The very first thing he had to do, Jan decided, in order to overthrow the King of Naples, was to die. And so in 1441, as his son-in-law King Alfonso V of Aragon prepared to lay seige to the city, Jan van Eyck did just that. A mass was held, condolences passed to his widow Margareta; and his employer, the Duke of Burgundy, began paying her a pension. And the whole world fell for it.
But Jan was very far from dead. He slipped away from Bruges with his 12 year old son Antonello, and adopted a new identity, that of the artist ‘Colantonio’. And he presented himself, with some very fine paintings, at the court of King René d’Anjou in Naples. Jan’s brother Herman had already been working there for three years, disguised as one ‘Arano Cybo’, indeed he was now the Viceroy of Naples, and so introductions were easy – but Jan needed to be sure he was not recognised.
Some years before, while René was imprisoned by the Duke of Burgundy, Jan had helped teach him how to paint, and so he had to believe Jan was dead. Herman kindly told him the grave news. And he needed a disguise, too, to be quite sure, so he grew a beard… and he spoke Italian (which was not hard at all, really, because he had lived in both countries since he was born, in the North as Johann Limbourg, then in the South as the Italian artist Masolino, and between the two as the Italian merchant Arnolfini). He was a master of deception.
Slyly, he pretended to René that he wanted to learn the wondrous secrets of miniature painting that he had learned from that Flemish artist while in captivity. René was enchanted. It was a treat to be able to talk with someone so cultured, and so in awe of the talent he had learned from the much lamented Jan.
But wait. We said that King Alfonso was Jan’s son-in-law? How could that be? Well, Jan came from one of the wealthiest families in Europe, merchants in silk, spices, gold, jewels and fine clothing, and his grandpa – after seizing Famagusta and its fabulous treasure, had been the richest man in Europe. They knew everyone: Kings, Queens, Princes, everyone. Jan had worked for the King of France’s uncle; negotiated the purchase of a gold necklace with King Henry V of England; and arranged the provision of a bride for the Duke of Burgundy from the King of Portugal. And Jan’s daughter Lucrezia was just as talented: she conquered the King of Aragon without batting an eyelash.
Legend has it that she met him in the street and presented him with a love gift. Much taken with her beauty and her boldness, he gave her a purse full of little gold coins (called ‘Alfonsinos’, since they bore his image). She took the purse, emptied the contents, took just one and returned all the rest. ‘One Alfonsino is quite enough for me’ she said, and he fell in love on the spot. And soon after, even though she was only 15 at the time, she bore him a child. And this child became quite an important lady: the mother of Leonardo da Vinci, no less, but that is another story, and I digress.
Returning to Jan, he teased King René by saying that he should really be getting back to the Low Countries, and the King, dismayed, implored him to stay. And since he was now regarded as a close friend, Jan had the run of the city. He and his son could now busy themselves with their great challenge: how to find a way under the walls of Naples.
And Jan (now calling himself Colantonio) recorded exactly how it happened. If we look at his painting of St Jerome in his study, just behind the Saint, we see a wooden box with a dark hole at its base. It’s his latrine. And wisely, so the lion wouldn’t have second thoughts about being his friend, St Jerome restrained the smell by covering the hole at the top with a piece of paper!
And that’s not all. There is a face in the hole at the bottom of the box, that of Jan’s son: and he is saying ‘chiave’. The latrine is the key to the painting. For there, coiled in the dark and smelly shadow, we also find the word ‘fogno’, which means ‘sewer’.
Sewers were the downfall of Naples. In summer they dried out, and the bravest of the brave could follow their path, beneath the walls, clear out of the city, completely out of sight. And so one dark night Jan and his son escaped down their newly found treasure trail, and took the news to where it was most eagerly awaited. Alfonso, who was now surrounding the seemingly impregnable city, was ecstatic, and soon after, while everyone snored, his son Ferrante*, with 200 well armed soldiers, entered the city and surrounded René’s palace.
What was René to do, then, as he arose and peered from his bedroom window to find the enemy at his door? He fled, and the city fell to Alfonso.
But we missed a treat. The paper that covers the entrance to the latrine is a manuscript. It says something. Jan was never one to ever miss the chance for a wry joke, or to give credit where it was due, so he wrote there the family motto. It says ‘Als Ix Xan, Papa’. Which is Flemish for ‘As best I can, dad’!
Jan’s son Antonello, having aided the fall of Naples, subsequently became an artist of the greatest talent, to whom, the books say, Jan entrusted his secrets as he became old… And he later moved in with Lucrezia and Alfonso, and played a very senior role not only in the education of Ferrante’s children, but also in the cultural life of Naples. The city flourished.
Jan himself also continued to paint for another 30 years, incognito, and was eclipsed by his talented son. Alas, though, Antonello got little credit for it, because the experts, in their wisdom, attributed almost all of his work to his uncle, who we also know as the artist Rogier van der Weyden. Fortunately, though, he signed every piece, so the truth will out, and this – one of the smaller blunders of what has until now passed as art history, will soon be forgotten. Along, perhaps, with the belief that Jan died in 1441 merely because a mass was held for him, and his wife got a pension. Or that Jan’s brother Herman (masquerading under the alias ‘Masaccio’) died in 1428, because it was written in his tax record for that year ‘someone said he died in Rome’. Who but an art historian would believe such gossip – or indeed anything, come to that – written in a tax record?!