Articulate (verb) ärtĭ'kyəlāt: to explain meaning, to put into words coherently. Writing contemporary art, rewriting art history.

Tag: analysis

An Ordinary Picture


Small and dark, obscured behind dirty varnish and bulletproof glass, the portrait known as the Mona Lisa has become a universal icon, an image known to millions. It has been the subject of such intense and inexhaustible mythographia that its very name no longer refers to a sixteenth-century woman, but to the painting hanging in the Louvre, stripped of its history and encrusted by legends.

Yet the painting remains a portrait, the depiction of a specific individual in a specific cultural setting. If we cast aside centuries of accumulated (usually ill-considered) speculation, we can approach the painting as a piece of contemporary art, seen afresh from within the tastes, expectations and modes of thought of the sixteenth century. We can unravel how a contemporary audience would have understood this storied work, as an astonishing portrait that carried some privileged glimpses into the mind of an extraordinary artist.

Sixteenth-century Florence was not bounded by modern distinctions between public and private, secular and spiritual, individual and corporate: its citizens lived in multifaceted society composed of intricate networks of social obligation and promotion. They were also highly visually literate, both adept at discerning the nuances of iconography and actively engaged in using their art to build a societal identity that emulated the heroic Classical past.

Renaissance society easily reconciled material luxury with the increasing intellectualisation of painting. Civic humanism appreciated the accrual of wealth as the basis for civic benefit; at the time, ideas celebrating the dignity of man reoriented investment in material culture towards artworks which embodied ‘genius’, that concept of semi-divine inspiration which increasingly defined cultural capital during the renaissance.

Portraiture was just such an elitist commodity, announcing the wealth, intellectual taste and prestige of the owner, and as conspicuous consumption to enhance social position. Viewers could easily discern not only the sitter’s status but their character and interests, their personal ties and self-perceptions in the complex visual language of their surrounding symbolic or allegorical attributes. Contemporary audiences had no difficulty recognising multiple aspects to portraiture, and looked to clues patronage and context to support interpretation. The clues which might define Mona Lisa, however, are troublesomely scarce.

Although undeniably by da Vinci’s hand the panel is unsigned and undated, nor does any mention appear in his notebooks. In the absence of these facts, debate has raged around the dating of the work and possible identity of the sitter.

The marked similarities to Florentine drawings, in particular those made by Raphael during his residence in the Tuscan city 1504-1508, suggest that Mona Lisa was begun before 1504. Professor Martin Kemp however dates the work to 1513-1516, asserting that the technique of veiled glazes is characteristic of da Vinci’s later style. This suggests that the portrait was a cumulative image, begun around 1503 and developed in stages over the succeeding years.

Closely tied to the date is the question of the sitter’s identity. Though it is unlikely he saw the painting, the renaissance historian Giorgio Vasari wrote that the figure was Madonna Lisa del Giocondo. Historians have since proposed as the sitter the Duchess of Milan Isabella of Aragon, or the widowed Duchess of Francavilla Constanza d’Avalos. Other contenders include Isabella Gualanda, the artist’s mother Caterina or the artist himself in female guise.


Fortunately, this speculation has been rendered academic. Vasari’s traditionally accepted attestation that the sitter is indeed Lisa di Antonmaria Gherardini, who married Ser Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo in 1495 and bore him five children, has been supported by archival documents uncovered by researcher Guiseppe Pallanti, after twenty-five years’ research in the city of Florence archives.

Even more recently, the discovery of a contemporary souce has confirmed Pallanti’s findings. A note by city chancellery official Agostino Vespucci compares da Vinci to the classical painter Apelles, stating that he was currently working on three paintings at once – one of them a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. Vespucci’s handwritten notes in the margin from October 1503 permit an exact dating of the painting and with only a few words, solves two centuries-old enigmas.

Among the renaissance middle class, portraits were commissioned for specific reasons; the birth of Gherardini and Giocondo’s second son Andrea in 1502 would have furnished just such an occasion. Alongside its role as a statussymbol, portraiture in the renaissance often functioned as a remembrance of a loved one in their absence or death: having previously lost two spouses within a year of marriage as a result of childbirth, an apprehensive Ser Francesco may have desired a commemoration of his open-hearted third wife.

The Florentine documents unearthed by Pallanti also reveal the close association of the Giocondo family with da Vinci’s own. Ser Francesco was a client of da Vinci’s father, the distinguished notary Ser Piero da Vinci. Living in the same district of Florence, the two men were civic associates and members of the same social circle for many years. As the Giocondo family chapel was located in the nearby church of Santissima Annunziata, where Ser Piero was the convent’s procurator and Leonardo had lodged whilst assuming Filippo Lippi’s commission for the altarpiece of the Virgin and Child with St Anne, it is highly likely that the artist was well acquainted with both Ser Francesco and Madonna Lisa.

Scholars have wondered why an artist accustomed to the patronage of aristocrats would accept a commission from a local merchant, especially when he was refusing commissions, claiming that he was ‘overtaxed by the brush.’ The social intricacies of sixteenth century Florence make it probable that the portrait was commissioned by Ser Piero as a gift, as he is known to have to have done on other occasions: in addition to being an expression of affection, such a gift would garner social prestige and create the obligation of favourable regard from a well-connected family. Pallanti suggests it may also have been the elder da Vinci’s way of offering financial assistance to his son, whose bank records suggest was without an income in the spring of 1503.15 Considering the commission as a family favour accounts for not only the lack of studio or financial records (it may in fact never have been paid for), but the painting remaining in da Vinci’s possession.

The painting itself fits firmly into the formal genre of Florentine portraiture. Although slightly larger than most portraits, it is still on a domestic scale, doubtless intended for display in Ser Francesco’s recently purchased household. Mona Lisa conforms to the convention of placing female sitters indoors, reflecting their role in sixteenth century society. The family unit was the intersection between public and private which determined the individual’s relation to society; the civic task of women was to instill republican virtue and morality into their families. A common symbol denoting civic responsibility in masculine portraits, the twin pillars of the loggia here enclose the sitter in the domestic setting and indicate the societal aspects of two lives conjoined in matrimony.


The presentation of the sitter, however, differs surprisingly from the conventional. The common attributes of affluence, status or social role are absent, as is the expected allegorical and symbolic iconography. Rather than holding a book indicative of literary interests, Gherardini’s hands rest upon the chair arm in a gesture indicating morally sound conduct. She does not appear with the pet that would bespeak a luxurious lifestyle, or a symbolic animal such as an ermine; not even a simple vase of flowers adds to the semiotic schema. The sitter is not transformed into a biblical or classical allegory, but depicted without commentary other than the fantastical panorama outside her loggia.

Gherardini is also depicted without the expected trappings of wealth. She wears no rings, and the necklace which once graced her throat was painted out by the artist. Gherardini’s gown, often assumed to be dark mourning attire, is actually of a style fashionable in early sixteenth-century Tuscany, in rich green silk with saffron sleeves, the veil of a modest Florentine matron covering her simply dressed hair. The design of linked rings and knots on her camicia suggests the wedding ring absent from her finger, or is perhaps a conceit by an artist enamoured of elaborate knots.

With the Florentine documents revealing that Gherardini’s social background to be the yeomanry (her dowry having been a farm in Chianti rather than a substantial sum invested in the city’s dowry fund, as was customary among the urban patrician class), the lack of display reflects the quiet tastes of a woman unimpressed with ostentation, and removes any distraction from the startling realism with which she is depicted.

Though unconventional in detail, the painting’s breathtaking realism represents the very ideal of renaissance portraiture. Alhough influenced by Netherlandish art’s vivid realism, Italian artists also subscribed to Neoplatonic theories which exalted an idealised naturalism. Accordingly, rather than the conscious manipulation of reality to command emotional impact practiced in Flanders, the Italian emphasis was on such a subtly perfected mimesis and virtuoso representation that the image seemed so like to life that it lacked only breath. With consummate delicacy of technique, da Vinci achieved a likeness so physiognomically mobile and possessing such vitality that it elicits the same instintive, visceral response as toward another living person.

The secret of Mona Lisa’s motile image lay in da Vinci’s sophisticated use of sfumato (‘dark smoke’). A development of tonal painting, sfumato superimposed transparent layers of colour to achieve convincing effects of perspective, depth and volume. Characterised by delicate translucence, da Vinci’s pictorial texture was well suited to almost imperceptible gradations of veiled shadow and colouration. So ethereal are the layered glazes of Mona Lisa that light is refracted, yielding an extraordinary luminosity; X-rays pass through virtually unobstructed by the minimal pigment density.

Breaking from the sharply limned Florentine tradition, the subtlety of the portrait’s modelling displays a superbly confident painterly execution, which would not have been lost on a sixteenth-century audience. Where the mirror-like morbidezza surface itself required an unrivalled dexterity, the shadows of the sfumato effect demanded seemingly inimitable application and patience in the placement of myriad fine layers, with no possibility of reworking and allowing each time to dry.

It is this realism that lies behind the mythologisation of Mona Lisa as a modern enigma. While perhaps due to musicians hired to alleviate the sitter’s boredom as Vasari suggests, the ‘enigmatic’ quality of Gherardini’s smile is due more to the fevered intellectual climate of European Romanticism, wose critics were intent on embedded Mona Lisa in the public consciousness as the turbid embodiment of woman as an eternal, sphinx-like mystery. The early twentieth century saw the famed smile subject to psychoanalytic investigation, most notably by Sigmund Freud, who in 1910 proposed that the smile, so like a nursing mother’s, was patterned after the artist’s absent mother Caterina- a traumatic separation that accounted for da Vinci’s homosexuality.

Perhaps the most extreme psychographic interpretation is the suggestion that Mona Lisa is a self-portrait in female guise. In her exposition of Mona Lisa as ‘woman-revealed-as-mask,’ Lilian Schwartz (1987) uses sociological theories of gender identity to validate the Freudian justification of da Vinci’s sexuality. While undeniably delighting in the play of ambiguity and fantasia, da Vinci was nevertheless unlikely to produce such a transgendered self- portrait; it is far more probable that any resemblance to the artist unintentionally results from his style and practice.


A sixteenth-century audience, on the other hand, would ascribe none of these myths to the painted smile. Cinquecento viewers would recognise the smile as an artifice, an artistic device to impart that the image is a living, genuine simulacrum, invested with the virtues and emotional identity of a specific individual. The spectator’s conscious participation in the fiction of the sitter’s receptivity also reflects this surrogacy. The notion of a portrait’s capacity to react benignly to the spectator, to listen if not to speak, is exemplified in Mona Lisa: the illusion that Gherardini is truly and tangibly there, aware of and responsive to the spectator’s presence is what generates the impression of life. Rather than a more obvious narrative, Mona Lisa exquisitely exploits the communicative mutuality between the sitter and the spectator, using the complex language of nonverbal communication. Turning in her chair at the viewer’s “appearance” in her loggia, Madonna Lisa directly answers their presence with a smile; as the sitter seems to react to the spectator, so the spectator is placed, physcially and sympathetically, in relation to the painting’s imagined space, and not the reverse.

Renaissance spectators would also recognise in Madonna Lisa’s smile the literary conventions of the day, inextricable from the conventions of painting. Influenced by the Classicist vocabulary of humanism, both arts increasingly portrayed women not as people but in terms of abstracted qualities. While individualising his female sitters to varying degrees, da Vinci’s portraiture nonetheless remained true to the pictorial formula of the ‘Florentine beauty’, illustrating the Neoplatonic idea that feminine beauty was the outward manifestation of virtue.

With their outlook shaped by perceptual conditions very different from the modern era, sixteenth-century audiences would understand the sitter’s smile not as an eternal enigma, but simply an expected indication of inward virtue to match outward beauty. Of course, given renaissance society’s enthusiasm for games with portraits, contemporary viewers would also appreciate Gherardini’s smile as a clever play on her husband’s name, giocondo meaning ‘smiling’ or ‘lighthearted’.

No, for the contemporary audience, insight into the artist’s interests and aspirations was found in vista beyond Mdonna Lisa’s loggia. In the sixteenth century, background landscapes were less important than semiotic narrative, considered mere ornamentation; the artist was thus free to indulge his interests as he developed the image. Easily discerning the tensions of realism and fantasia, the renaissance spectator’s “surprised eye” would establish the interdependence between the meaningful layers of the painted image.


The atmospheric landscapes which frequently recur in da Vinci’s works are commonly regarded as indicating his scientific interests. Multiple analogies closely connect the sitter and landscape in Mona Lisa, suggesting the figure may be seen as a philosophical metaphor for the physical systems of the world, and vice versa. The landscape’s placement on the panel responds to the sitter’s height and pose; the rivers meet at the level of her heart, and although the horizon line is unclear it corresponds roughly to her eye level. Similarly, the gradations of originally intense colour ranging from fiery ochre in the mid- ground to the clear blue sky behind the sitter’s head resonates with Classical associations with the body and intellect.

Da Vinci’s untiring investigations into anatomy developed his understanding of how the microcosm participates in the macrocosm, discovering affinities between the mechanisms of the human body and the body of the earth. The worldly body is implicit in the imposing landscape; against pictorial convention, the upland lakes are bent into an arc suggesting the curvature of the earth, the “sphere of water” which echoes the three-dimensionality of Gherardini’s form.

The presence of the feminine element of water is apparent as the sculpting force of the craggy geological formations, and in the rivers’ function as ‘veins of the earth’ : the watery currents of the background are consciously mirrored in the sitter’s rivulets of hair and the cascading drapery of her camicia and veil. Laid bare to the gaze, the geological and hydrological cycles which shape and vitalise nature seem to flow between the microcosmic sitter and the macrocosm of landscape in an intertextual narrative recognisable to a renaissance audience. These visually eloquent meditations are not didactic but function as a paragone, awakening a sense of surprised wonder as does poetic metaphor while revealing the far-ranging intellectual intensity of the artist.

The portrait’s play of light and shadow (chiaroscuro) similarly reveals the artist’s interest in optical theories. Da Vinci’s demonstration that vision becomes more sensitive when the eye is dark-adapted is seen in the dim studio lighting he preferred for portraiture, especially the hues favoured by dark-adapted sight found in Mona Lisa. His optical understanding makes the shared space of the portrait even more realistic: the optical possibilities and limitations of the painting are exactly as if the viewer were standing in a pre-calculated position before Gherardini, in a more deeply shadowed part of her loggia.

Conscious of living in a society that defined itself in opposition to its past, renaissance viewers were nonetheless keenly aware that their new visual language was formed around persistent elements of medieval art. More than most artists, da Vinci was a gothic artist, drawing heavily upon the gothic tradition in his oeuvre, becoming genuinely progressive by looking backward. Mona Lisa’s smile gives fresh currency to the medieval formulae common in fifteenth-century Netherlandish art. Similarly, the otherworldly fantasia of the rocky landscape is common in late gothic illumination and panel painting; the portrait’s exploration of man as a microcosm of the world derives from Ristoro’s thirteenth-century cosmology. While more complex than its precursors, da Vinci’s luminous textures and chiaroscuro recalls the natural play of light found in the burnished gold of medieval religious works. The potency of these underlying gothic traits is renovated in Mona Lisa by their fusion with the humanist intellectualism of the sixteenth century.landscape-drawing-for-santa-maria-della-neve-1473
It is uncertain why Mona Lisa remained in da Vinci’s keeping until his death. More lucrative commissions meant that work on the portrait progressed slowly; da Vinci likely considered it unfinished, indeed, the background landscape is based on drawings made as late as 1515. While the patron or recipient might have lost interest in the finished work, it is far more probable that da Vinci retained the painting as a reputation-enhancing showpiece of his formidable skill. Presumably given to his apprentice Salai before da Vinci’s death in France, the portrait subsequently passed into the collection of Francis I, thus becoming a touchstone of French culture.

Mona Lisa need not be regarded a mysterious image that has irreversibly lost its historical context. Viewed as its intended audience would. Mona Lisa is revealed as a typical – albeit exceedingly sophisticated – product of it time, articulated by da Vinci’s matchless technical skill. For centuries, scholars have seen the painting as something more than just the representation of an ordinary woman living in extraordinary times. Da Vinci himself may have understood it to be nothing less.

Botany, Book, and Bugs

The Mira calligraphiae monumenta was the last great illuminated manuscript created in Europe, the magnificent final flourish of a 1500 year tradition. But there is more to the Mira than its stunning beauty: it was a museum in miniature, a way for its courtly reader to examine and understand the world.

This remarkable work was made by two artists who never actually met one other. Writing master Georg Bockskay created a ‘model book’ of extravagant and inventive calligraphy in 1561-62, during his time as court secretary to the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I. This extraordinary writing album remained in the imperial collections in Vienna until Ferdinand’s grandson Rudolf II commissioned Dutch artist Joris Hoefnagel to illuminate the codex. Between 1591 and 1596 Hoefnagel filled with pages with delicately painted, masterfully observed and precisely detailed naturalia: flowers, leaves, fruits, shells, insects and tiny animals.

With these additions, Hoefnagel turned a straightforward if virtuoso manuscript into something even more exceptional, and far more complex. The illuminations set up a tension of opposites, a parergon that simultaneously complements and goes against the ‘frame’ of the scriptbook, making literal the idea that nature transcended mere written words. Hoefnagel’s illustrations confront the viewer with the ‘remoteness’ of text, however sumptuous, compared to the rich and vivid immediacy of nature. This tension operates on several levels: the naturalia of the paintings versus the artificialia of calligraphy, the spiritual versus the worldly, observation versus theorisation. It’s this last opposition that directly informs how the Mira was used by its sixteenth-century readers to construct their own picture of the natural world, remarking on the form and meanings of flowers, the attitudes of animals that reflected their qualities, how they related to the plants, and what meanings- spiritual or ‘scientific’ the flowers carried.

Looking at the hyper precise images of Mira’s flowers, as specimens often threaded through the page, it is tempting to assume they are examples of early botanical illustration. But in actuality, they descend from an older religious tradition of symbolic flowers and animals, depicted in the borders of sumptuous secular manuscripts. By the late middle ages this was a complex language based on chains of correspondences: for example, pinks (carnations) smell sweet like cloves, expensive and desirable cloves looked like tiny nails, and nails were used to nail Christ to the cross; therefore pinks in manuscripts and tapestries symbolised the crucifixion…and picked up some potent sensory associations on the way.


The late medieval movement called devotio moderna took this even further, teaching that the divine was present in the everyday. Everything became a symbol, and nothing more so than flowers and plants that people saw, touched and ate every day. Flower-strewn decorations in religious texts became unbelievably popular- even if one could not read, the symbolic meanings of flowers, birds, bugs, animals, and scenes of nature were a feast for the eyes and the soul. By the end of the 15th century, these flowers were painted as precise illusions ‘pinned’ or ‘threaded’ through cuts in the page; the truth of their physical appearance made their spiritual ‘claim to truth’ even stronger.

By the time Hoefnagel was illuminating the Mira a century later, this ‘spiritual rhetoric’ had evolved into an intellectual rhetoric tied to knowledge and ‘specimen logic’: a strategy that removed specimens from their mundane environments to display them as objects arranged into new relationships, somewhere between symbolic and scientific. Objects were key to understanding the world: natural specimens of all kinds, oddities, precious minerals, ethnographic items, and small artworks were zealously collected, and meticulously arranged and rearranged into easily ordered microcosms that summarised- and in some sense tamed- the chaotic and unfathomable macrocosm of the world. No educated gentleman or aristocrat- and certainly not Rudolf II- would be without such a wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosities) or kunstschrank (art cabinet) to house their collections. Although the Mira was kept as part of this kind of collection, it was a more specific kind of micro-collection in itself.


From a modern perspective this sounds bizarre; but medieval thought was more complex and multiply layered than that, adept of discerning the nuances of different modes of thought at once. Aesthetic delight and intellectual rigour were not separated in the sixteenth-century parlance, but closely bound in a methodology that located knowledge experientially as well as intellectually. Hoefnagel knew exactly how people would be reading the Mira, using it as a tool for thought and making meaning- and turned it into a wonderful game.

It’s an important point that Hoefnagel only depicted naturalia in his illuminations- precious minerals (which at the time included corals) and man-made objects are omitted, to strengthen the parergon but also simply to delight the reader. Hoefnagel seems to have had no preconceived plan for his illuminations, but responded ingeniously to the form and composition of Bocskay’s existing calligraphy with inventively composed organic forms of his own, bursting with life and colour amplified by their depiction against the blank vellum. There is never the slightest doubt of the artist’s exacting technical skill, employing foreshortening, delicate shadows, and refined modelling to create the perfect illusion of real objects occupying three-dimensional space.

Hoefnagel’s singular technique contributed to this vibrancy, being an extraordinarily refined version of medieval illumination, that builds forms with multiple layers of tiny, interlocking fine brush strokes over a very thin base. This technique lets the light-reflecting qualities of the vellum shine through, giving the entire painting a luminous quality and a sense of sharpness to complement its keenly observed subject matter.


But at the same time, Hoefnagel subverts the authority of illusion. Mira is not restrained by real specimens in glass cases- Hoefnagel was thus free to distort plant growth habits for decorative effect, and depict different species in full simultaneous bloom; to select insects suggesting a wider range than actually portrayed, and even imagine new insects, barely distinguishable from ‘real’ ones. There is an element of fantasia and transformation at work, the performative function of imagining the world.

Yet on every fine vellum folio, Hoefnagel makes the viewer sharply aware of their own assumptions about vision and meaning, frequently confounding the coherent understanding of the pictorial surface. At times the page is a perspectival window one peers through, as if into a space to see insects climbing up the sides of words or the edges of the page; at other times the pictorial surface is coincident, so that the viewer feels they are looking down onto actual snails creeping along a very solid page. The viewer is required to switch back and forth between modes of vision, and modes of understanding. Mira calligraphiae monumenta demands a semiotically intelligent reader, intrigued by the idea that text and nature could have a contingent relationship.


This is especially meaningful when considering that in the sixteenth century, the study of nature was an intensely social activity; the process of organising, describing, representing, displaying, and making meaning out of objects was almost always done in collaboration with others. The wunderkammer was an investigative place for the social and cultural construction of knowledge rather than the passive reception of didacticism. Information was discerned through visual examination, thence reified through discussion, disputatio, and intellectual display, reflecting aristocratic society’s conviction that understanding was best achieved by observation and engagement with the natural world, rather than abstract book-learning.

Yet Mira turns again turns this on its head, as a book that can offer direct experience- and one that playfully outdoes nature itself- and held in the hands, a book that can render understanding as an private experience of delighted discovery. In many ways, Mira calligraphiae monumenta is an artwork that grows more complex with study, not less.

The Marginalia of Society

This unassuming pen sketch from the Stowe MS 49, written by the scribe Alanus c.1300, shows a heavily laden family of travellers, bickering at each other as they walk- their words are connected to the one who speaks them with lines, surprisingly like a modern comic book’s speech bubbles. The children complain of the weather and the heavy burdens they carry: historian Erik Kwakkel aptly describes it as the medieval version of a modern parent’s nightmare, on the road with a crying toddler and whiny kids that egg each other on. “Are we there yet?” ‘. But rather than a quaint scene, the drawing has some troubling undertones. On closer inspection, it reflects tensions between the Abbey and town that lead to some hostile and quite nasty caricatures of townspeople and especially poor transients like these, showing them as inherently sinful.


Details are significant here. The first character’s speech ‘they die for heat’, has the meaning ‘they die because of heat’; but he has a forked tongue painted in, indicating he is lying. Indeed, the third figures complains of the cold. The family are shown as near naked poor apart from cloaks and hoods, indicating their sloth, i.e. the lack of ‘respectable’, settled-in-the-town-like-decent-folk industry. (The better-off deriding the poor for their plight is not a new thing.) There is also the suggestion they are itinerant Jewish poor, with exaggerated racial features on the father and eldest son: respectively, the false tongue and the early form of judenhat on the father’s pack. That adds another level to the contempt, showing them resentful and squabbling rather than accepting their poverty with ‘Christian’ meekness.

This raft of prejudices seems incongruous coming from a monastic source, but it does connect to the body of medieval literature that satirises the clergy’s failure to show the most fundamental Christian virtue, that of charity. Intended to be seen only within the Abbey, images like this were a way to exclude outsiders and show contempt for the grubby secular world and people transgressed its established boundaries; and therefore also a way of expressing coherence in a very ordered and conformist community.
Marginalia like this was rarely a passive thing, it acted as another narrative parallel to the text of the book which can reveal some remarkable details of life and social attitudes of the time…as well as some startling and all too familiar prejudices.

Bible Stories

As much as any epic battle, Henry VIII’s break with Rome and foundation of a new Church altered the course of English history. But unlike the Lutheran reformation that galvanised common people across Europe, Henry’s reformation was top-down, spread to the people and soliciting their compliance through shrewd artistic propaganda.

In order to secure his Great Matter, Henry had to remake English religion- with himself at the top. He even went so far as to charge the entire clergy of England with treason in 1531, by dint of owing their first allegiance to Rome rather than the Crown. Convocation buckled, and surrendered to the king the style “sole protector and supreme head of the English Church and clergy”, subordinating their  ecclesiastical authority to royal supremacy. The Act in Restraint of Appeals that secured the Boleyn marriage two years later, cemented Henry’s imperial kingship, defining England as an empire and his right to rule without interference from “foreign princes or potentates”. Henry had become both Caesar and Pope, a priest-king after the biblical David.

Obedience to the prince- the duty of every Christian man- was the cornerstone of Henry’s political theology, backed up by law, financial incentives (of confiscated monastic lands), extensively applied oaths of fealty and allegiance- and harsh, and assiduously applied, legal penalties for treason. But this is not to suggest that Henrician England was a police state: accusations of treason were uncommon, and the trend to complaisance resulted from the ingrained social sense of obligation to established authority and the moral duty of obedience to the king. Indeed, Richard Sampson’s Oration of True Obedience in 1535 directly equated obedience to the king with obedience to the word of God, which was to become a hallmark of Henrician propaganda.

The pulpit and the printing press were used to disseminate the new sociopolitical order, as illustrated by the cover pages of the Coverdale and Great Bibles. Coverdale’s vernacular translation of the scriptures was published in 1535 under Cromwell’s patronage: tacit royal consent was implied in the unofficial dedication to the king and the title page by Hans Holbein.


The Coverdale iconography reflects the new idea of theocratic kingship. Medieval thought held that although the right to rule was divine, it hinged upon the sovereign receiving temporal authority from the Church; a tradition followed at Henry’s own coronation. The Coverdale page reverses this relationship. At the top, Godhead is represented by the Hebrew name Yahweh, symbolising divine revelation and unquestionable Old Testament authority; on either side are depictions of original sin and the risen Christ. Below these are Old and New Testament models for sacred kingship: Moses receiving the Commandments and Esdras delivering the Law to the Jews; Christ sending forth the apostles, and Peter preaching after Pentecost. King David and St Paul also appear flanking the king. Henry himself is depicted enthroned at the base, by implication in direct descent from, and with his power legitimised by, these Biblical models.

David is the most important of these models, representing authority derived from the scriptures rather than Church tradition. David was regarded as the prototype of the ideal monarch, a priest-king and intercessor ruling from the scriptures and a direct relationship to God without clerical intermediaries. As such he was the perfect model to explain the disenfranchisement of the Roman church, and Henry came to identify closely with the Biblical king. The presence of St Paul continues the portrayal of the king as apostolic successor to Christ, refuting the Petrine authority of the Pope. (Paul was invested with new importance in the Protestant tradition, his distinction between faith and works in Romans 3:28 providing the basis for Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. The sword of Paul’s martyrdom was similarly identified by Protestants as an evangelical symbol equated with the word of God.)

The lower panel illustrates the unification of ecclesiastical and secular power in the hands of the king. Henry wears the arched crown reflecting England’s new imperial status, his fringed robe recalling Esdras’ priestly garments. The sword and book borne by the king reflects the reinterpretation of medieval iconography in Henrician propaganda: symbolic of royal authority, the sword is also identified here with the “sword of the spirit”, the exercise of royal jurisdiction in line with scriptural precepts. The book representing clerical authority was not prevalent in late medieval royal iconography, and could even be seen as an anti-regal symbol. In Tudor iconography, the book reappeared as a symbol of autonomous, evangelical kingship, becoming a prominent icon of Reformation royalism itself. Reversing traditional representations, Henry unambiguously hands the Bible down to the bishops- backed by the threat of the sword. Temporal lords and prelates alike kneel before the king demonstrating the obedience essential to the Church of Henry, although the clear emphasis is on the clergy brought to heel under royal supremacy.


In 1539, Henry officially authorised the Great Bible, intended for distribution to every parish church throughout England in a planned act of mass propaganda. Its title page clearly lays out the king’s divinely sanctioned authority, and the imposition from above of religious reform and social ordering.

The enthroned Henry dominates the page: a tiny scene of the king as David is squeezed above, summarising the legitimation in the Coverdale Bible. A Davidic king, Henry hands down to Archbishop Cranmer and Chief Minister Cromwell the book, now explicitly labelled Verbum Dei; the scriptures are clearly indicated as the basis of regal authority, that applies equally to both ecclesiastical and temporal hierarchies. In virtually a diagram of the vertical process, the word of God is passed from Archbishop to bishop, thence from the pulpit to the people. This is paralleled by the chain from chief minister to magistracy down to yeomanry and common folk, who despite still being passive recipients of the scriptures and royal prerogative, happily chorus “Long live the king.” The sword of royal justice is absent from this iconography: here, secular authority devolves to a prison with gaoled (Papist) dissenters in the lower right, reflects the acceptance of enforced obedience to Henrician policy. In contrast to the Coverdale page, the king wears secular dress instead of priestly garments, presenting a paternal rather than authoritarian figure leading his people to God through obedience to his Word.

Nobody was ever entirely sure exactly what Henry’s new religion was- including Henry himself. But his political images ably compelled its acceptance through political tumult and religious turmoil for the rest of his reign, and offer a glimpse into what Henry, perhaps, hoped to achieve.

The Ambassadors’ Secret


Better known as The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein’s Double Portrait of Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve is perhaps the most misinterpreted image of the renaissance. The interpretation of the painting as an allegory of the political and religious tumult of Henry VIII’s schismatic England, that the hapless ambassadors find themselves caught up in, has been universally accepted for over one hundred years.

Yet the idea that this is what the painting is “about”- and therefore that it can be only about that- is a modern assumption, and one that fails to take into account the work’s historical projection into our own very different era. Renaissance people quite simply did not think this way, and did not construct their art, or their interpretations of art, in such a simplistic manner.

Once we bravely cast aside these ingrained preconceptions, we can begin to approach the painting with fresh eyes, from within the social and semiotic context of the early sixteenth century…and doing so, we can appreciate the startling impact of The Ambassadors– intellectual, social, visual and visceral- on its intended audience. With its full interpretive potential restored, the double portrait reveals an unexpectedly intimate dimension to the relationship between the sitters, a revelation that offers a more comprehensive interpretation of this enigmatic work than commonly ascribed public interpretations.

Reading Pictures

The sweeping tide of humanist learning had carved the social landscape of the early sixteenth century into an energetically intellectual and artistically literate culture. The vogue for visual intellectualism saturated courtly society- emblem books such as Alciati’s Emblemata (1531), offering extensive collections of allegorical images on humanist and religious themes drawn from (and in return influencing) the literary and artistic vocabulary, were immensely popular. Everyone “understood” various genres of art the way modern audiences discern cinematic and television and genres, and games with portraits, devising and interpreting elaborate allegories, were a popular pastime among the nobility. “Consumers” of sixteenth-century art were thus well accustomed to discerning and reading multiple layers of meaning in the iconography that surrounded them.

Portraiture and patronage in the sixteenth century were not bounded by modern distinctions between public and private, secular and spiritual, individual and corporate: in renaissance society, these purposes were not absolute but inseparable. Portraits were luxurious and costly commodities serving as visual self-fashioning, announcing the wealth, refined intellectual tastes and social-political prestige of the owner, as well as conspicuous consumption to enhance social position. At the same time, the sitter’s character and interests, personal ties and self-perceptions were reflected in their depiction, pose, and surrounding symbolic or allegorical attributes. Familiar with this articulation of the private individual in relation to the public realm, contemporary audiences gave equal recognition to the multiple facets of portraiture, looking to clues of patronage and context to support interpretations.

Portraits especially were an intimately personal genre, often treated as direct simulacra and substitutes for the person portrayed in their absence: they were often spoken to, dined with, kissed or even kicked in anger. More than any other, The Ambassadors endows its sitters with a powerfully tactile presence, with the artist taking great pains to capture textures with such realism that the instinctive urge to stroke the fur and velvet of the sitter’s robes, finger the carpet weave and carved instruments, must be consciously fought. That they are painted life-sized, again, anomalous for a portrait of the time, indicates that the men themselves, not merely their world, are the primary focus of the painting.


The Diplomat 

Jean de Dinteville was the unhappy French ambassador to the English court amidst the political and religious turmoil of Henry VIII’s schism and remarriage. He was joined early in 1533 by his close friend, bishop-elect and scholarly diplomat Georges de Selve. The reasons for this visit are unknown, but seem to have been personal rather than political. In a letter to his brother, the oft-melancholy de Dinteville describes de Selve’s visit as “no small pleasure to me”, and suggests “there is no need for the Grand Maitre to hear anything of it.” Although this has often been dramatised as implying secret missions and intrigue, this more probably refers to the unofficial nature of de Selve’s visit, and hints at the Grand Maitre Anne de Montmorency’s disapproval of the ambassadors’ relationship.

De Dinteville is traditionally accepted as the patron of The Ambassadors, an assumption entrenched even before the sitter’s identities were discovered. De Dinteville was identified as “the principal figure” by Alfred Woltmann in 1872- solely on the basis of his eye-catching depiction, and after some debate positively identified by Mary Hervey in 1895.

The main premise for de Dinteville’s patronage is his ownership, established after an inventory label dated 1653, and Hervey’s subsequent reading of the painting as referring primarily to de Dinteville and his diplomatic sphere hinges on that same supposition. But in the case of The Ambassadors, no surviving record confirms its patronage.

Nor does ownership necessarily equate to patronage, as portraits were frequently commissioned by family members or other associates, and an expensive portrait of this nature may well have been beyond de Dinteville’s immediate means in England. While details of his financial position abroad are unknown, renaissance diplomatic practice granted ambassadors only a modest stipend, and de Dinteville was forced to petition his uncle the Grand Maitre of France for funds to meet his expenses for Anne Boleyn’s coronation procession. This extraordinary expenditure would have jeopardised de Dinteville’s liquidity, reducing the likelihood of his placing such a prohibitively expensive commission in 1533. That de Dinteville would commission a painting commemorating an embassy he so loathed and bemoaned, is also unconvincing.

Assuming de Dinteville as the patron does not fit well with either renaissance habits of patronage, nor the discrete layers of meaning encoded into the painting as revealed by John North’s (2002), and Kate Bomford’s (2004) interpretive hypotheses.

The Churchman

A more satisfactory explanation is that Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur, was the patron. Although legally noble and certainly influential in the early sixteenth century, the de Selve family were parlementaire noblesse- new money. The bourgeois judicial and mercantile origins of this socially mobile class prevented their complete acceptance by the French aristocracy; accordingly, social promotion through allegiance and patronage were important considerations for members of such families. The Ambassadors presents de Selve and de Dinteville alike as ideal sixteenth-century statesman, self-confident and self-conscious, demonstrating the cultivated display of social distinction and wealth, humanist erudition and nonchalance expected of the renaissance courtier… as well as the mannered impenetrability and concealment necessary to a diplomat.

More so, the key sight/construction lines of The Ambassadors converge on de Selve’s figure, indicating his importance to the painting itself. These lines are grounded in the religious schema of the painting uncovered by Professor John North (2002), further consistent with clerical patronage. (And, as incumbent of a wealthy bishopric, de Selve certainly possessed the means to commission the work.) In this schema, the doubly-coded iconography refers as much to churchman as to statesman: the self-fashioning functions of The Ambassadors more readily pertain to de Selve than de Dinteville. The latter’s ownership of the painting suggests it was intended by de Selve as a generous gift, which would garner social prestige and create the obligation of favourable future regard from a distinguished family, in addition to being a demonstration of uncommon personal affection. Taking de Selve as the patron better reflects the nature of renaissance patronage, and underscores the personal aspects of the painting.

Displayed in the grand salon of the de Dinteville chateau at Polisy, The Ambassadors was obviously intended for a private audience; specifically, de Dinteville’s family and social circle. Such an audience would easily understand The Ambassadors’ simultaneous modalities; as a prestigious aesthetic decoration, a lavish gift, an extravagant statement of friendship, contemporary sociopolitical commentary, concealed allegorical narratives, etc; and in that domestic setting would logically privilege readings based around the sitters and their relationship. Execution, patronage and setting all bring the grand display to an individual level, making the viewer acutely aware of the persons behind the courtly facade…at the same time they are kept at a distance by the ambassadors’ unrevealing gaze, forcing them to look for meaning in the surrounding iconography.

The Instruments

The Ambassadors’ iconography derives from the symbolist tradition of the northern renaissance. Flemish and German artists refined and expanded the medieval practice of investing everyday objects with multiple secular and spiritual meanings, creating a visual language that was at once utterly realistic and utterly symbolic. Holbein delighted in this kind of play even more than humanist allegory, his characteristic hyper-realism reflected the conviction that the essential “truth deep down things” lay in the immediate appearance of objects and people rather than convention or theory- an attitude that goes to the very heart of Reformation thinking. The personalised iconography in The Ambassadors are ambiguous and subtly subversive of the contemporary visual language, a “writerly” semiotic text which allows multiple interpretations and simultaneous layers of meaning.

Conventional symbolism serves as an easy entry point into the painting’s complex iconography, flagged by inscriptions of the sitters’ ages. De Dinteville’s dagger and the book beneath de Selve’s elbow were commonplace and easily read symbols of temporal and ecclesiastical authority of the time. The men’s clothing enhances their ambassadorial presentation: de Dinteville’s ensemble in fashionable pink and black is a bit of cultural snobbery, reflecting French elegance; it also signals his melancholy and fidelity. De Selve’s equally costly damask robe similarly reveals his social self-promotion. While its mulberry-purple colour and pattern of friar’s knots (symbolic of the Franciscan virtues of the clergy) are appropriate to a religious ambassador of his rank, the motif’s canting reference to François I indicates de Selve’s political obligations to the French crown rather than to Rome as a political appointee. The knots also imply the cordelière (friar’s girdle) design of the collar of the Order of St Michael; the gown’s pattern subtly equates to de Dinteville’s pendant of St Michael, setting de Selve on the same social level as his companion.


Considerable scholarly attention has been given to the scientific and musical instruments arrayed between the two men- indeed, far more than to the sitters themselves. Despite its modern treatment as such, this arrangement is not a still life, even an allegorical one; the concept simply did not exist in 1533. Rather, it is a parergon: a subordinate embellishment to the narrative that is simultaneously in tension with it. The narrative potential of the objects exists alongside as well as within the iconographic program, in a complex relationship which both complements and competes with the painting’s primary figures.

Usually held to represent the quadrivium of a humanist education (astronomy, arithmetic, geometry and music), the assembled objects reflect the broader intellectual changes reshaping Europe. The state-of-the-art astronomical instruments indicate a new scientific mode of thought, based in first-hand observation and calculation rather than received doctrine: the Lutheran hymnal indicates the impact of similar approaches to religious thought. Suggesting mathematical and navigational sciences, the terrestrial globe and arithmetic manual indicate the literally expanding horizons afforded by learning. The intellectual acquisitiveness and spatial arrangement of the objects recalls the renaissance cabinet of curiosities, signifying the intellectual reconceptualisation of the sixteenth-century world.

Yet this intellectual flowering took place against a backdrop of political division and sectarian violence that fragmented Europe. The objects contain many allusions to these topical divisions, and it is here that established interpretation has been invested: the lute with its broken string corresponds to Alciati’s emblem of broken treaties and disharmony, the text of Peter Apian’s arithmetic manual Ein Newe unnd wohlgregrundte wunderweysung aller Kauffmans Rechnung (1527) open to the page demonstrating division, the dividers indicate the demarcation line of the Treaty of Tordesillas, commercial politics that literally divides the world, and so forth. The patterned floor in The Ambassadors, resembling the inlaid pavement of Westminster Abbey, is often taken as a specific reference to England’s political-religious situation, and the famed anamorphic skull slashing across the painting’s base prompts readings as an allegory on the vanity of these worldly endeavours, or else as an elaborate memento mori.

Given the primacy of symbolic parerga in Holbein’s other works, such as his portrait of George Gisze, the temptation to assign them the same level of importance in The Ambassadors is powerful- yet reading this way is still teleological and unsatisfactory. Although the “terrestrial” objects would have been understood on one level as sociopolitical commentary, they occupy a subordinate position in the iconography and thus could not have determined or confined its overall interpretation.

Peter North’s recent re-examination demonstrates The Ambassadors’ iconographic is multiply coded, revealing a second strata of interpretation. For example, the celestial globe displays constellations associated with France, but is set to reflect the sky over Rome rather than Paris or London. All the heavenly instruments, whether directly like the cylindrical and polyhedral dials or indirectly through astronomical movements, indicate the specific date of 11th April- Good Friday, 1533. The solar angle of 27 degrees on this date is found throughout the construction and sighting lines of the painting: the principle line of sight passes from the crucifix in the painting’s corner, through several significant points before reaching the viewing point which corrects the anamorphosis of the distorted skull. North’s analysis reveals that The Ambassadors’ composition is saturated with Christian geometry, numerology and cosmography.

The earthly icons further support this second layer of meaning: while Polisy is clearly marked on the terrestrial globe, its centre is Rome. Apian’s examples of mathematical division yield results which are multiples of 27, itself thrice times the Trinity. The dividers recall the medieval image of God as architect of the world; their point on the painting’s central line is interpreted as seeking virtuous equity. The damask curtain behind the men, drawn partly back to reveal the crucified Christ, is likely a traverse, used to screen the ‘holyday closets’ commonly used in sixteenth-century noble worship. The design incorporates carnations, symbolic of the Passion, and the Marian icon of pomegranates, a reference to the unity of the Church. Incorrectly numbered to denote the 19-year Easter cycle, the hymnal displaying Luther’s translations of common Catholic hymns has been interpreted as a call for Christian reconciliation- or Protestant capitulation to Catholic supremacy.

Despite these potent narratives, The Ambassadors remains a portrait that contains allegories, not an allegorical painting; as such, the painting’s primary subject indicates a third layer of meaning. In light of its context and motivation, The Ambassadors is best understood asa representation of the intimate friendship between de Dinteville and de Selve.

Just Friends

Friendship in the sixteenth century was a different and more complex concept than is understood by the term today. Courtly life in France was an exclusively male domain structured around complex webs of patronage and mutually beneficial obligation, in which masculine self-presentation and displays of affection secured social and political advantage. Although the common signs of male affection such as intimate conversation and letters, kissing, or sharing a bed would today be perceived as indicative of homosexuality, in the renaissance these “gifts of the body” functioned as public signs of countenance and favour. Early modern masculinity was evaluated according to its dialogue with an accepted and valorised homoeroticism, whilst paradoxically avoiding the stigma of effeminacy and sodomy. The conventions of courtly love that were popular at Henry VIII’s court, had in much of Europe been eclipsed by the humanist ideal of dyadic male partnerships. The phrase “just friends” would be meaningless in sixteenth-century parlance: there was no relationship more emotional, more intense, or more intimate than friendship.

This depth of feeling is evidenced in the very existence of The Ambassadors. In the sixteenth century, personal tokens were exchanged between friends; gifts that carried intellectual currency such as paintings or literary works indicated inordinate personal esteem. The scholar Erasmus’ dedication of a book to his friend Pieter Gilles is an example of this regard: “friends of the common sort…if they have to face a long separation, they favour frequent exchanges of rings, knives, caps and other tokens of this kind….(but this is) no common gift, for you are no common friend.” The Ambassadors likewise reflects the de Dintevile’s description of de Selve as his “intime amy”. De Selve’s gown of a smart but informal style favoured by the secular clergy is echoed by Dinteville’s pendant of St Michael, worn informally on a simple chain rather than the ceremonial collar, suggesting the “off-duty” relationship of the sitters and corresponding degree of intimacy between them.

The Ambassadors’ composition resonates with the humanist and classical discourse of friendship. The sitters were undoubtedly familiar with this canon, de Selve having translated into French Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. The sitters’ counterpose alludes to the exemplary friendships of antiquity: Hercules and Hylas, Achilles and Patroclus, the biblical David and Jonathan; Cicero and Atticus, the author and addressee respectively of the most influential text on friendship of the renaissance, De Amicitia; and Scipio and Laelius, whose perfect friendship this work venerates.


The vertical symmetry of de Dinteville’s and de Selve’s depiction suggests the classical concept of the friend as the second self, given new popularity in the sixteenth century. An illustration of this maximfound in Francois Demoulins’ moral compendium (c1512) parallels The Ambassadors. Two similar male figures stand apart but inclined toward each other, as are Dinteville and de Selve. They are united by the heart they hold, just as Holbein’s sitters are united by the shelves of instruments between them; the friend as the reflection of the self is compounded by the Antique notion that friends hold everything in common.

Friendship and gender in the sixteenth century was, at best, an ambiguous social rubric. Masculinity in the sixteenth-century courtier depended on the expectation to display the quality of sprezzatura, a nonchalant yet authoritative ease regarding his self-fashioning and social status, and his embodying the graces and prowess of the learned scholar-soldier replacing the medieval knightly class. Effeminacy on the other hand derived not from a man’s predilection for self-display or even engagement in same-sexual acts, but from his transgressing social decorums in displaying “womanish” traits such as irrationality, affectation and sexual submissiveness. Sodomy was associated not with specific sexual acts but with debauchery, sedition, heresy and the generally apocalyptic inversion of the social order…unfortunately, the signs of accepted male intimacy were often indistinguishable from the signs of effeminacy, or worse, sodomy. Even more, male sexuality was couched in terms of hierarchy rather than mutuality, bound up with disparities in social standing and gendered roles, and sexual and romantic relationships between master and servant, or youths and older men were commonly, if tacitly, accepted.

The modern coupling of effeminacy and sodomy with homosexuality ignores the likelihood that “masculine” men engaged in sexual relations within virtuous homosocial friendships. In the sixteenth century, the boundary between proper or improper, platonic or erotic sexuality and relationships was vague and imprecise. Homoplatonic relationships were energised by the same sexual frisson that energises all friendships; it is crucial to understand that in the renaissance concept of friendship this same-sex attraction was differentially acknowledged in fostering masculinity. Although often downplayed in Christian translation, the aforementioned canonical friendships of antiquity all contain an undeniable dimension of same-sex erotic engagement. Their valorisation indicates the vast conceptual distance in the renaissance between a sodomotical discourse, and identification with the rhetoric of classical friendship and its attendant possession of virtue. In fact, the presence of desire between iconic friends serves to amplify their virtue.

The Ambassadors embodies both this virtue and ambiguity. De Dinteville’s and de Selve’s nonchalant stance and self-presentation clearly mark them as social equals, men of rank, learning, and above all masculinity, rather than the comely youths found in the paederastic iconography of contemporary Italian art. The Ambassadors’ unusual depiction of two unrelated sitters in this manner was unprecedented in northern Europe: like still life, friendship paintings were not a concept. Instead, the painting sits firmly within the German tradition of betrothal/marriage portraiture.

In keeping with conventions, de Dinteville and de Selve are characterised as “male” and “female”. De Dinteville’s pose is expansive and active, whereas de Selve’s is circumspect and contemplative; their respectively rosy and more swarthy skin tones also reflect a conventional physiognomy of gender. De Dinteville’s visual connection with the solar calibration of the celestial orb and de Selve’s with the lunar torquetum imparts astrological gender associations.

The use of marital symbolism has been ascribed to the lack of a pictorial language for representing the ties of friendship, although the very few examples of double “friendship” portraits from southern Europe do not display this type of nuptial iconography. This provocative portrayal of the sitters as married partners would be startling to a sixteenth-century audience, but on its own could be justified as metaphorical.

The marriage symbolism does not stop there, however, making it impossible to disregard. The damask pattern of the traverse includes marriage symbols; in addition to the crucifixion, carnations denote marriage in Holbein’s iconography. While not worn by either man, diamond rings are visible in the textile pattern between de Dinteville and de Selve above the celestial globe and the polyhedral sundial, universal symbols of fidelity and matrimony. The skull, commonly found on the reverse of marriage portraits, is here “hidden” on the front. “Veni Sancte Spiritus” displayed in the hymnal evokes the ordination liturgy; by reflecting the sacred marriage to the body of the church, it possibly alludes to another sacred marriage with the body of the friend.

The lute in the sixteenth century was a metaphor for amorous and sexual dalliance, associated in particular with feminine sexuality. In contemporary literature, the lute was able to communicate those feelings that might otherwise lie beyond the ability of the player to disclose. Poets such as Thomas Wyatt and Louise Labé characterise the lute as an outlet for pent emotion, genuinely expressing inexpressible sensibilities. In Labé’s poetry, as in the stricken medieval chansons that preceded it, the lute significantly assumes its voice in the absence of the lover. Just as Apian’s arithmetic manual is The Ambassadors’ mathematical primer for unlocking its religious schema, so the lute is the visual primer for its personal schema. In its multiple associations- from venal sexuality through learning and politics to the divine ordering of the universe, the lute is the linking iconic element between the painting’s levels of meaning.

Corresponding to the lute is its case, puzzlingly ignored by a century of scholarship. In sixteenth-century literature, the lute case represented conflict between the inner person and the outer image. Hidden in the shadows beneath the table, the case becomes simultaneously a single and a double negative, indicating the honesty of personal feeling conveyed in the painting.


Further iconographic nuances may be recaptured by a “queer semiotic” such as proposed by di Addario (1994) and Saslow (1999). A queer reading hinges on the same “politics of knowledge” as all The Ambassadors’ iconography, dependent on symbolism which can be multiply interpreted. The cognoscenti’s subjective viewpoint would discern or invest significance in certain signs, which would seem innocuous to those not in the know. Rather than a revealing clue to the sitter’s personality, as was contemporary convention, the clasped, untitled book under de Selve’s elbow implies a protected secret. De Dinteville’s green-tipped cincture is comparable to the Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man’s green sash, associated with the Florentine homosexual subculture. De Dinteville’s casual grip on his dagger departs from Holbein’s conventionally forceful grip, to be read as a suggestive stroking. De Selve’s mirroring gesture drawing his robe close in seeming concealment actually reveals the visually rhyming lute more fully; that both men’s hands are level with de Dinteville’s codpiece enhances the phallic mutuality of the gestures. The upturned lute case suggests an inversion of social conventions and possibly the nascent concept of “inverted” sexuality rather than a literal indication of specific sexual behaviours; its surrounding shadows further the motif of concealment. The deliberately connected viewing positions of the skull and crucifix points to a relationship delicately balanced between social valorisation and social condemnation.

The prevalence of such signs in a painting representing an already sexually charged friendship strongly suggests a relationship between lovers as well as friends, almost irrespective of its physical expression. The Ambassadors does not hint at a sodomitical discourse: de Dinteville’s and de Selve’s relationship is firmly couched in terms of Classical and Christian virtue. Classical authors conflated the desires of the lover with dyadic friendship, referred to by Plutarch as “erotic friendship”. Plutarch further describes a lover as “a friend inspired by God”- a statement with obvious ramifications to Christian homosocial friendship, and almost certainly known to de Selve if not to both educated men.

Indeed as a churchman and modestly distinguished scholar, de Selve was probably also aware of the Antique and ecclesiastical traditions of marriage-like unions between two men. Although disappearing from the mainstream Latin Christian liturgy, such ceremonies were still technically legitimate in the Catholic tradition in the Middle Ages and underwent a revival in the renaissance. The possibility that The Ambassadors may represent such a tradition of divinely sanctified union is borne out in the marital and Christian significance in the painting’s construction and iconography. That de Dinteville died unmarried in 1555, most unusually for a man with the obligations of his class and position, lends tantalising support to the possibility of an enduring, consecrated bond with de Selve.

In this light, the  the tactile appeal of the superbly worked textures of the painting, together with the visual impact of their life-sized depiction and implied auditory expression in the lute, imbues The Ambassadors’ sitters with a sensory physicality and a presence whose immediacy was unprecedented. The “gift of the body” from the friend becomes the body itself, seeking sympathetic cognition at the same time it lays claim to immortality in the heart.

The final piece of the puzzle is that upon his return to France in 1533, de Selve was appointed as ambassador to Venice, where he stayed for seven years; given the organisation of the French court and diplomatic service, de Selve undoubtedly knew of this appointment well in advance, even before visiting London. The Ambassadors is thus revealed as an unusually intimate parting gift commemorating the sitter’s friendship, and keepsake for de Dinteville of his friend. The icons of political and spiritual discord and division- the arithmetic manual, dividers and terrestrial globe, the missing flute and broken heart-string of the lute – thus poignantly assume meanings of personal division: the very concerns which unite the two men in friendship are also the cause of their separation. Yet by keeping the facsimile of the lover close, the abiding, sanctified fidelity central to renaissance friendship endures in the face of absence or even death. The Ambassadors offers bodily solace in lieu of the presence of the beloved friend; de Selve is tangibly preserved in the memory of his intime ami. Read the rest of this entry »

The Right of Spring

Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera is one of the most iconic images of the renaissance. Arguably the jewel in the crown of the Uffizi, it is immediately recognisable even to those with barely a nodding acquaintance with art. How then is one of the most fundamentally misunderstood?

For decades, august art historians who have delved into the painting’s enigmatic iconography, resulting in ponderous tomes and academic debates of unfaltering venom as interpretation and counter-interpretation has been wrangled back and forth. Almost without exception, these arguments have regarded Primavera with an aloof eye, viewing it through the lens of Neoplatonic philosophy beloved of the Medici circle.

Using that approach, Primavera has been proposed as a complex allegory of Neoplatonism itself, illustrating the ascent from profane to divine love; as an iconographic articulation of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s sonnets celebrating his Tuscan republic through the somewhat unlikely metaphor of young love; as a tenaciously paganesque Neoplatonic Christian rite; or simply as a graceful mythological representation of youthful love and fertility, since Antiquity associated with spring. With so much investigation and learned theorising surrounding the work- why does none of it ring completely true?

What none of the established and long-argued interpretations take into account, is that art does not occur in a vacuum. There is no question the painting is couched in Neoplatonic imagery: it saturated the literature, thought and visual language of quattrocento Florence. Yet by seeing Primavera only as an object on the wall of a museum, historians have failed to look beyond that level, and consider the painting in light of the social functions of art in the renaissance or the ability of its artists to simultaneously articulate multiple semiotic and discursive texts. Looking at Primavera from the perspective of its original audience, it is easily recognised not only as an ambitiously and ambiguously layered painting, but a work possessed of a clear socio-political discourse- as well as holding unmistakable messages for a very specific, and very private, audience.

As with all patrician marriages, the wedding of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici to Semiramide Appiani in 1482 was a strategic and dynastic alliance contracted and promoted by the bridegroom’s uncle and guardian Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Florentine oligarch who had consolidated his autocratic position as il magnifico signore through prolific cultural patronage. Traditionally provided by the groom or his father and triumphantly paraded as a public component of civic marriage ritual, the Classical/mythological themes of works such as Primavera naturally reflected the renovatio that made Florence the epicentre of the renaissance, fashionably articulating Christian narratives and morals in terms of the heroic Antique mythology lauded by scholars…and lot least announcing, with suitable ostentation, the patron’s wealth and humanist erudition.

In the absence of documentary evidence, the question of Primavera’s patronage is bewilderingly complex. Horst Bredekamp suggested the painting was commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco as a kind of manifesto on behalf of his own potential rule of Florence, where Ernst Gombrich regards him as patron on the basis of letters from Ficino and his later artistic patronage. Neither seems likely while under the not-entirely-amicable legal guardianship of il Magnifico after his father’s death, when, most tellingly, he was not in control of his family’s finances and is inconsistent with the strongly patristic didactic messages surrounding the figure of Mercury found in the painting.

Botticelli’s close association with Medici patronage also renders it less likely that the bride’s father Jacopo III Appiani of Piombino was the patron. Il Magnifico, whose patronage was not bounded by modern distinctions between public and private, secular and spiritual, individual and corporate, best fits as the patron given the scale and expense of the painting, its self-consciously Classicist iconography, civic-familial patterns of fifteenth-century Florentine marriage ritual- and its pointedly personal messages.

Whether public or private, a Laurentian audience would instantly discern the subtext beneath the painting’s gambolling Neoclassicism, recognising Primavera as nuptial art intended as a lesson for the bride, admonishing her to chaste submission and procreation.

The mores of renaissance culture regarded ‘heroic rape’ not as personal violation, but a valorised necessity of marriages arranged for the good of the family or state. Images of heroic rape was common artistic currency in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with scenes depicting the Sabine women and the rapes of Io, Leda, Proserpina and the daughters of Leucippus adorning the apartments and wedding paraphernalia of Tuscan noble women, in particular elaborately decorated cassoni. The placement of the painting in the private anteroom to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s bed chamber, above a lettuccio whose based formed just such a cassone, provides contextual privileging of the nuptial reading.

So mannered is the iconography in Primavera that the brutality of the rape is barely detectable to modern sensibilities: yet from the anxious bride’s viewpoint on the lettuccio, the scene from Ovid’s Fasti dominates: almost bestial in her contorted, panic-stricken state as she flees, Chloris is almost literally surmounted by the threatening figure of Zephyrus looming above her. Renaissance art continued the topos of spatial division for the sexes seen in Antiquity, as depicted in Botticelli’s subsequent work Venus and Mars, c1483, also a spalliera belonging to the same genre of nuptial art. Carrying this through to the relaxed reclining of the newly wed couple on their lettuccio looking at Primavera restores the sight lines that make sense of the painting’s back-to-front narrative.

The bride’s line of sight, looking up and from the left, not only connects immediately with the incident of rape but is perpendicular to the distinctive diagonal alignment of the figures of Chloris and Zephyrus. From this perspective, the latter would appear to be not merely embracing his quarry but actually atop her as if already engaged in penetrative intercourse, making Chloris’ fright and struggle all the more visceral and driving home the lesson that sexual (and social) domination was an inevitability of marriage.

Yet the bride is expected to take solace in the narrative’s hasty transformation of the violated nymph into the bountiful, serene figure of Flora, the ‘happy ending’ to heroic rape where her virtue is restored in respectable wifedom. The social doctrine that the young wife has no choice but conjugal submission is crystal clear.

The densely syncretic central figure of Venus demonstrates the purpose of this marital ordeal: procreation. Rather than more usual eroticised depictions, the goddess of love is here modestly attired, suggesting both a Classical bride in a saffron veil and a Florentine matron clad in a guarnello, an expensive maternity gown of the period, the drape of her mantle drawing attention to her swollen abdomen. She is presented in stark contrast to the frighted, fleeing deer-like figure of Chloris as the domesticated and impregnated Venus that presides over fruitful spring, and her satisfied smile exemplifies contentment with status as a patrician bride and her impending motherhood, the primary role of women in renaissance society.

This discourse is intensified by the fusion of the Antique image with Marian iconography. Elevated above the surrounding figures, Venus is silhouetted against a triumphal arch formed of myrtle branches, in a manner commonly found in contemporary depictions of the Virgin. The angelic putto figure of Cupid and the symbolic carpet of flowers further the Marian image, with the Arcadian grove taking on the aspect of the medieval enclosed garden. Her liturgical gesture and entreating gaze are lifted from contemporary Crucifixion scenes, portraying Mary as the mother of Christ. The fusion of Venus and the Virgin not only highlights the social legitimation of her marriage-by-capture, but instructs the bride on the traits and role expected of a new wife: to instill Classical republican and Christian moral virtues and into her progeny.

Nor is the groom spared a lesson: from his seated viewpoint, the insouciant figure of Mercury looms large. The youthful god is most often interpreted as the Laurentian manifestation of love, the culmination of the Neoplatonic narrative as it evolves from the base to the divine. Yet the figure is a pendant to the structure of the painting, not an integral component of its pyramidal structure, suggesting its later inclusion. Moreover, its imagery fits not within the genre of heroic rape but conforms to the heuristic depiction of adolescent males common in the art of fifteenth-century Florence.

Arrayed as a soldier with helmet, sword and crimson mantle matching that Venus/Semiramide, Mercury pays no attention to the feminine turmoil unfolding behind him, touching the clouds overheard with his caduceus. But while his manner indicates the martial prowess, classicist education and civic outlook expected of a head of the household, Mercury displays a strongly homoerotic coding in his stance and scant clothing, akin to the famed sculpture David by Donatello. Common to quattrocentro Florentine art, this erotic coding was based in the humanist social doctrine of idealised youth, who would eventually assume civic and moral authority as worthy heirs to the city’s oligarchic elite.

Yet the eroticised, ephebic nudity not only articulated the boy’s narcissistic self-image and nascent potency but reinforced its taming through disciplining of that self-image, and the strict paternal controls exerted over young men during the drawn-out process of their social and sexual maturation. During which time the youth, though feeling his potency, was firmly excluded from adult political or entrepreneurial roles and as a result frequently clashed with his fathers or equivalent paternal figures. The boy’s sexualised, vulnerable nakedness represents a metaphorical stripping of his emerging powers by the stern authority of his elders.

In Primavera, Mercury delivers a pointed discourse on this theme. As a heroic Classical and martial figure, he represents a public, political affirmation of heroic Florentine morality and humility- the perfect youth and worthy heir of the city’s grandest oligarch, dutifully fulfilling the important dynastic duty of marriage. Unusually in the milieu of renaissance Florence, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco was only 19 at the time of his wedding, and is reported to have resisted the match arranged for him by his uncle.  In private, then, this same figure represents an injunction for the groom to put away the ‘feminine’ attitudes of the domestic realm in favour of the masculine responsibilities prematurely thrust upon him; yet he is still depicted as a sexually vulnerable youth, bared before the gaze of more powerful men, and stripped of the manly civic-economic authority that should have accompanied such a circumstance as his wedding.

The choice of Mercury, messenger of the gods, is an even more pointed reminder of the subordinate political role relegated to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s cadet branch of the powerful Medici family. His placement beside the diaphanously-clad Graces reveals another  function of heroic rape imagery, as erotic stimulation directed at the male (while constructing the subject as a willing lover rather than the victim of forced intercourse). But in this context, amorous art becomes sexual admonition: similar to the bride’s diagonal sight-line, the groom’s looking up at the beautiful goddesses would have served to stiffen an inexperienced and possibly virginal young man’s resolve to do his manly duty under so much political and familial pressure, and the very public denial of his own masculinity.

But if groom’s connection to Mercury was well understood, the Graces also help ram the message home: being the goddesses associated with gratitude, they remind the young groom to be grateful for his uncle’s beneficence and generosity, both in arranging the match and in such a costly gift. Both theirs and Mercury’s raised hands direct the eye to the golden oranges in the grove’s canopy, which while a conventional marital symbol, hint at the palle of the Medici arms- and even more blatantly resemble gold coins, suggesting riches from above- that is, il Magnifico’s influence and coffers. That the ducat-like oranges are placed to ‘begin’ above Chloris illustrates the legal contract portion of patrician marriage that the husband ‘earns’ his bride’s dowry only upon the act of consummation.

Although presented as an Arcadian fantasia of youthful love, its renaissance audience would immediately understand Primavera as a marriage picture- or to be blunt, a marital rape picture. Certainly viewing the painting from within its original matrix and societal discourses offers a far more plausible interpretation than quaint poetic readings that discount the presence of sexuality in a marital painting.