The Skull from Outer Space

John Bossy

  • The Ambassadors’ Secret: Holbein and the World of the Renaissance by John North
    Hambledon, 346 pp, £25.00, January 2002, ISBN 1 85285 330 1

Holbein’s double portrait known as The Ambassadors must have been anatomised any number of times since its emergence into public view at the end of the 19th century, and recently had an exhibition all to itself in the National Gallery; but I doubt if anyone has gone into it so pertinaciously as John North. North is an expert in the history of astronomy and mathematics, so naturally his view of the painting emerges from the jumble, which he does not regard as a jumble, of astronomical and time-telling instruments sitting on top of the carpet-covered table on which the sitters/standers are leaning, one to each side. On a shelf under the tabletop there are musical instruments, a terrestrial globe and open – and legible – books of music and arithmetic. The subjects, who are both in their twenties and snappily dressed, are the noble Jean de Dinteville, ambassador from King Francis I of France to Henry VIII, and his friend, perhaps alter ego, Georges de Selve, who had been given the small see of Lavaur near Toulouse to provide for a career in the royal service. Dinteville was in England from February to November 1533; de Selve, whose mission, if any, is obscure, from about March to May.

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