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Aly, Michelangelo’s Son

Our modern age loves simplicity, and one solitary meaning for everything, but when writing a tale set in the Renaissance, one needs to allow for a wisdom greater by far. In the book Aly, Michelangelo’s Son, the main character loves layers, and how each new one offers something different about any subject of fascination. On completing the novel, I found that I had followed him, not modernity, and that I had incorporated no less than twelve such levels into the book on his life.

Passionate Action!

​There is the surface story of Aly, a tale of passion, outrage, anger, assassination, a tale beset by a panoply of hidden identities and political intrigues. It traces his life from birth as a slave, accepted by Michelangelo, who depicted him secretly on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as his son. The young man went on to accomplishments both in art… and assassination, indeed hiding the details of his exploits in some hundreds of paintings that still exist. His great purpose in life was to stop the terrifying barbarism being perpetrated in the New World and Old, but things never seemed to work out quite as expected.​​

Renaissance and Slavery

Secondly, there is the setting: the Renaissance, in Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, England, and Scotland. It covers the first European visits to Brazil, China and Japan, and as a backdrop it addresses corruption in the heart of the Vatican, and the horrors of the Spanish genocide in the Caribbean, and the birth of trans-Atlantic slavery.

Dark Secrets

Various depictions of Herman van Eyck, Jan’s brother, who pursued art in Italy before turning to a more ecclesiastical career.

Third, it exposes vast misconceptions regarding the period’s most famous names, not only in startling revelations about who was related to whom, but also in how they used a variety of aliases, aliases we now take to be different people. In particular it looks at the double lives of the artists Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Durer; the explorers Columbus, Bartolomeo Dias, and Pedro Alvares Cabral; the Pope, Julius II – and various monarchs including Edward V (who survived the Tower). The tale shows how these dark machinations affected the survival of monarchs such as Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I (all of whom were murdered), and reveals that Elizabeth I had a child she called Robert.

What’s Life For?

Trying to speak (as a 72 year-old) for someone who died in his eighties, there is also an exploration of the purpose of life. This takes many forms, including parallels in the world of art: how one adds pigment to create a painting, but chips away at stone to create a sculpture – and how inspiration can be found in chaos.

Counterfeit Universes

​​Fifth, the narrative examines the role of words and stories in creating a second, counterfeit universe, a fiction that masquerades as the world of our experience, distorting our view of life, and leading us to be endlessly deceived. And this leads to the next level:

The future King James I of England painted by Rowland Lockey, (also known as Robert Tudor)

More Mischief of Words

Beyond this duplicity of words, the book also glances at the very structure of language, and how it subverts our understanding of the world. Unashamedly inspired by the work of Sapir and Whorf, this level is deliberately subversive, trying to undermine the rigidity with which grammar rules our thinking. Some nouns and adjectives and about 30 adverbs have been ‘verbed’ to throw new light on the way language intercepts our attempts to make sense of our world. I do this not to prove how clever I am, since I long accepted the bitter truth that I am not, but hoping to draw attention not only to the mischief words engage in, but also the malevolence of the rules by which they are strung together.

The Duplicity of Truth

​This links to another major theme, the seventh, that of the brittleness of certainty, the fraud of faith, and the duplicity of truth, and how one can live in a world where fact and fiction, good and evil, love and barbarism are inextricably mixed, and everything has multiple meanings.

Mantegna’s Allegory on the Expulsion of the Vices, with a second allegory in the clouds

Words of Genius

The eighth level is more playful, and fictional in the sense that where great people have had something very relevant to say on events in the book, I have sometimes included them. I have added well-established quotes from Leonardo and Michelangelo, but you will also find other brief references to people not yet born when Aly was alive – from Cervantes to Ali Smith; Shakespeare, Chekhov, Tolstoy and Roland Barthes to Derek Walcott, Julian Barnes, and Jamie Holmes -and my dear friend Ellen Dissanayake. So as not to disrupt the flow, but equally not to plagiarise them, I Italianized their first names and attributed the saying as if they were Aly’s friends – which I think they would have been!

Metaphor and Symbol

The ninth is a metaphorical and symbolic layer, one of light and shadow, of the wind and ocean; time as seen through the hourglass, candle, sundial and clock, and through the ageing of the human body; of labyrinths, monsters, heroes and scarlet threads; of indulgences, pilgrimages and relics; of leaves, fruit, and stepping stones true and false, and the perilous gaps that lurk between; of camouflage and deception – husks and the seed within, of peel and fruit, bark and the trunk inside, and of swords and their scabbards.

Mythology

​The tenth is mythological, drawing as Aly would have, not only from Hebrew legend and the Bible, but from that of the Greeks and native Caribbean people, and that too of King Arthur, a famous version of which became a bestseller just seven years before he was born. This is not only to try to conjure up some of the feeling of the time, but because the characters – the Chimera, the Ouroboros, Nemesis, Excalibur, Polyphemus and Medusa all play a vital part, and offer useful mental tools for better understanding our times.

Odysseus (aka ‘Nobody’) and his men putting out Polyphemus’ eye, from a painting by Aly’s son Primaticcio.

Buried Deep

The eleventh? Well, I kept noticing parallels between Aly’s story and the oldest legend we now know, one discovered in recent times written in cuneiform inscriptions on tablets of clay… The story wasn’t known in Aly’s day, but its echoes doubtless had an impact, so I tucked it away where only the most observant and determined will find it.

Number Twelve

​​And the twelfth? The most important of all, but I’ve said enough. That is for you to find when you read the book! One of the purposes of art is to deepen the mystery, after all!