Cultural historian Witham (Picasso and the Chess Player: Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp and the Battle for the Soul of Modern Art, 2013, etc.) returns with a wide-ranging account of the life, work and legacy of Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca (1412–1492).
The author writes that he was drawn to Piero because of the interplay of art, religion and science in his work, and throughout this illuminating treatment, he unwinds and examines each of these cultural threads. First, Witham examines Piero’s life, a life, the author admits, whose details are hard to come by. (Iterations of “probably,” “no doubt” and the like appear often.) Still, some key documents have emerged over the years, and the author follows Piero from his boyhood in Sansepolcro, Italy (60 miles from Florence), to Florence, Ferrara, Rome (where he did some work for the Vatican), Urbino and elsewhere. Witham notes that Piero was wont to take on more commissions than he could handle, sometimes taking years to fulfill agreements. The author also pauses periodically to describe and appreciate Piero’s key artistic works—The Baptism of Christ, The Flagellation of Christ and others—as well as his various publications, including Abacus Treatise and On Perspective for Painting. The biographical focus on Piero ends about a third of the way through the volume (the artist died on the day Columbus arrived in the New World); in the remaining chapters, Witham deals with Piero’s slow rediscovery—by art historians and collectors and, even more interestingly, by mathematicians and scientists. Throughout, the author deals with concepts of vision, light, beauty and mind, drawing on the works and theories of numerous philosophers (from the ancient to the present world), psychologists and neuroscientists to illuminate the various debates about the nature of reality and of the mind.
A thorough account of an actual “Renaissance man”—in every way.