Hans Holbein the Younger

The Ambassadors

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533

The anamorphic skull as restored in 1998

FROM ‘MARA, MARIETTA’
Part One Chapter 4

Hello Sprague, I send you these Ambassadors with my warmest greetings from London. Looking at this magnificent painting in the National Gallery, I thought of your notion of fragility, and somehow connected it with the photograph you gave me. Thank you! It was a lovely surprise. Work going well. Back on Friday. Marietta … Sunday morning I slipped fifty francs into the hand of your concierge and got her to promise she’d get my package to you: I was happy to learn, from your Ambassadors, that she did … The Ambassadors: I did notice, in your postcard, how the oblique disrupts the aplomb. Yes, it did not escape me—that curve of cranium, those orbits of eyes. Astrological instruments, globes terrestrial and celestial; a lute, an open book, a folding set square—they did not distract me from the death’s head. Nor could the fine clothes—the black velvet, the pink satin, the purplish-brown brocade—divert me from the memento mori. But what did I care? I knew before long we’d be making love. Now tell me: Why did you leave it to Mara to teach me that as love is traced by death, it traces the space between identities? That my desire to know my identity coincides with my desire to know and love you? And for this, you would have to— No, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s close this interlude and pick up our story with your return from London. Oh happy days!