The Skull from Outer Space
- 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.
Vol. 25 No. 6 · 20 March 2003
John Bossy rightly dismisses the ‘ley lines’ theory proposed by John North as an explanation for the details of Holbein’s The Ambassadors (LRB, 20 February), but doesn’t discuss the suggestion in the National Gallery catalogue that the Lutheran hymnbook, the lute with the broken string and the little arithmetic book, open at a page that begins with the word dividirt (‘divide’), all refer to the rift between the Roman and Lutheran Churches that the Bishop de Selve was anxious to see healed. The arithmetic book is Peter Apian’s Eyne Newe unnd Wolgegrundte Underweysung aller Kaufmanns Rechnung (1527). It may well be there simply because of its section on division, but it has other claims to significance. It was the first arithmetic textbook written in German, and its method of division introduces what can only be read as decimal fractions, nearly a century before Stevinus produced his treatise on them. Apian uses a rather clumsy notation, writing halves, quarters and eighths as 05, 025 and multiples of 0125. It was Apian who first drew the tails of comets pointing away from the sun and not streaming out behind them. He also showed how the position of the Moon among the fixed stars could give a global measure of time, more than two hundred years before accurate lunar tables and precision instruments made it a practical possibility. On its title page, the book prints a number pattern ‘discovered’ much later by Blaise Pascal and since known as Pascal’s Triangle.