Count Amadeus V, or ‘Amaduccio’ as he was known to his friends, was not only the Count of Savoy, but like his ancestors before him, also a powerful merchant banker involved in the wool and silk trade. And according to his son Ayman, he sexually abused both him and his brother, Edoardo.
Ayman’s mother, Isabella of Bâgé, had many children by Amadeus, but perhaps despairing of his other interests, she eventually took a lover. And so, in his famous painting ‘Maestá’, Amaduccio (or ‘Duccio’ for short) says he murdered her. Duccio you see, was not only a Count and a merchant banker, but also a very fine artist, one of the big names of the early Renaissance.
In the fullness of time, as was usual, his two sons declared a vendetta against him – twice over – for the abuse they had suffered, and for the murder of their mother. And then Duccio married again, this time to a young and pretty princess – Maria, the daughter of the King of Brabant. Brabant was the economic powerhouse of Europe, its King was even more wealthy than Duccio, and Maria painted, too, so the match seemed made in Heaven. But given her new husband’s interest in young men (or ‘young horses’ – ‘cavallini’ as we suspect he called them), she soon found she was more of a political ally and an adornment, than a lover.
Maria was not going to take this lying down, though. She was a full-blooded young woman, fearless, and not one to be cheated out of the pleasures of life. And so she watched Ayman with interest. He was her age, equalled her enthusiasm and ability in art, sarcastically adopted as his nom-de-plume the name of ‘Pietro Cavallini’ (‘Peter of the Little Horses’), and he grew into an exceptionally handsome and alluring youth. And so, while painting devoutly religious scenes together, a passionate affair erupted, and they celebrated their ardour by hiding torrid cartoons in their masterpieces.
Then, in 1308, when Ayman was just 17, their very first child was born, who they called Guido Antonio. The sexual abuse had been avenged: one vendetta down, one to go.
We don’t know for sure, but it seems likely that Maria absented herself when her pregnancy became apparent, and left her baby behind when she returned to court. But Duccio was not fooled. He knew about Guido Antonio, and in his paintings he referred to Maria as a whore, and said he suspected that Ayman was the father.
More children followed, all trained in the arts, and filled the pages of history with their famous names. They illuminated manuscripts, adorned wooden altarpieces, emblazoned huge frescoes – and wrote. After Guido Antonio came Rolando (better known as Jean Pucelle); then Martino (who wrote as Boccaccio); then Margareta (the artist Simone Martini); and then in 1318, Teresa (who as Teresa Lourenço became the mother of King João I of Portugal).
Maria, though, still longed for her firstborn son to be with her, and one day, probably in 1313, after a journey to Bologna, she returned back at court with him. She had found him, she told her husband, a poor shepherd boy, drawing wonderful scenes on a rock with a stick, and she had asked the boy’s father if she could adopt him. Being desperately poor, he had agreed, and here he was.
Duccio was not amused, and for their safety, in 1317 Ayman and Maria took young Guido safely out of Amaduccio’s menacing clutches. They went to Genoa, along with their other children, where he changed the family name to ‘Fregoso’, (as in ‘mi ha fregata la moglie’ – ‘he has stolen my wife’); took a new coat of arms; and adopted as his motto ‘Ni mater me’, which means: ‘I had no mother’.
So… we know the Count of Savoy was Duccio, and his son Ayman was the equally famed artist Pietro Cavallini, but what of Maria? And what of the shepherd boy who ‘drew so well with a stick’? They too have illustrious names, perhaps even more exalted: names that appear not only in paintings, but even in mosaics.
When Ghiberti, our only real source of information, spoke of Maria, he was ambiguous about her gender. And it never crossed the minds of 500 years of male chauvinist art historians that so wonderful an artist as Maria could be anything other than a man. So who was Maria, this Irresistible Princess of Brabant, that experts still think swelled a codpiece?
She tells us her name was Cimabue (‘the one who rode the ox’) – and she is – not surprisingly – ‘Mary’ in the mosaic above, with her name also written between the horns of the cow. And her son Guido Antonio? It seems he had various nicknames, such as ‘Agalea’, and the Genoese name ‘Alfredo Fregoso’, but we know him much better as the most renowned of all artists of the time… ‘Giotto’.
The die was cast, and so, nearly two hundred years later, another of Cimabue and Ayman’s descendants also came from Genoa, and not from Savoy: the man we know as Christopher Columbus. But that is another and much more shocking tale!