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The Ambassadors' Secret: Holbein and the…

The Ambassadors' Secret: Holbein and the World of the Renaissance (2002)

by John David North

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    Mr. Collier's Letter Racks: A Tale of Art and Illusion at the Threshold of the Modern Information Age by Dror Wahrman (nessreader)
    nessreader: both about works of art with, author contends, kabbalistic-type encoded information

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“Taste,” John North writes, “is often the enemy of understanding.” In this book, the historian tackles Hans Holbein’s lavish double portrait The Ambassadors, painted in 1533 in London. Besides burnishing Holbein’s reputation as a great artist, North leads the reader on a tour of the intellect and imagination of sixteenth-century Europe. His take on The Ambassadors is less tasteful, perhaps, than the consensus of art historians; at any rate, art historians have not embraced it. But North offers a much richer understanding of when, where, how, and probably why the picture was made — and that’s just the beginning.

There are no surviving documents about the creation of this picture, so there are no clues to Holbein’s intentions, except what the picture (shown here) contains. Two young courtiers flank a square table laden with books, musical instruments, and obscure devices for tracking the position of the sun. Where art critics have tended to explain away all this paraphernalia, or to lump it all together in a single metaphor, North engages with each object in turn, describing its function, how it was used, and how its position and configuration in the painting indirectly convey layers of information to the informed viewer. He builds a compelling case that Holbein worked with astronomer Nicolaus Kratzer in designing the complex image. The two young men in the picture probably also had a say in the design, and North nominates one or two others who may have played a lesser role.

As a historian of early modern science and philosophy, North cites an impressive range of medieval and sixteenth-century texts, but always with a critical awareness of how widely read and influential those texts actually were in Holbein’s time. In other words, he doesn’t go fishing for whatever will support a pet theory. His method in analyzing pictures is similar: Instead of pushing graphic elements into a likely pattern that appeals to a modern intellectual, North begins by asking what kind of pattern would be most meaningful to a sixteenth-century mind. He then asks whether that pattern seems to unite the elements of a picture in illuminating ways. It’s a far more rigorous and demanding method, but in this case, at least, it is very fruitful.

The book is in three parts: The first deals with the lives of Holbein, Kratzer, the two ambassadors, and the historical events that brought them together at the court of Henry VIII in 1533 (while Henry sought a divorce so he could marry Anne Boleyn). The second part describes the elements of the painting in detail, as well as techniques Holbein may have used to draft and paint it. The instruments on the table come in for a lot of attention, along with the main sight lines of the picture. The third part turns to interpretation, proposing (without insisting) that astrology and other elements of occult knowledge may have coëxisted with Christian symbols in the picture. As he proceeds, North is careful to distinguish symbols he believes are almost certainly designed into the picture (the hexagram, the horoscope square) from others that are merely possible, perhaps accidental symbols.

This revised (paperback) edition clearly benefits from conversations started by the first edition, and North carries his arguments a few steps further, often thanks to insights and challenges from other scholars. At times, especially in Part II, his tone turns argumentative, with excessive use of adverbs like certainly and unquestionably, but this fit soon passes. Some of the more abstruse parts of North’s argument are relegated to appendices, which I found well worth reading. The first appendix contains an elegant analysis of The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca, based on Piero’s own advanced work in geometry. (Doubtful readers may want to turn to this appendix first, to see whether they find North’s writing rewarding enough to read the whole book, or just overtaxing.)

I believe The Ambassadors’ Secret has deepened my understanding of not just the era of Henry VIII, but of the way any intellectual culture tends to combine novel discoveries with venerable truths in sometimes contradictory ways. As North indicates concerning astrology, sometimes complexity and difficulty are enough to lend a subject authority. The heliocentric theory had made nonsense of the theory behind astrology (namely, the Ptolemaic universe of concentric spheres, in which divine influence descended from the outermost sphere down to earth, by means which one could conceivably read in the motions of the stars and planets). Nevertheless, even learned and skeptical men continued to pay respect to astrology, despite a minority of earnest critics. I found myself wondering, what are our present-day arcana? Probably economic doctrines. Haven’t I been taught that the market always tells the truth?

The Ambassadors’ Secret is a careful account of a journey of discovery, and a great workout for the reader’s mind. If you’ve assumed that the past was just a simplified version of the present, you may find this book overwhelming. It will not tell you what you already knew. This is a richer book than my review has indicated; it’s worth rereading and consulting (and the index, fortunately, is a good one). It’s the kind of history book that can inspire further inquiries.
1 vote Muscogulus | Apr 5, 2011 |
The first half of this book is great, a thorough explanation of the context of Holbein's painting. The second half, however, while being a presentation of the erudition of the author in Renaissance astrology and symbolism, left me feeling that there was all too much over-interpretation as far as the painting is concerned. In short, didn't quite buy all of it, and found the book rather tiresome towards the end – although I'm sure that others with a keener interest in the subject matter would disagree. In sum: good bits, tedious bits, and rather too long a book.
I am, however, even more annoyed by the fact that while the book naturally rests on an analysis of Holbein's painting, at least the edition of the book I have DOES NOT PROVIDE A PROPER IMAGE OF IT. F'rinstance, the crucifix in the upper left hand corner of the painting is not visible AT ALL in the book's reproduction of the painting. Oops. ( )
  klai | Apr 3, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 184212661X, Paperback)

THE AMBASSADORS' SECRET is a radical reinterpretation of one of the world's most famous paintings. Holbein's celebrated portrait of two French diplomats at the court of Henry VIII has usually been linked to the political and religious unrest of the day. John North shows that the painting has a very different, and previously undetected, central theme and many other meanings. Far from being random, the objects in 'The Ambassadors' are deliberately, and very accurately, placed. In revealing exactly what they, and the painting, mean, THE AMBASSADORS' SECRET opens a remarkable window on the world of the Renaissance. 'Truly sensational ...North's explanation of what The Ambassadors' Secret means is as exciting as a classic whodunnit, and puts every previous account in the shade' Frank Whitford, Sunday Times

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:14 -0400)

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