At Hatfield House, on September 25th 1557, Princess Elizabeth Tudor gave birth to a healthy baby boy who she and the father named Robert. Elizabeth had not been seen in public since she left the Court of her sister on 3 December, 1556, after a very short visit. It had until now been assumed that the reason for her early departure (she had been invited by Queen Mary for Christmas) was because she was being pressured to marry the Duke of Savoy, an idea she heartily disliked. But that argument was always flawed, since Mary agreed with her that such a marriage would be inappropriate. The protagonist for the marriage was Mary’s husband, King Philip of Spain, and on this issue Mary defiantly opposed him.
More likely the issue was raised of Princess Elizabeth’s long standing affection for a gentleman that Mary strongly disapproved of. We might have suspected from the name of the child that it was going to be Elizabeth’s admirer, Robert Dudley, but no. Elizabeth’s lover had joined the court of Henry VIII at least by 1546, and was an accomplished artist with the rather unglamorous name of William Scrots. First mention of him (under this name) was in 1537, when he was working for Mary Hapsburg, sister of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and Regent of the Netherlands – and he joined Henry’s court to replace Hans Holbein some time after that artist’s untimely death in 1543.
Most significantly, as we will see, one of his first works was a portrait of the young Prince Edward, which he did in a remarkably distorted perspective, one that requires one to look at the image from a very oblique angle to make sense of it. It is called anamorphic perspective, and in those days it was very rare. Indeed, only two notable examples exist prior to this work by Scrots: that of Hans Holbein – the famous skull in his ‘Ambassadors’; and by Leonardo, back in 1485, when he invented the technique with his depiction of an anamorphic eye. How could Scrots have known how to paint something only two people in the world had succeeded in doing? We will need to come back to this.
The other painting was a portrait of Princess Elizabeth, for which she clearly posed on more than a few occasions, and which on close examination can be seen to contain signatures of Scrot’s various aliases, in addition to well camouflaged text claiming that Elizabeth was in love with him.
To return to Christmas 1556, it seems Elizabeth did not spend it with Mary, but with her paramour, because the forthcoming Robert Tudor was conceived on, or close to Christmas Day. Elizabeth would have known early in 1557 that she was pregnant, and with the outbreak of war between Spain and France, she knew that her pregnancy would put her at greater risk than ever before. Mr Scrots, you see, was not who he seemed: the name was an avatar, as she well knew, one of several he had used over the years.
But in all his guises, he was vehemently opposed to Spain. Their genocidal enslaving of Africans and native Americans outraged him, and as if that weren’t enough, he had bitter personal experiences of both Philip, and of his father – Charles, the Holy Roman Emperor and former King of Spain. Indeed, he blamed Charles for the death of his wife.
The risk to Elizabeth in bearing the child of an enemy of Spain was grave, and the French Ambassador reported that he had spoken with her at length early in 1557, and only with great difficulty had he persuaded her not to flee to France for her safety. The French wanted her to remain and in due course, take power. Her new son would then become a key asset, an invaluable ally against Spain.
Surely though, to allege that Elizabeth had a son out of wedlock is outrageous? Well, it would be easy to contradict had Elizabeth appeared in public on at least one occasion in 1557, but she did not. There were no visits to court or to friends, and no visits from Mary or anyone else of record. Elizabeth vanished from 3 December 1556 until 25 February 1558. On the other hand though, the evidence of the romance and of the subsequent birth is overwhelming: the romance was documented first by Scrots himself, then by Levina Teerlinc in a cameo of Elizabeth dated 1550:
It was confirmed again in 1558 in a sketch of her lover by no less than the great artist Veronese, which you can find elsewhere on the blog. The birth itself is documented – again – by Veronese, in a Nativity scene dated 1558/9:
and it was confirmed again later in portraits of Robert Tudor (who also, for his own survival, had to live under a number of false identities). The portrait of Elizabeth’s heir by Bartolomeo Passarotti in the 1570s, is shown above at the start of the post. He was painted again in the 1590s by Ludovico Carracci, and a little later by Raffaello Schiamirossi (shown a little way below). And there are other portraits too, not least one by Robert Tudor himself, that say the same thing. The famous Drake Medal, carved in bas-relief in sardonyx, and presented by the Queen to Sir Francis Drake, provides further evidence:
It is also faintly signed in the outer border by Robert Tudor himself, who took after his father in his artistic talents. It reads ‘Io, Roberto Rex, Feci’. The ‘IO’ could hardly be more obvious. And the two characters depicted in the medal bring a far greater surprise. The ‘regal lady’ in the background is identified clearly as Elizabeth herself, and the gentleman in front as Robert’s father.
Yes, William Scrots was half African, and the alliance that Philip feared was between Elizabeth, France, and the entire African population living under Spanish oppression, the slaves who provided the basis of their power in the world. You see… Scrots’ son Robert was not the gentleman on the right in the portrait at the start of this post as everyone assumes, but the the teenager on the left. Here he is again, now in his thirties, in a portrait by Schiamirossi. The relevant text has been marked up to show its location. It is very faint, but very there:
The reason for the medal is also significant. Drake had earned the medal not for his circumnavigation of the globe, but for the alliance he was forging between the Cimarrons in Panama, escaped African slaves who had saved him from starvation when he was shipwrecked and taken ill on the coast of that country. Drake had been raiding the Spanish at the time of this mishap, and he found the Cimarrons formidable allies. Indeed, they helped him seize a large consignment of Spanish silver and gold, so large that it put him on the international map and made his name. Drake soon came to see that African slaves across the Spanish Empire might be mobilized in an alliance with England and France – and Elizabeth, even though her relationship with Scrots had ended, never forgot the deep and rewarding love they had experienced together, and such an alliance struck a deep chord with her, too. That her son should have crafted the medal for her to give Drake is more than touching.
But who was this person with the unflattering name? Scrots is far better known by his former alias, that of ‘Paris Bordone’, a very talented artist who trained with Titian in Venice, and who was sought by Princes, Kings, and Queens throughout Europe. Among his paintings is one executed for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, depicting him in armour, with two pages. One of the pages is identified as Charles’ son, the future King Philip (of Armada notoriety), the other as his son, who he had named Salai, after his boyhood friend and companion.
The painting is replete with annotations that make its subject painfully clear: the young black page was in the service of the Holy Roman Emperor, and he was being sexually abused by the other ‘page’, the future King Philip. Veronese says the same thing in another distressing drawing, of a young African boy eating an apple. Paris paints vengeance on the horizon in the painting: there is army marching towards the main characters of the scene, and it is labelled ‘schiavi neri’ – ‘black slaves’, and they are carrying a flag adorned with the number ’92, the year he was born. Philip is shown saying ‘If we release the slaves… vendetta!’. He knew what would come his way.
Paris put an end to the abuse in another way, though, by spiriting his son away from court, and helping him make a new life under an assumed name: that of the much celebrated artist and writer ‘Lomazzo’.
Why, though, would Elizabeth be so taken with this gentleman? Well, we know something of the personality of Paris Bordone, because he appears in Vasari’s Lives of the Great Artists. There, writing in 1568, Vasari says of Paris:
“And this much it must suffice to have said of Paris, who, being seventy-five years of age, lives quietly at home with his comforts, and works for pleasure at the request of certain Princes and others his friends, avoiding rivalries and certain vain ambitions, lest he should suffer some hurt and have his supreme tranquillity and peace disturbed by those who walk not, as he says, in truth, but by dubious ways, malignantly and without charity; whereas he is accustomed to live simply and by a certain natural goodness, and knows nothing of subtleties or astuteness in his life.”
It is not hard to see why Elizabeth should have adored him, being otherwise surrounded by manipulative, spoiled and ambitious courtiers, all false, devious and on the make. And it is no surprise that she never married. No one else she met was in the same league.
What I have been so far skirting around, though, is how a young black man could come to study with Titian and be courted by royalty. And how he might come to have a name such as Paris Bordone… ? The fact is he took it from his grandpa, a sometime mapmaker called Benedetto Bordone (1460-1531). But Paris was not his birth name. So what was it?
The first clue I found in a cloud. A rather famous cloud, a cloud that in its day was regarded as frankly rather weird, but which has now long passed into our expectations of the sort of vehicle God would ride in. In short, I found the clue in Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’. There is a face in the cloud that has been there for five hundred years but that no one has commented on. It’s a face that not one of the countless millions who looked even noticed. Tucked away in the shadows, Michelangelo drew the handsome profile of a young man, a youngster whose charisma, warmth, determination and courage was to make him one of the great unsung heroes of his time.
As our eyes accustom to the gloom, his presence suddenly seizes the eye, and as it dawns on us what we are looking at, the implications are explosive. It is immediately apparent that this is no ordinary profile, this profile is not of a Caucasian. It is African.
Michelangelo wrote the lad’s name across his head, and again and again over the whole area. The young man was called ‘Ali’, and he made it clear that the boy was very special and deeply treasured. ‘Ali, ti amo’ he wrote: ‘Ali, I love you.’ The youth was a slave, and Michelangelo was incensed against this evil, this most vile of crimes, and denounced it as best he dare in work after work. He demanded all slaves be free: indeed, he quietly wrote it across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. ‘Schiavi, libertá!’ And we can only understand the full depth of his passion when we also know that Ali was Michelangelo’s son.
In 1491, the artist and opportunist Luca Signorelli was traveling. He had been helping the largest slave traders of the times, the Marchionnis, to organize workshops where ivory could be carved – by slaves – into table adornments for the rich and powerful, and he was heavily involved in the kidnap and enslaving of Africans himself. Michelangelo despised him, depicting him in a drawing entitled ‘African slaves’, as a demon.
In 1490, this Luca had accepted a commission by the Medicis to paint a scene in Volterra, Italy, and most likely while doing this, he left his African slave Fatima at the Medici Palace in Florence.
Michelangelo had arrived there the previous year at tha age of 14, and after a harsh and abusive childhood. He took to Fatima immediately, perhaps recognizing in her a kindred spirit. In 1491, with Luca still away, she became pregnant with Michelangelo’s child, and Ali was born on August 8th the following year, the year Columbus arrived in the Caribbean. Luca continued to travel, spending much of the 1490s away from Italy, and after the Medicis were overthrown in 1494, and had to flee the city, we momentarily lose track of Fatima and her son.
What we do know, though, is that the two soon came under the control of another particularly nasty piece of work, known variously as Iohes Marchionni, and Michele da Cuneo, depending on what nefarious dealing he was up to at the time. He was involved in Columbus’ second voyage to the Americas in 1493, and a letter still exists that he wrote to a friend, describing with relish how Columbus ‘gave’ him a native Carib girl, and how he had raped and beaten her, until – as he wrote – “it seemed she had studied at a school for whores”.
Justice for da Cuneo was not too long in coming, though.
The artist Mantegna tells us of Michele/Iohes Marchionni’s fate in his painting of the Three Kings, where the Christ child, despite his complexion, is labelled ‘Ali’, and Mary is named as ‘Fatima’. The King to the right of Mary, (who you may recognize as Michelangelo) is bringing a present for the child: a flask labelled ‘Poison to kill Iohes Marchionni’.
And so it was to be. In 1503, Mantegna tells us (in further hidden annotations in his painting), that assisted by one of Leonardo’s apprentices (known to us today as Melzi), Ali administered a lethal dose of arsenic. Iohes Marchionni suffered a sudden, severe and prolonged attack of dysentery, and expired.
Ali’s troubles were far from over, though. Fatima was inherited by Michele da Cuneo’s best friend, but what of Ali? As Fatima’s child he had also been da Cuneo’s legal ‘property’, and so he went with her. And who was this best friend? Who was this inheritor of slaves? No less than Michelangelo’s most bitter rival, Leonardo da Vinci. And that is how Leonardo came to ‘own’ Michelangelo’s son, and how Michelangelo came to loathe the man.
Very soon after Ali joined his new ‘owner’s’ household, Leonardo’s employer died. His Holiness Alexander VI, the notorious Borgia Pope also ingested something that disagreed with him, and was no more. Leonardo was out of work, and worse, an enemy might soon be sitting on the Papal Throne. He set out, hotfoot, for the election in Rome, and Ali went with him.
Leonardo was a man of huge political influence, and he got his way: Pope Pius III, a distant member of the family, was duly elected. But it was not to last. Pius III too was poisoned, and lasted not even one month, having been elected on the 22nd September, and dying on 18th October, 1503. The Cardinals, still assembled for the coronation, wasted no time, and given the financial rewards being dished out, on November 1st elected Giuliano della Rovere as the new occupant of St Peter’s throne. Alas for Leonardo, Giuliano was the most vehement enemy of the Borgias, and trouble loomed. The new Pope Julius II, as he called himself, was a catastrophe, and the night the results of the election were announced, Leonardo and his friends decided to drown their sorrows.
There in Rome, and under the very same roof as they drank, they found another interested party in the election of the new Pope: Frederick, the future King of Denmark and Norway, and his young and attractive wife, Anna of Brandenburg. And she was fascinated by Ali, who even at the age of 11, cut quite a figure with his good looks, wit, and charm. For Anna, only just in her teens herself, Ali was a lot more intriguing and exotic than poor Frederick, and… we all know what happens when the wine flows freely, no?
As recorded by Hieronymus Bosch in his most famous painting, exactly nine months later Anna gave birth to a beautiful princess, who they named ‘Dorothea’. To the shock and dismay of Frederick, though, the child was not his. Indeed, the identity of the real father was written all over her face.
1504 found Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Ali all in Florence. The statue of David had just been completed, and to Michelangelo’s fury, the Florentines appointed Leonardo among others to decide where in the city it should stand. The next year Ali’s dad was summoned to Rome by the new Pope, Julius II, to design his tomb. The Pontiff said he wanted ‘to aggrandize himself in the public imagination’, and thus the tomb had to be the biggest ever built since the days of the Egyptians. When he saw the bill for the first cartload of stone, though, he shut the door in Michelangelo’s face, and refused to see him. First things first, he decided – a huge tomb needed a huge building to house it, and the then St Peter’s was no way large enough. He would pull it down and start again, begin on a new one, the one we know today. But where was the cash to come from?
While he worked on that, Julius decided to get Michelangelo to paint his ceiling. The Sistine Chapel needed a revamp, and so – much against his will – Michelangelo set to work. And he immortalized his son there more than once. He delved back into his drawings and chose one of Ali he had made in 1498 (on which he had much later made some sketches for the slaves he sarcastically planned to sculpt for Julius’ tomb), and used it for one of the cherubs in his Libyan Spandrel.
He chose another sketch of Ali for one of the huge naked youths, again changing the head and the skin tone, so as not to make the boy a target.
And then in 1510, when he painted the Creation of Adam, he lovingly placed the boy’s profile in God’s cloud. He painted sadly, though, because he did not know if he would ever see the lad again.
Ali, you see, was by then half a world away.
To build the greatest church in Christendom, one worthy of his magnificent tomb, Julius had to fill his coffers with loot, and so he embarked on a series of wars to subjugate all the cities within easy reach, all those not already paying him a fortune in tribute. Foremost on his list was the fabulously wealthy Venice… alas, though, it was not only fabulously rich, it was also fabulously powerful, and so Julius allied himself with various foreign powers to invade the republic and to split the proceeds between them. On 14th May 1509, a huge battle was fought at Agnadello, and the Venetians were routed, broken, destroyed. A huge celebratory banquet and wild festivities were called in Rome by Pope Julius, and as his party subsided, he decided to take some other much needed relief.
You see, Pope Julius was notorious for liking young men. Very young men, in fact, and a lad working in Leonardo’s studio had taken his eye. The boy, who we know as Salai, had been invited, along with Leonardo (who had now wormed his way back into His Holiness’s affections), and Ali went too, to keep him company. Ali tells us then what happened, drawn in what until now has been thought to be a rather indecent piece of graffiti, and scrawled on the back of one of Leonardo’s many pages of notes. We still have the drawing.
Ali was fond of Salai, who was only 11 at the time, and he intended to defend him – decisively – against the planned abuse. He might perhaps have found a more diplomatic way to do this, but he was also well aware of the monstrous role the head of Christendom was playing in the development of the slave trade, and so the party was not to turn out at all the way His Holiness expected.
Perhaps Julius thought that Ali would bring some spice to the party, but what he actually brought was a sharp blade, and when the more private festivities began, he used it, nipping the Holy Father’s aspirations in the bud. Julius vanished from the pages of history for several months, and although the physical wound healed, the mental one did not. He was a broken man. Raphael captured his mood perfectly, in a sycophantic portrait he painted of the unhappy pontiff a few years later, lamenting on his patron’s behalf: ‘Castrato per Ali e Salai’.
But in the immediate aftermath, all hell broke loose. Michelangelo’s nephew and one of Leonardo’s sons were murdered, and Leonardo, his apprentice Salai, and Ali all fled, together, just as far as anyone could ever get from Rome. They vanished from the pages of history for four whole years, from 1509 to 1513, and took refuge in Nueva Isabella, on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean. Leonardo dated and inscribed the location faintly on all his work through the period: there is no doubt.
In 1513, Pope Julius passed away, assisted on his journey, we are told, by no less than Michelangelo, and with the threat gone, and a Medici now elected to the supreme position in the Church, Leonardo and his entourage could now safely return. He emerged from his four year vanishing act from the pages of history, and settled in Rome.
Ali, though, was free. Most likely he traveled with Salai, the boy he had saved from Julius’s clutches, and the next year, 1514, we find him in the court of Margaret, Regent of the Netherlands. It was there, in 1515, attired in extraordinary finery, that Jan Mostaert painted the young man’s portrait.
And why wouldn’t he? Mostaert was in reality the elder brother of Michelangelo, who had faked his death some five years before to escape a vendetta over the murders, in the Vatican, of his two sons, and had moved to the Netherlands permanently, to the court of Margaret, for whom he had worked, on and off since 1503.
Mostaert also gives a glimpse of why Ali was now so favoured – and such wildly extravagant costume and accoutrements certainly need explanation. Margaret had had an unhappy life, her first proposed husband, the King of France, dumping her in 1491; her first actual husband, the heir to the Spanish throne, had been murdered just three months after they married; and then her second husband, the Duke of Savoy died after only three years together. Margaret, broken-hearted and in despair, said ‘no more husbands’. Tiny letters on the hilt of Ali’s sword, though, suggests she changed her mind, having found the companionship and affection that life had denied her until then, in Ali. She was not his first Princess, nor was she to be his last.
And this takes us back to where we left off in the quest to find out how a young half-African man, a former slave, could come to study with Titian. Titian, you see, had an earlier alias also. It was usual in those days before surnames were fixed, when vendetta was common, and murder easy. When he was apprenticed to Leonardo he called himself ‘Melzi’, and that is how the two knew one another.
They had murdered Ali’s slave owner together, worked in the same studio together, and they had something else in common too: Hans Holbein. Hans, if you remember, was the one who painted the anamorphic skull in the Ambassadors, the artist who expired in Henry’s court in 1543, and who William Scrots replaced. There were those who said that Hans did not die of natural causes, and that he was sent on his way by the King. There was a score to settle, one in which Titian, and Ali, both had a deep interest.
Hans, we discover in many paintings of the time, had an earlier life, too. He faked death in 1524, passing word around that he had died in a duel. But it was a grand deception. He had just entered into a bigamous marriage, lured by a shortage of funds and a large dowry, and needed to run away with the proceeds. The family would want the dowry back, but no point in chasing a corpse… hence the ‘duel’, and the ‘death’. And who was this earlier incarnation of Hans Holbein? Who was it that died in this fictional duel? The name he had used until then was Salai, and he worked with Ali and Melzi in Leonardo’s studio.
It was this Salai who was Ali’s closest friend, this Salai Ali defended from a rapacious Pope, this Salai he named his first son after, this Salai – now Hans – he went to Henry’s court to avenge.
But wait, we know why Ali was in Leonardo’s studio, but what of Salai and Melzi? There are lots of tales told, but don’t believe for one moment that these two good looking youngsters were Leonardo’s gay lovers. Not a bit of it. They were both family. You see, Leonardo was not gay. He married – to Beatrice, the sister of Iohes Marchionni – you can see her in his portrait entitled ‘Ginevra de’ Benci’…
and he had a string of children with her. His first boy, raised by another family and christened Pedro Alvares, also went by the names of Hans Holbein the Elder when in Germany, and Gregorio Vecellio when cutting timber in the Dolomites. Melzi and Salai were his sons. They were Leonardo’s grandchildren.
And what are Veronese, Vasari, and Levina Teerlinc doing in our story? They too were children of Michelangelo, born to the great love of his life, Vittoria Colonna. Ali was their half-brother, and Lomazzo and Robert Tudor their nephews. Robert’s two grandfathers were Henry VIII, and Michelangelo.
And Elizabeth’s son? What became of Robert? Ah, well that is another story… and not for now, alas. But don’t forget him. Remember, remember, this Tudor pretender…