arsenic, art, arturo van Eyck, Cosimo de' Medici, Cosimo Tura, Domenico Colombo, Duke of Alba, Giovanni Caboto, King Charles VI. Louix XI, Leonardo da Vinci, Leonello d'Este, Mehmet Siyah Qalem, Paolo van Eyck, renaissance, Timurid, Trebizond, Uccello
In 1332, the throne of France had been stolen from the family, and although the generations passed, they remained in hope. The succession to the title of Pretender, though, was in a mess, with two bitter rivals wanting to replace Rutger as the sixth ‘Dauphin’. One was Paolo Uccello, born in 1415; and the other, Arturo, born in 1424. Publicly Rutger (the sixth pretender to the throne of France) accepted both as his sons, but in his art he said they weren’t. He said they were his brother Paolo’s, and since neither of their mothers was married, Heaven only knew who was the rightful heir.
But Rutger wasn’t concerned about this squabble. Back in 1422, within days of the death of King Charles VI, he had made the future Queen of France pregnant. It was just a month before her wedding to the new king Charles VII, and Louis, born a month before he should have been, was a bastard. The King reluctantly accepted him as his own, but when the boy became Louis XI, Rutger knew he would have his own son on the throne of France, and the battle would be won… Or so he thought. The rivals wanted the job, though, and they weren’t buying it.
Although they were both handsome, in all other ways they could not have been more different. Uccello was charming, warm, kind and had an irresistible sense of humour. Arturo, though, never smiled. He had no social graces, and a cruel streak that took one’s breath away. In 1438, when he was just 14, he murdered his own mother, and she would be far from the last of his victims. The scene is set.
In the 1440s, the Court of Leonello d’Este was the place to be if one was an ambitious artist. Both Uccello and Arturo spent time there. And Leonello had a captivating young bride: Maria Antonia, daughter of King Alfonso of Aragon and his lover Lucrezia d’Alagno. Furthermore, she was Jan’s granddaughter, and thus not only a princess, she was also family: she was an Eyck. And as she neared puberty, she became very alluring, and the two boys each tried in their own way to win her from Leonello.
Uccello used his magic, and promptly fell in love with her, and she with him, and in 1448 she left her husband, pretending to die… and ‘married’ Uccello. Arturo, on the other hand, flaunted his wealth and power, and implored his father to force Maria Antonia to ‘marry’ him. And when she rejected him, and when his father laughed, and cast aspersions on his manhood, Arturo decided to prove he really was ‘a man’ – and raped her.
The girl, only 12, became pregnant, and in 1449 while no one could be sure it was Arturo’s, she gave birth to a baby boy. He was named Domenico, after one of Arturo’s many aliases: Domenico Colombo. And immediately after that, she became pregnant by Uccello, giving birth in 1450 to both Francesca, and Giovanni Caboto, later to be a famous navigator. Arturo was desperate. Rutger and Piero della Francesca supported him, Jan and Jacobo Bellini supported Uccello. The jury was hung. But either way, Leonello was still alive, and could denounce any marriage as bigamous. And so Arturo went to paint him, and put arsenic in his food.
With Leonello out of the way, the wedding went ahead, and Arturo’s first child (for sure) was born the next year, 1451, and named Arturo after his dad. Then, in 1452, Maria Antonia produced Leonardo da Vinci. Uccello said the boy was his, and Arturo, incensed, told him to flee, or die… and to make his point clear, according to Petrus Christus, he killed a young girl Uccello was fond of, their cousin Maria.
Uccello fled, and as with everything he did in life, he did it with consummate flair. According to a map drawn by his son, he took a family boat to the furthest point of the Black Sea, beyond Trebizond, and headed deep into the Mongol Timurid Empire.
And as he went, he painted. He learned from local talent, and enriching their indigenous exotic styles he produced masterpieces hitherto unimaginable.
In Herat, Turkmenistan, he used the name Mehmet Siyah Qalem, and created works to this day still thought to be Oriental.
Then he painted breathtaking miniatures that launched Persian art into the history books. And under yet another name, he journeyed to Samarkand, and created a portrait of the Khan that kick-started Moghul art.
Finally, after a couple of years, he returned, and made Maria pregnant again – several times. Then, again, he fled, but this time not stopping until he reached Xian in China, at the very end of the Silk Road. He wrote the location, faintly, in art which the most exalted experts still think is Chinese.
His work was even found sealed up in a cave near Dunhuang, within spitting distance of Mongolia.‘Uccello’ I should explain, is Italian for ‘bird’, and appropriately so, since wherever his wondrously coloured ‘feathers’ fell, whether ‘Turkish’, ‘Persian’, ‘Moghul’, or ‘Chinese’ – they set fire to Asian art.
When at last he returned, he worked in Toulouse, Barcelona, and Piedmont. Maria had separated from Arturo, but she didn’t get back with the love of her life: instead she had taken up with the head of the Medici clan, Cosimo, and had three more children by him. But then Cosimo raped and killed a member of Uccello’s family, and that demanded vengeance. Uccello might have considered doing it anyway, out of jealousy, but this new crime could not be ignored. So in July 1464, now as ‘Cosimo Tura’, he painted the man’s portrait, and poisoned him to death. ‘Turare’, you see, means ‘to plug’, and he certainly put a cork in Cosimo’s bottle.
Meanwhile, Paolo Limbourg, Uccello’s father, had probably seen disaster coming and had already decided to change his son’s destiny. When his uncle died in 1446, he had bequeathed Paolo the title of Count, and a swathe of territory near Salamanca in Spain, land that had been in the family since the distant days of King John of France, when the family first had the throne of France stolen from them.
Accordingly, in late April 1464, Count Paolo faked his own death, making Uccello lord in his place. Then, in 1472, favoured by the King of Castile, Count Uccello became a Duke, a Grandee of Spain. And this is how, Uccello says in his self portrait of 1505, he became the very first Duke of Alba. The Phoenix had been reborn.