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The Ambassadors' Secret: Holbein and the World of the Renaissance Paperback – 2 Sep 2004


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Product details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Phoenix; New edition edition (2 Sep 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 184212661X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1842126615
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 3.5 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 168,838 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

We've done a comprehensive paperback mailout for this title, sending not only to our targeted list of paperback specialist reviewers on the nationals and locals but also to arts and features editors, art crtics and lots of arts magazines and arts association magazines. More news soon! We're also trying to confirm a feature with the Oxford Times, where the author lives.

About the Author

John North's books include THE MEASURE OF THE UNIVERSE and STONEHENGE. He is Emeritus Professor of the History of Philosophy and the Exact Sciences at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands.

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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 18 April 2002
Format: Hardcover
Rarely have I read a book such as this. North draws on the world of Renaissance Europe to unveil the meaning of Holbein's The Ambassadors. The secrets of the painting lie in the astronomical instruments, the location of the subjects, the anamorphic skull, a half-hidden crucifix, an obscured pavement, a curtain and the dress, identity and bearing of the two human ambassadorial subjects, locating them all firmly on the cusp of Ann Boleyn and Catherine of Aragon in Tudor London. North's conclusions are persuasive, some more than others, and always intriguing. This is an enriching book, leaving the painting's aesthetics to others, but demonstrating the painting's aesthetic appeal in the purely intellectual and symbolic meaning of this work of art.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By N. DAVIES on 10 July 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Holbein's Ambassadors has always been an intriguing painting and here North applies his profound intellect to analyse and reveal the meaning and profound intelligence that lies within. Ostensibly a painting of two men on either side of a two-tier table of random artefacts, every single feature of the painting is revealed to have deep and inter-dependent meaning. Not revealing "almost to the day", but precisely to the day and time that the painting comprehensively documents.

It is remarkable that it has taken almost 500 years to uncover the depth of meaning in this painting, rather like the works of Shakespeare continuing to reveal its further depths.

The only weakness in the book is the author tending towards supposition in its latter part, having previously established the facts, with liberal use of should/would/could/likely. But this does not detract from this book being the most important analysis of this painting that there has ever been.

On future visits to the National Gallery I will look at this painting from an entirely different perspective than the curious and less well informed one that I had before.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Withnail67 TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 2 Jan 2008
Format: Paperback
This is an exquisite book that performs the rare feat of taking a masterpiece and providing the viewer with new perspectives on its genius. North places Holbien's portrait of two French ambassadors almost to the day at a turning point of English history, as Henry VIII rejects papal authority and marries Anne Boleyn. In addition to this, he provides an exacting and fluent reading of the portait's scientific, artistic, intellectual and occult significance. This single picture therefore becomes and embodiment of the unique synthesis between science, art, reigion and magic in the 16th century European intellect.

This is art history as best seller - you might not believe that descriptions of 16th century astronomical instruments will have you turning the pages for more - but they will. Like Holbein's picture, this book's details are carefully suggested and tantalisngly revealed. I would recommend it for anyone interested in art history and the intellectual life of an incredible century.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Peasant TOP 500 REVIEWER on 1 Feb 2011
Format: Paperback
This is a very enjoyable book, unpicking the coded messages in Holbein's great masterpiece and enriching our knowledge not only of the painting but of the whole nature of educated society at the time. It is without doubt the product of many years of scholarship, and the author's conclusion - that the particular choice and arrangement of not only the objects on the table, but the clothing, background and even the decorative stone pavement upon which the subjects stand, have all been calculated to indicate the identities of the sitters, their mission and the precise time and day which the painting records - is hard to dispute. This is undoubtedly the sort of thing a painter of Holbein's skills would have revelled in.

So why only four stars? Despite my respect for the author's scholarship and my admiration of the arguments, this could have been a better book. Notes apart, there are 386 pages of text, and some genteel editing could have made this book both more concise, and the arguments easier to follow. Some of the calculations and geometry are rather demanding, and the diagrams explaining them are too small, too fuzzily printed and too poorly annotated to be understood without a great deal of head scratching. More and better quality illustrations would be also very desirable; I found myself reading with a coffee-table format book Hans Holbein der Jungere (Masters of German art)open beside me.

Still, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Holbein, in the history of science, or in the Tudor court, who doesn't mind doing a bit of hard thinking along the way. Interested readers should, if in Oxford, visit the Museum of the History of Science, which has original polyhedral sundials and other instruments, including a polyhedral sundial by Nicholas Kratzer, like those seen in the picture.
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