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The Book Half Open: Humanist Friendship in Holbein’s Portrait of Hermann von Wedigh III
A small, blind-tooled volume sits on a table covered in green baize: one clasp is open, the other is closed; and a slip of paper emerges from it reading Veritas odium parit (truth breeds hatred). This detail occurs in the foreground of a portrait by Hans Holbein of a young man identified as the Cologne patrician Hermann von Wedigh III (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). A study of the physical features of the book and of the history of the brief text — actually an ancient and then Erasmian adage — leads to a new interpretation of the painting in the context of humanist friendship. The book is seen to be a multivalent simile for the work of art authored by the artist as well as for the sitter himself, raising questions about the implications for these of a medium that can be opened and closed. The half-open condition of the book is understood to reflect the complementary pressures of openness and closedness, accessibility and intimacy, that characterized the Renaissance republic of letters.
2022. adages; books in paintings; classical reception; Erasmus of Rotterdam; Hans Holbein the Younger; Northern Renaissance; Terence