We were looking at the sketch Leonardo made of among others, Christopher Columbus, and saw he inscribed the word ‘liar’ across his head. So what was the lie so worthy of record?

Let’s check the date of the drawing – maybe there’s a clue there? Bottom right corner it tells us, over and over but so faintly it is barely visible, that Leonardo drew this in 1509:

columbus 1509

So it should have the word ‘morto’ written across Columbus’ lips. Any history book you care to check will tell you he died in 1506. But it doesn’t. It says ‘vivo’:

columbus vivo

So he faked it. Not surprising, really, given that his big supporter in Spain, Queen Isabella, was dead, leaving him to the tender mercies of her hostile husband Ferdinand. He had failed to reach China, and had spent a pile of the King’s money with little return. Better to return to one of his earlier aliases… But this isn’t the secret Leonardo was referring to. Just below his lower lip there is what looks like a drawing of a key, and it is made up of the letters ‘chiave’, which indeed is the Italian for ‘key’.

columbus chiave

There is an even bigger ‘C’ wrapped around the handle, though, and this begins another word: ‘cousin’. What to make of that?

columbus cousin

‘Cousin’ in Italian is ‘cugino’, so we are not talking about a relative, are we. Just beneath is a little face, and another name. The hardest yet to read, so subtle are the variations in tone. But in letters just ever so slightly paler than their surroundings it tells us he is called ‘Jehan Ango’:

columbus ango

Jehan Ango? Cousin? What is this all about? Up in his hair, written over the other ship, is another clue. A date.

columbus1489

There is a legend, more popular in France than anywhere else, that in 1488 a shipping magnate by the name of Jehan Ango sent one of his ships on a trading trip to Africa. The captain he chose was called Jean Cousin. And Cousin was adventurous. A new instrument had recently been invented, called the quadrant, and using it, one could boldly sail away from shore, over the horizon, and maintain the exact same latitude however far one chose to sail. And then sail right back again to where one started. The danger of losing sight of the coast and never again being able to find it was at an end. And so the legend has it that Cousin sailed as far south as the Equator, and then turned west, heading directly for the Amazon. When Cousin returned to Dieppe in 1489, and broke the news to Ango that there was land the other side of the Atlantic, and he decided that should remain the mother of all commercial secrets – and so it remained until Columbus set sail three years later. And this is perhaps why we find the word ‘Maragnon’ written where one would place one’s hand to turn Columbus’ key:

columbus maragnon

Maragnon? The original name Europeans used to refer to the River Amazon. It was still used as late as the 18thC, and the state in Brazil adjacent to the Amazon still bears the name ‘Maranhão’, the exact Portuguese equivalent. It was always thought the Cousin story was invented in the 18thC to justify French claims in the Americas, but now it seems that Leonardo had already heard the tale back in 1509, that he knew Columbus well enough to be able to define pretentiousness as his key quality, and to call him a liar. He was not the first European to cross the Atlantic, Cousin was.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The big story emerges when we know that ‘Cousin’ was an alias: the thunderbolt hits when we find out who he REALLY was.