Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 5, 2020
Jennifer Nelson Disharmony of the Spheres: The Europe of Holbein’s "Ambassadors" University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2019. 216 pp.; 19 color ills.; 24 b/w ills. Cloth $99.95 (9780271083407)

The anamorphic skull that cuts an unsettling path across the foreground of Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1533 double portrait, The Ambassadors, has struck modern interpreters of the painting as a fundamental disruption of the ordered world of the two young men portrayed amid the books and instruments of liberal learning. For Jacques Lacan, the skull signifies the annihilation of the Cartesian subject. For those more inclined to historical interpretation, it signifies the undoing of a confident Renaissance humanism. Against perspectival coherence, the skull offers fragmentation; against a dream of comprehensive knowledge, it offers a melancholy reminder of death.

In Disharmony of the Spheres: The Europe of Holbein’s “Ambassadors, Jennifer Nelson takes exception to this polarized reading. Anamorphosis, she argues, is not the inversion of perspective but another version of it, and it should therefore be considered alongside the other deviations from unified perspective found throughout the painting: the varied foreshortenings that cause objects to inhabit “subtly discrepant, local perspectival fields” (18), such as the carpenter’s square that, she argues, appears in virtual space as not square but strangely oblique. Wary of overdrawn oppositions that flatten the painting’s breathtaking variety, Nelson attempts to sustain multiple levels of difference within the work by treating the skull as only the most extreme form of a disharmony that proliferates throughout the painting. This attention to discrepancy over unity results in a welcome revision to our understanding of Holbein’s painting and, more generally, to our understanding of a certain strand of sixteenth-century northern humanism found in the works of Philipp Melanchthon, Georg Hartmann, and Erasmus of Rotterdam. “Transrealism” is Nelson’s word of choice for describing the project of these humanists, who shunned homogenizing systems in favor of multiple and often contradictory truths.

In her introductory chapter, and again in her concluding chapter, both of which focus on The Ambassadors, Nelson makes the stakes of her intervention clear. The attraction to incommensurable fragments that she finds among Holbein and his humanist contemporaries provides an antidote to the “classical liberal and neoliberal project of rendering all humans equal, a project professing justice through guaranteeing individual freedom but in practice rewarding homogeneity and normalization” (9). As the book’s subtitle suggests, we are meant to draw a lesson about Europe from Holbein’s painting, but this is not the Europe of liberal and neoliberal imaginings. The Europe of Holbein’s Ambassadors was rent by religious schism and the Ottoman threat, and it taught reform-minded artists, theologians, and instrument makers to value local and contingent knowledge. Nelson’s methodological tools for drawing such historical lessons come from the foundational art historical concepts of Alois Riegl and Erwin Panofsky that wedded form to culture: Kunstwollen and “symbolic form,” respectively. Nelson is careful to reject the tendency of these concepts toward totalization, although her own project of mapping the localized objects and texts of sixteenth-century humanism onto the politics of a neoliberal present can sometimes have its own effect of flattening the variety and complexity of the historical past.

Nelson’s central chapters dwell on humanist techniques of measurement and enumeration that privilege local over universal knowledge. In “Melanchthon’s Imperfect Mathematics,” she explores a “theology of science” articulated in the writings and correspondence of Martin Luther’s great collaborator. For Melanchthon, the measurement of the heavens and earth, and even inquiries into such mundane matters as the relative values of ancient and modern currencies, constitute a path to “encounter and colloquy with God” (33). But this is not because such pursuits lead to perfect understanding. After all, their results are often conflicting and incommensurable, a fact to which Melanchthon—as Nelson convincingly demonstrates—was very much attuned. But neither do such discrepancies indicate the vanity of human efforts to know the divine, a view that distinguishes Melanchthon from Luther, for whom scripture alone could provide that access. For Melanchthon, imperfection within human efforts to measure the cosmos has its own theological significance, as “part of a larger allegory of what differences could teach people about God” (49) .

Melanchthon’s theology of science found practical expression in the instruments of his contemporary Georg Hartmann. In her chapter “Hartmann’s Locative Science,” Nelson focuses on the unusual attention Hartmann paid to the local conditions in which his portable sundials were used. Because the difference between magnetic and polar north causes the readings on sundials to change according to latitude, Hartmann’s instruments incorporate corrections for these discrepancies. While one might want to chalk this up to careful instrument making, Nelson argues for its theological significance and finds compelling evidence in a letter from Melanchthon to Hartmann in which the latter’s locative designs elicit a meditation on human salvation. Nelson takes us somewhat beyond the available evidence, however, in her arguments about “autonomous” design, a category of instruments that function independently of local conditions and whose exemplars she finds in the universalizing designs of Peter Apian and Johannes Stabius. While locative design is a category that helps us think with precision about a special group of sixteenth-century humanist instruments, to oppose it to a generalized category of autonomous instruments that “roughly anticipate a forcibly harmonized, neoliberal world” (60) is decidedly less precise, particularly when we consider that the locative instruments of the surveyor have played their own part in carving up the earth for capitalist modernity.

In chapter 4, “Erasmus Enumerates Europe,” Nelson finds a philological counterpart to Hartmann’s concern with geographical contingency. The Adages of Erasmus, a massive compilation published in multiple, ever-expanding editions between 1500 and 1536, consists of hundreds of entries, each dedicated to exploring a proverb in its various versions, meanings, and uses. In these entries, Erasmus adopts the rhetorical device of enumeratio, accumulating a variety of options in his effort to unfold the proverb’s proper meaning, and yet his approach is never fully to resolve the plurality of possibilities by identifying a definitive source. There is a philological humility running through Erasmus’s method, and Nelson finds its foil in the confident universalism of his Neoplatonic contemporary, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Nelson argues, moreover, that there is a politics to Erasmian enumeratio, a peace-seeking cultivation of difference that is reflected in Erasmus’s own moderated attitude toward the Turkish threat at Europe’s borders.

Disharmony of the Spheres would at times benefit from more Erasmian moderation when making its grandest generalizations from the locative circumstances of sixteenth-century northern humanism. But the real contribution of this book is not a definitive lesson it offers for the present but rather the impressive learning and nuance it brings to its subject matter. Nelson attends to a wide range of sixteenth-century media: paintings, prints, scientific instruments, correspondence, and treatises on theological, mathematical, and philological topics. She brings a refreshing interdisciplinarity to Holbein’s Ambassadors that allows us to see it through a theological preoccupation with difference and discrepancy. The happy result is a defamiliarizing of one of the most familiar paintings of Renaissance Europe.

Michael Gaudio
Professor, Department of Art History, University of Minnesota