Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’ should really be called ‘The Skull’. Not only is this that it is most famous for, but it also offers a big hint as to what the painting is all about. Looking from just the right oblique angle, or by stretching it in Photoshop, that strange distorted image at the bottom of the painting turns back into a skull. And when we look closely, we discover a camouflaged donkey braying a message at us. See where its mouth is on the tiles? It says ‘O’, and then, in ever larger letters ‘razio’.
And if aligned just right, beneath the ambassador’s hand, we find the same name, Orazio, coming from the skull’s mouth, as if it were the last thing ever said by its owner. And who was its owner? Holbein tells us. It was the skull of King Henry VIII.
Someone by the name of Orazio had been set the task of exacting vengeance on the biggest Tudor of them all. But who was Orazio? And what had the King done to provoke such retaliation?
The second clue lies in the real names of the Ambassadors themselves, names to be found written across their foreheads and beards. They are the artists Titian, and Hans Holbein, who painted it. An unlikely combination we might think, but in fact they grew up together. In a drawing by their father, Hans Holbein the Elder, we find the images of Hans the Younger, and Ambrosius Holbein, and mention of another son, Titian.
He adds that Hans was known as ‘Salai’, and Titian as ‘Melzi’, Leonardo’s two apprentices, and then provides something to strain our credibility to breaking point. His real name, he says, was ‘Pedro Alvares Cabral’, the navigator credited with having ‘discovered’ Brazil. (The native inhabitants actually found Brazil some 30,000 years before him, but European historians were not always at their best with dates.) The sting, though, was yet to come. The artist reveals he was also the son of Leonardo da Vinci. The two boys were not only Leonardo’s apprentices, they were also his grandsons, and he raised them.
But why ever would they want to kill King Henry VIII? Hans tells us in another of his paintings, found recently in the vaults of the Prado Museum. Said to be the earliest known copy of the Mona Lisa, it was actually painted alongside Leonardo’s masterpiece in 1512. And Hans refused to be parted from it, just as Leonardo refused to be parted from his version. The reason we find in a drawing of a ‘Young Woman’ Hans made in 1518, commemorating his new girlfriend and future wife, Lisa Binzenstuck.
Do you recognise her? Of course… she had a way of smiling that he – and the rest of the world – found utterly irresistible. She was the model for both Mona Lisas.
Leonardo wrote faintly on his Mona Lisa that he had his daughter in mind when he painted her. But he could not work from life: his daughter had died in 1507 – and so – given the family resemblance – he used his granddaughter Lisa as the model. But while for Leonardo, the Mona Lisa was his daughter, for Salai, his Mona Lisa was the model herself, the lady he would eventually marry.
By the 1530s, Hans was with her in England, being helped to find commissions by his friend the Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More. Alas, More fell foul of the King when he wanted to dump his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn – and the year the ‘Skull’ was painted he had More’s head chopped off. Hans loathed Henry for that, but being pragmatic, he sought instead to win the favours of Anne Boleyn, and those of the King’s new chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. But no sooner had he done that, than Henry chopped Anne’s head off too.
Horrified, Holbein added tears to Lisa’s face in his ‘Mona Lisa’, portraying their terrible anguish, and angrily to add that Thomas Cromwell had set Anne up to be unfaithful. That way Henry could have her killed, and thus be free to marry his third wife, Jane Seymour. Set up? But how? Perhaps Cromwell told Anne that the King could not have sons, and that since she had to produce an heir, she must do it by going with another man. Who knows? But Hans made it clear he blamed Cromwell for the Queen’s death.
So ‘Ambassador’ Holbein was the close friend of Sir Thomas More, and of Anne Boleyn too, both murdered by Henry. Motive enough for revenge. Add to that Henry’s defiance of Pope Paul III, who Titian said was family: the son of his great grandfather, Arturo. The Pope was their relative, and so Henry, the thorn in his paw, had to go.
What of Orazio, though? Who was he? He was Titian’s son, and he had been trained not only as an artist, but also, like Titian himself, as an assassin. Orazio, though, refused to do it, and Henry lived on. And then in 1543, Titian’s brother Hans died, murdered, it was thought, on Henry’s orders.
And so Titian made his plans, and in 1547 did the job himself. ‘Assassinato per Tiziano’, it says, hidden in the engraving of the Tudor King, a copy of which hangs on the wall, to this very day, in Buckingham Palace.