to its obviously best parts; no fat, just good and alluring prose. This is what novelist Ford Madox Ford was getting at when he said that on any page 99 the “quality of the whole [book] will be revealed.” Piero’s Light, while aspiring to be novelesque, is historical nonfiction. It attempts to painlessly introduce readers to a great deal of intellectual and cultural history along the way; Cusanus’s metaphysics being a case in point, and hopefully without pain! The flavor of my page 99 contrasts with the nominal “action scenes” that also fill the book-length narrative, especially regarding Piero’s life and the lives of others who will grapple with his artistic and mathematical legacy. True enough, though, this book does absorb Piero’s story into a broader historical shift in Western thinking. Page 99 may well serve as an accurate enough clue about the entire book.
Learn more about the book and author at Larry Witham's website.

--Marshal Zeringue