Those who make a discovery that results in people having to rethink everything they believed had better watch out. We are simians, you see, part of the biological classification that includes apes and Old World monkeys, and simians tend to be very wary about others intruding from different troops. The alphas – of whatever simian troop we might be discussing, academic simians, for example – don’t like intruders at all. They bring trouble with them. Our intellectual experts build their reputations and prestige, their status and position in the pecking order, perhaps even their very reason for being, on an accepted way of doing things, on an acknowledged dogma. They are good at it, and they will defend it at any cost, just as the medieval church defended the theoretical foundation for its bounteous privileges against heretics of every hue. They will defend their territory and their dominance against anyone who looks like disrupting that precious order. So beware, intruder – upset them – and every dirty trick in the book will be thrown your way. They will wave the flag of academe at you, but the methods they will use will have nothing to do with the flag they wave.
For example… in 2012 it was discovered that many hundreds of old paintings were not what they seemed. They have another side to the one everyone had talked about for centuries – they are packed with hidden annotations identifying all the characters present in the image. We thought they were from the Bible or Greek myth, but in fact they were people the artists knew. The painting is also an allegory, telling tales of rape, theft, murder, piracy, slavery, illicit love, you name it, it is there. And the artists painting these scenes were all related, and all deeply mired in the vendettas of the day. They were there in the courts of Kings and Popes not just to paint, but also to spy, and on occasion to assassinate an enemy. The mercury, lead and arsenic paints they used were the perfect weapon, and to carry out their objectives, they used aliases, often a different one for every city they had cause to visit. They faked their parentage and even the deaths of their avatars as opportunity and threat demanded, and the notaries among their relatives did the paperwork.
The tales that our artists tell reveal that almost nothing we thought we knew about the Renaissance was true: for five hundred years we have believed the cover stories the rich and powerful put out to manipulate public opinion. We have been living in a fairy tale. The truth, then, as it emerges, seems utterly surreal, incredible, bizarre. But the evidence is there, and it doesn’t always take a trained eye to see. Most ordinary people I have pointed it out to not only saw it within the first minute, but immediately then started to see further hidden material as well, often annotations and sketches that I had missed. But don’t expect this new evidence to carry any weight with the academic alphas that own the old story, the story on which they based their own sense of importance. In this struggle, academic standards are about to be tossed from their windows.
One whiff of being non-troop is enough. For example, I presented two paintings by Holbein of men in their fifties, who (the artist clandestinely reveals in the paintings) are the long lost Princes in the Tower, and he provides also the aliases under which they were living. So far so good. The academics I was talking to (enthusiasts of Richard III) wanted to believe that their hero had not murdered them. There was no real opposition, a little grumbling and grunting, but no shrieks of rage: the paintings confirmed what they wanted to believe.
But then I went on to say that Holbein also named the boys’ father, and it was not at all who they expected. History knows the boys as the sons of Yorkist Edward IV, but Holbein says the father was really the Lancastrian King Henry VI, Edward’s most bitter rival. The two fought over the throne of England for decades. One possible explanation for Holbein’s revelation is that Edward’s wife, a Lancastrian, married Yorkist Edward not for glory as a Queen, but to spy on him and to help her cousin Henry to get the throne back. And since that meant having children – an heir apparent was an essential part of the deal – she had to find a way for those children to be Henry’s rather than Edward’s.
If true (and Holbein might well know, considering that he knew both Princes very well, one of them having even married his ex-wife), then the whole history of the period would have to be rethought. It would blow a hole a mile wide in everything the alpha simians and their troop had thought up to then. Paintings of the time, it was claimed, presented an invaluable new historical resource. They offered a possible breakthrough in being able to understand the period. One might expect a dedicated scholar to say ‘If that’s true, it’s really important, because xyz… let’s look at the evidence!’, and then as the full significance sank in, to add ‘and if it’s confirmed, then what else might this source tell us?!’ But no. What happened instead was a cacophony of whooping, screeching and hooting… Let me quote, because as a scientist I recorded it all: ‘nonsense!’, ‘preposterous!’, ‘pure hogwash!’, ‘far-fetched!, ‘rubbish!’, ‘ludicrous!’, and that immortal expression, so demeaning to an essential part of the human body, ‘what a load of bollocks!’. Did they look at the evidence? No. They didn’t need to. It defied and undermined the existing creed, threatened their whole way of doing things, and worst of all sent shudders through the whole social order… and for that reason alone it must be wrong. They used the same reasoning the Pope used for not looking through Galileo’s telescope: dogma forbade it from being true.
When I asked them – rather than spouting abuse – to look at the evidence that was being presented, they were furious at the impertinence. ‘You are better suited to historical fantasy!’ they said; ‘another conspiracy theory by someone who’s read too much Dan Brown!’; ‘you should focus on writing fiction, as it seems you already have!’, ‘I would be embarrassed to use it as the plot for a novel, let alone suggest it as actual history!’. That’s the best way to examine such evidence. If it’s from an interloper that defies one’s tiny vision of reality, then don’t look at it, ridicule it. Much safer.
But when I still insisted they look at the evidence, the last vestige of academic standards were thrown aside in favour of a sturdier primate weapon. Warn the troop that this interloper is from the enemy camp, that is to say, kill the message with false connotations. Associate him with something of low status, something despised in another rival tribe, something few in the troop would want to be linked to. Knowing full well the new discoveries had nothing whatsoever to do with aliens or flying saucers they threw these dishonest comparisons at the intruder: ‘It’s similar to the Aliens TV show on the History Channel’; they cried, or ‘much like the UFOs in several Renaissance paintings, like the ‘Madonna and Child with the Infant St John’. One even hooted ‘let’s add extraterrestrials, UFOs and time traveling to make these arguments even more ludicrous!’. What an intellectual powerhouse, what an example to our centuries long academic traditions! His university would be so proud!
Anyway, as it became apparent that laughing it away would not work, and that they would actually have to address the evidence itself, new strategies began to emerge. Again they refused to look at the evidence, instead bringing stereotypes to the party, with which they wanted to prove that Holbein’s claims were logically impossible. ‘It could not be true that Edward’s wife had sex with his rival Henry’, one grunted, ‘because she was a noble lady’… She was noble, noble ladies don’t do such things, so it couldn’t have happened. Alphas stick together when something threatens them all, you see, and so another added. ‘I think you need to study the period and people before impugning any more reputations of 15th century noblewomen’. Stereotypes were brandished again in arguing that Henry VI would never have had sex with Edward’s wife because ‘The one attribute of Henry VI’s about which all writers (regardless of their pro-Lancastrian or pro-Yorkist leaning) agree is the king’s sincere piety, which bordered on saintly. To cast him as an adulterer is ludicrous in the extreme’. Better to be called ludicrous in the extreme than to be naïve in the extreme, no?
Next it was seriously argued that the lack of privacy in court meant that neither adultery nor any other conspiracy could have taken place without being found out, and so it couldn’t have happened. ‘Impossible, evidence is rubbish, end of story’. So were they saying that the Queen could not disrobe without being observed? Could not fart without everyone hearing? Obviously in all palaces, there were areas of appropriate levels of privacy where personal hygiene and personal discussions could be engaged in without being observed or overheard. And these same private areas could then be used for other private purposes also. Conspiracies and adulteries happened, and were got away with.
So then, when it had become hard to argue that there was no hidden text, there was a lot of chuntering that it wasn’t worth looking at the texts, because they were coming from mere ignorant, base-born artists. These historians clearly regarded artists as outsiders, members of another much inferior troop of simians. ‘How on earth could a stranger know something about Elizabeth Woodville and her children that her husband was ignorant of?’; ‘You are suggesting that a gaggle of painters were allowed to know this secret – and yet it didn’t make it into the official records?’ (‘Gaggle of geese’, ‘gaggle of painters’ – deprecation is so much easier than looking at new facts!); and then ‘Every Tom, Dick and Holbein knew, but not the King?
And so I explained that this family of artists was not like the average artist of today. They were deeply involved in court life: Jan van Eyck arranged the marriage of the Duke of Burgundy; Leonardo attended and advised at the meeting of the King of France and the Pope to try to end the war between them; Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Ghirlandaio ate at the same table, and slept in the same room as Lorenzo the Magnificent of Florence. And there was solid evidence that Holbein was not only close friends with Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, but that he had been close to Leonardo, too, having studied with him, and been much loved by him, while using the alias ‘Salai’. It was there he learned the technique of drawing anamorphic forms like the famous skull in the Ambassadors.
But they didn’t ask how an artist could know such things because they wanted to know. They didn’t want to know. They asked because the very idea of a low caste creature from another troop knowing so much was shocking to them. So their query was a rhetorical question, derisive rather than imbued with a spirit of academic inquiry. ‘There’s no reason–indeed, no possibility–that if such a fraud were perpetrated that this information would for any reason be revealed to a court painter’ (note that privacy had been allowed back for a fleeting appearance!); ‘It reminds me a bit of modern subway graffiti. Of course, it may just be that the New York subways contain secret messages about the birth of various British royals as well.’ And so the wildest of ethnocentric metaphors followed hard on the heels of deceitful connotations. The academic ideal had taken off its mask.
It was in retreat, though, and when it became impossible to still deny that artists might know things, being so well connected, and living sometimes for years in the very courts in which they said there was no secrecy… our simian primes had to find a reason for why artists – even if they knew – could not have put it in a painting. Even though they did, and even though anyone one who open-mindedly looks can see at least some of it. Reasons as to why something cannot happen are not hard to find. They have an entire armoury of them hidden away in the trees… ‘Jupiter cannot have moons because the Earth is the centre of the universe and everything revolves around us’; ‘The earth is obviously flat because if it weren’t people would fall off’; ‘Heavier than air flight is impossible, by definition’; and so on. And so we were then treated to: ‘There is no reason that a court painter who accidentally discovered this information would take the chance of putting any hint of it in his paintings–it would be treasonous slander, and more than his life was worth.’ But they did it anyway, so the question is why?
Finally, I produced and published a video actually showing the letters emerge one by one from the background, and spelling out the name of Edward V as he posed for Holbein while in his fifties. This finally forced some of the more vociferous of the troop to actually address the hidden text, and what happened next was significant. I picked some particularly clear examples of hidden text, and started by pointing out the veritable cascade of ’78’s provided in a portrait of Henry VI’s, telling of his death. Look in any history book and we will find the date 1471, seven years earlier, because that is when Edward had no further use for the poor Henry he had locked up in the Tower of London, and had him murdered. Clearly, if he really died in 1478, then the body shown in the funeral could not have been his, and so we have to consider the possibility that the ‘Henry’ that Edward IV had captured and imprisoned in the Tower six years before, was a fake, an imposter, a fall guy set up by the Lancastrians to take the heat off the real King Henry…
It was then that obscurantism made its debut: they saw the ‘78’s but… ‘The secret 78 could have been the year he painted it, or he simply liked that number; who knows!’ No. The ’78’ was preceded by the word ‘morto’… ‘dead. And dates of paintings appeared bottom right, or on the back of hands, not on the cheek of the dead person.
And when I pointed out that a character in a famous painting (actually the son of Edward V) was making a rude crooked finger gesture, an insult well known in its day, and that he was doing it to the letters ‘R3’ engraved in the door frame, I got the response: ‘The guy might just have a broken finger’. Yes, dear.
Then for the diehards who said they really had looked at the images but still could not see the letters, I posted a picture of a lady ministering to the dead Christ with ‘ARTE’ written boldly, clearly, brazenly on her upper sleeve. One lady expert, who had clearly seen the word wrote back: ‘The only one of your examples that even looks anything like what you are trying to show is the “ARTE”, which is pretty obviously to me just a matter of somebody seeing what they want to see in the painter’s rendition of the folds or pleats of the woman’s sleeve. (I also have no clue what “ARTE” would be meant to refer to.)’ She saw it, said it wasn’t there, and said she had no idea what it meant. Sigh. It had lots of meaning, though, even the clue she lacked was the last thing she perhaps wanted to hear. The artist identified the dead Christ as Leonardo, and two of the maidens assisting him as ‘ART’ (in Italian of course) and the other as ‘SCULPTURE’ (much harder to see, but there). That is to say, ‘art’ and ‘sculpture’ themselves were lamenting the loss of da Vinci.
There had been a parting of the ways. Many saw the letters, but could not accept the implications. The internal conflict was surprisingly easy to resolve, though: Academic ideals? Be dispassionate, listen to the whole case, look at the evidence? ‘No, that is for others. Just as Henry VI was pious to the point of being saintly, and Edward’s wife noblewomanly chaste, so too we are academics. We are espoused to the idea, we don’t need to practice it.’
So, moving on from the claim that the artists could not know, they then accepted they might know, but they wouldn’t dare to put it in the painting. And when they finally accepted they had put it in the painting, they saved the sacred dogma again by saying the artist was lying: ‘Holbein was hardly innocent of painting false pictures – apparently his painting of Anne of Cleves was far from the mark’. Quite why someone would risk life and limb to tell a deliberate lie that no one would believe they saw was not explained,
Others preferred to stick with obscurantism: some were prepared to abandon the ‘no privacy’ argument by saying ‘We can really have no idea about the internal politics that went on behind closed doors, we can only surmise and that leads us to all the theories that abound’. Others preferred just to hide in the bushes: ‘This isn’t the first time art has been used to try to prove something ‘; ‘We will never know the real truth…’. ‘Any interpretation is subjective, and the so called ‘secrets’ can mean any damn thing you want it to!’; ‘All very well to say this is based on a painting and what the artist believed….but how would you even know that??’. Well, because the artist said so, and I read it. Why don’t you go read it too?
One even took it further, and having seen the evidence, then developed his own conspiracy theory. He refused to believe the artist had put it there: ‘your request for a painting of her husband was a smart move, but I don’t bite your bait. That’s an attempt by you in order to receive such painting if it exists and then put the patterns you so desperately want into the painting (yes, I’m implying forgery).’ Forgery ?! All one needs do is look at the original paintings – and anyone can see they are identical to the ones I was presenting. And that was because the messages were not from me, but from the artist. (The writ for libel will not be from the artist, though.)
Others preferred to stick with denial that the evidence existed, but not actually say so. Instead they tried to trump the evidence with ‘authority’. And they did that in two ways: first, if they perceived themselves as lower in the chain of troop dominance, by demanding to know which ‘expert’ had authenticated it, as if one needed (rather than using one’s own eyes), to have an expert tell one, yes, that does say ‘gentlemen’ or ‘ladies’, before entering a toilet to relieve oneself. And they went on: ‘you are using evidence that has not been authenticated’; and ‘may you show us your sources about the letters and documents by professional historians where your theory appears?’; or ‘publish your ideas in peer-reviewed journals of history and art history, and see what our esteemed colleagues will say about this.’ Galileo, go get the Pope to authenticate that the Earth is not the centre of the Universe, and that Jupiter really has moons…’ I think not, thank you, I have no peers there, as you know: I am an intruder. I come from bioaesthetics and the science of camouflage, in particular – the manipulation of human attention.
Those who saw themselves as at the top of the troop hierarchy preferred to simply tell me I should bow before them and shut up: ‘Some of us have spent a lifetime studying this, so why don’t you go back to your own area of expertise?’. Same thinking that suggested Giotto go back to minding sheep, Darwin go back to stuffing animals, and Einstein go back to being a patent clerk. The one that raised even my eyebrows though, the one that revealed the darkest simian flair, burst out with: ‘As I am a Portuguese – don’t mess with Portuguese History as I will crush you’.
Others still decided to escalate the assault by claiming I was ‘possessed by demons’, except that is not so chic today to say that, and instead of mentioning demons, they used the 21st C version of the same thing: mental illness: ‘I am just glad that I don’t see hidden number codes in each and every motet I deal with. If I start to, it’s time for a therapy’; or ‘I think the problem is in your head instead of being in History’; or ‘…making such idiotic claims without any base except your delusional visions’. In short… if one is an alpha simian whose status is in peril, and if one can’t defeat the evidence, then all one needs do is imply the bearer of the evidence is beyond the pale of intellectual credibility.
Oh, if only blind rhetoric were informed reason, what geniuses these learned experts would be! But there was one last weapon in the simian armoury that had not been used. In just one group, when flaming at the stake had clearly failed, the ultimate means of preserving one’s imperiled dogma slunk from its lair: excommunication. ‘I call for the administrators to expel you from this group and delete this thread‘. The Middle Ages are alive and well, and living under the mortar boards of academic pretence.
Despite all the posturing, though, all the dominance displays, all the whooping and screeching, the evidence is still there. It will not go away. For every simian troop leader who gibbered and hooted, beat his or her breast, shook the leaves of their tree, or bared their teeth in indignant fury, there were twenty free-thinking individuals that found the idea intriguing, and who resolved to go look for themselves to see what this simian intruder was on about. The genie was out of the bottle.