2016. augusztus 29., hétfő


The painting of The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger is not only the biggest in size but also the most complex and most ambiguous piece in his oeuvre. The two characters in the picture (Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, the two ambassadors delegated to London from the court of Francis I of France), and all that bunch of symbolic objects surrounding them, have been the subjects of many researches. Also the painting's unique technique of depiction has been widely studied, namely the optic distortion called anamorphosis in the lower part of the picture. My interest in this particular painting lays in my background as an artist who learnt the technique of anamorphoses from practice.
Firstly I was concerned about the references of the painting which are not in correlation with the "official" readings, and are in contrast to the general interpretations. Although I am concerned about sticking to the facts, I like to undertake the terms of "guesswork, assumptions, hypothesis" as the defining genres. Moreover, I like the idea of the selective reader, who browse among the hypotheses of the book. He or she takes some, rejects some others. As a matter of fact, the most basic, the most important criteria of an anamorphosis is about finding the correct viewpoint as a spectator. The genre of the book is therefore hard to define, it includes essays, diary, classic poetry, moreover the literary relatives of anamorphoses are also included, such as an acrostic.
In the following part, let’s see those unusual hypotheses I am about to argue in the book.
The anamorphic skull was not part of the original painting, it was painted on it later. It was also a commissioned work, it might also have been the case that it was not created by Holbein himself. Who the painter was, can only be a subject of guesses. Whoever starts to study The Ambassadors will sooner or later come to another painting, the one that was hung in the same room in Dinteville's castle based in Polisy, and which was also signed as "Johannes Holbein". This painting is now in the Metropolitan Museum of New York City, and its title is Moses and Aron before Pharaoh. The painter's real name is unknown. But since he was up to paint a fake Holbein picture, he must have had no problem with undertaking the job to paint on a real one, too.
The National Gallery gives exact guidance on how to find the viewpoint from which this distorted image looks like a skull. According to this, you have to look at it from top right. This assumption is a wrong one, I think. The anamorphosis reveals itself also from the other side, too, that is, from left below. And this way the dramaturgy of the spectatorship would also be reverse: first you see the skull, and when it disappears, that is, when you face the painting and the two figures, you already bear in mind the message of "memento mori". In this case the painting has a precise, moment-by-moment, step-by-step script, and the effect of the message is a lot more stronger compared to the "official" viewpoint.
I also suggest a third possible way to look at the picture. For this you need a glass cylinder, e.g. a slim glass of champagne can transform this particular amorphous figure into a skull. This theory has another exciting outcome: the skull turned into a sphere through the glass creates a precise axis, a perfect raw of bubbles from heaven to hell, if you like. It is easy to see here the triple structure of The Divine Comedy. In a lot of other aspects The Ambassadors has a reference on La Divina Commedia. Both pieces of art are based upon complex astrological calculations and surprisingly also their dates have a strong relation. Dante's story starts on the Holy Friday of 1300, while also in Holbein's painting the time-measuring equipment do point to the same date in 1533, exactly 1500 years after the Day of Salvation. If we accept the parallel nature of the two artworks, then the two characters in the painting can be identified with Dante and Vergil, hence The Ambassadors can be interpreted as a role-playing painting. This recategorization would not be groundless, since the pair work of The Ambassadors, the other painting hanging in the Dinteville castle, the fake Holbein one was also a role-playing image. There the roles of Moses, Aron and the Pharaoh coming from the Old Testament were given to Jean de Dinteville, his brothers and Francis I of France.
There is another interesting fact, which was revealed only at the painting's very last restoration: the left part of the painting is in a lot worse condition than the right part. It is highly possible that the painting was divided into two for some time. Since it was the part with Dinteville which was in a lot worse condition, it is possible that Georges de Selve had become persona non grata at one point. He was wrapped and stored somewhere, maybe in the wing of the castle in Polisy. When and on whose request did the division take place? A real mystery. A similar mystery to the questions of when and who did paint the anamorphosis on the tables.  And how did this person work. It is well known about Holbein that he never painted any anamorphoses in his life (hence it is very unlikely that the anamorphosis on The Ambassadors would be his work). Still in this period, at the beginning of the 1500s, there were a lot of experiments of this kind.
Among the first anamorphic experiments we find some of Leonardo's sketches, and the study of eye with a juvenile face in the Codex Atlanticus of Milan. Leonardo later went to the French court upon the invitation of Francis I of France. His writings, sketches and their copies were commonly known at that time, or at least that is what we can assume from Benvenuto Cellini's famous memoirs. He wrote that in 1542 he purchased some of the copies of Leonardo's manuscript from an impoverished nobleman. In these there were some studies on the perspectives that can be easily seen as anamorphoses. (That time there were no terms for the anamorphic distortions, only a century later, in 1650 did Gaspar Scott, a German Jesuit start to use the term). Who that impoverished nobleman could have been who sold Cellini the Leonardo scripts? Studying the history of the Dinteville family, and the period when the painting of Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh was made, it turns out that both a moral as well as a financial crisis struck the family.  Without going into much detail now, there certainly are romantic, even criminal, twists throughout the book (murder, sodomy, excommunication). If my hypothesis turns out to be true and Cellini bought the manuscript from Jean de Dinteville, so if our ambassador was the owner of theses texts and drawings of anamorphoses, then we can be certain about the fact that Holbein, or rather that person, who painted the anamorphic skull on Holbein's The Ambassadors, knew them

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