Niccolò Cusano, or Nicholas of Cusa in English - Nikolaus Krebs of Kues (1401 – 1464) - was a German theologian, philosopher, jurist, politician, mathematician and astronomer, and one of the outstanding Humanist scholars of his age. He studied at the universities of Heidelberg, Padua (where he graduated in canon law) and Cologne. He became Bishop of Brixen, later a cardinal, serving as a papal ambassador on several occasions, and was a central figure of the troubled era which witnessed the waning of medieval society and the dawn of the modern age. Nicholas played a prominent part in some of the key events of the 15th century, including the Council of Basel-Ferrara-Florence (1431 – 1439), where debate centred on the reunion of the Latin and Orthodox Churches, and whether the supreme authority in the Church rested in the Pope or in the General Council. The capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 led Nicholas to become convinced of the necessity of finding common ground between the different faiths, focusing on their points of similarity (one God, one sacred book) rather than on the diversity of their visible rituals.
Nicholas was responsible for many significant advances in Western culture: as a student of ancient history, he discovered a manuscript containing twelve hitherto unknown comedies of Plautus, now preserved in the Vatican Library; as an astronomer, rebutting the geocentric theories of Ptolemy and Aristotle, and long before Copernicus and Galileo, he inferred that the universe was infinite, and that the Earth was not stationary but revolved around its axis. He drew up a remarkably accurate map of East-central Europe, known to us from a reproduction of the lost original printed in 1491, which is itself one of the first geographical maps extant after the invention of printing. There is even a subtle thread that links him to the discovery of America; Columbus made his own copy of a letter, complete with maps and calculations, that had been written to the Spanish monarchs by the renowned Italian map-maker Paolo Toscanelli, who was a great friend of Nicholas – he was present at his death bed – and who frequently held conversations with him on astronomical and cosmological matters. Nicholas is also credited with the invention of concave lenses for short-sightedness, as well as taking an interest in reforming the calendar then in use. As a mathematician, he wrote many works, among which a significant contribution to the problem of 'squaring the circle'. He was very knowledgeable about Islam, and wrote an important commentary on the Quran dedicated to his friend, Pope Pius II. As a philosopher, he developed the idea of ‘informed ignorance’, based on Socrates’ teaching of ‘knowing that one knows nothing’, and that of the ‘harmony of opposites’ which examines the concept of ‘unity in diversity’, not only from a theological or philosophical viewpoint, but also in its social implications, stemming from the idea of harmony as the only political criterion that can guarantee peace and happiness for mankind. In fact, Nicholas was an ardent supporter of religious tolerance, and maintained that power originated in the voluntary consent of the governed.
Nicholas of Cusa died at Todi in Umbria, and has his tomb in the Basilica of S Pietro in Vincoli (St Peter in Chains) in Rome, opposite the statue of Moses by Michelangelo. The manuscripts of his works are preserved in the Library of the St Nicholas Hospital in Kues, founded by the philosopher in 1458.