Saturday, September 26, 2009

Anne Boleyn

Thinking back over my museum-indulgences in Manhattan the week before last, I am a little surprised to discover that one of the strongest, longest-lasting impressions was made by the pair of Holbein portraits on either side of the sitting room fireplace at the Frick, where Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More have faced each other for decades under the tightest possible security.

Back home in San Francisco poking around online I discovered this Holbein drawing of Anne Boleyn, whose interests Cromwell served so well, helping her advance in the power game that eventually brought about More's execution. I think this is the most believable likeness of Anne Boleyn that I have seen, partly because of the complex character expressed in the face, but mainly because of the strong resemblance to her famous daughter Elizabeth.

The earliest fact I learned about Anne Boleyn was that she had six fingers on each hand. Later I found out that this intriguing factoid could be traced back to the popular belief in her own time that Anne's power over Henry VIII could only be explained if she were a witch, and it was widely believed then that witches tended to have extra body parts -- fingers, toes, breasts, etc.

Even later I came to know the Donizetti opera Anna Bolena, and for a while could only think of Anne in terms of Maria Callas.

Donizetti's Anna is an empty-headed maiden undone by her own purity and innocence. This means that the correspondence between the heroine of the opera and the documented historical personage is weak, but the music is thrilling. Beverly Sills was probably the next great Anna after Callas. Many others (among them Sutherland, Caballe and Gruberova) also took up the role, but they all tended, in my opinion, to overstress the sweetness. If a Queen on the operatic stage is not a Drama Queen there is not much point to the whole exercise.

Speaking of Drama Queens, there was a movie version in 2008 of The Anne Boleyn Story with Natalie Portman as Anne and Scarlett Johansson as her sister Mary who was kept around to service King Henry sexually and spare Anne his attentions during her first pregnancy.

An even more anachronistic version is presently ongoing from Showtime on cable TV: The Tudors, source of the publicity still below (easily mistaken for a depilatory ad with that marvelous computer-generated 21st-century leg and a chaise longue about three centuries off the mark, but an unexpected touch of verisimilitude in the green draperies lifted from Holbein's Thomas More portrait at top).

FUIT DECOLLATA LONDINI 19 MAY ANNO 1536 reads the inscription on this engraving made about a hundred years after Anne's death by Wenceslas Hollar. WAS BEHEADED IN LONDON 19 MAY 1536, it reads. Most of the representations through the ages seem to emphasize that vulnerable neck.