They had no idea at all when they restored the painting, but in Ghirlandaio’s ‘An Old Man and his Grandson’, they were looking at a werewolf. ‘Licantropo’, it exclaims in the sky, and again (can you see?) filling the space above the old man’s head. And to be quite clear who he meant, Ghirlandaio drew a little chest hair peeping out from Grandpa’s jacket, as well as hair sprouting from his forehead.
The high priests of art assumed the chest hair was fur trim, and left it untouched. But they found the hair on his forehead so disturbing they painted over it. They knew better than Ghirlandaio how the painting should look… Which is a real shame, because such professional vandalism often sabotages the entire meaning of the painting.
Fortunately though, the little boy also survived alteration. No one recognized him. Little Red Riding Hood always has to be a girl, right? Well, not at all. As it happens, history is full of male ones, and here is a good example. Just to be sure, Ghirlandaio confirms who the little boy is by writing on his cap: ‘cappuccetto rosso’. He is indeed Little Red Riding Hood.
So who was this werewolf, really, and who was his intended (and rather apprehensive) victim? The old man is labeled ‘Arturo’. ‘Arturo 7’ to be precise, since he saw himself as the 7th Pretender to the French throne (the family was robbed of it back in 1332). He seems to have had another name, too… ‘Domenico Colo…’ but the rest is lost in the shadow.
Little Red Riding Hood is also named: he is Adamo, born in 1473, and wondering if he will make it to his next birthday. And knowing all that, dare we ask who Grandma was, and what happened to her? But of course: that is what this tale is all about.
Ghirlandaio, like all good artists, scatters clues everywhere. The best one is the little church, through the window, in the distance. Just to our left of the tree, hidden in the stonework of the church we see a loving couple, and on the church roof it tells us where the church is: Fontanarossa, near to Genoa, and although the base of the steeple has changed a little, the rest is quite recognisable. Up above, we see Granny’s little cottage almost lost in the woods, and formed from the letters ‘MA’. Another clue.
It seems Fontanarossa had a special place in the hearts of our artist clan, because Correggio also refers to it in his painting of the Madonna (the one with the cumbersome title below).
No church this time, just Granny’s cottage, labelled ‘Fontanarossa’. And we seem now to have an explanation for that ‘MA’ written on Ghirlandaio’s cottage. The main character in the painting is called ‘Maria Antonia’ (‘MA’), and her name appears on Correggio’s cottage also. It seems to have been where Grannie Maria Antonia lived. We also have the years of her birth and death: 1437, and 1485. And she looks awfully familiar, doesn’t she? But that is another story – what concerns us now is that there are several other names recorded here too.
We have ‘Domenico’, dated 1449, the year Domenico Ghirlandaio was born; then ‘Arturo 8’ dated 1451. Not ‘Arturo 7’, note … it would seem this Arturo was Arturo 7’s son and heir. And in the lady’s arms we find ‘Leonardo’, dated 1452, the year Leonardo da Vinci was born. And Correggio asks the vital question about the boy… two questions in fact, laid over one the other: ‘Figlio de Arturo?’; and ‘Figlio de Paolo?’ He is not sure who Leonardo’s dad was: was he Arturo the werewolf… or Paolo, Arturo’s rival in love? It does seem, though, that these are three of her children: Domenico, Arturo and Leonardo.It would make a lot of sense, because Domenico was the first born of those listed here, and he is named after Arturo’s alias: ‘Domenico Colo…’ And then Arturo 8, born in 1451, named after Arturo 7.
So what happened to ‘Grandma’? We know she died in 1485, but how, and what does it have to do with the werewolf? There is a painting by Pollaiuolo called ‘Apollo and Daphne’ which reveals, and revels in the sordid details. In the original Greek legend Daphne was pursued by Apollo, who she despised, and when it was clear he would capture her, she turned into a tree, with her arms as branches.
In Pollaiuolo’s painting, Apollo is labeled as Arturo, and Daphne is identified as Maria Antonia. And she indeed appears with her arms turning into the branches of a tree, on one side bearing the children that Arturo fathered, on the other those fathered by Paolo. (And not any Paolo… it was Paolo Uccello!)
By the time this painting was completed, he had also decided what to do about her having another lover. Indeed… he had done it. On her breast there is a small red mark resembling a ‘V’, and around it in tiny letters it says ‘coltello’ – meaning ‘knife’. Arturo stabbed her to death. And how can we be sure the artist wasn’t guessing? Because Pollaiuolo was the name Arturo used in Italy, and that is why ‘Pollaiuolo’ appears written on the werewolf’s lumpy nose. He painted ‘Apollo and Daphne’ to celebrate having murdered her.
Arturo was a serious man. There are more than twenty portraits of him, but in not one does he come even close to a smile. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have a sense of humour. Written across the ‘V’, the stab wound that now also doubles as an ‘N’, is the word ‘Fontanarossa’, or in English, ‘red fountain’. And now we see why his son Ghirlandaio referred to him as a werewolf.
There are still a few pieces missing from our puzzle. For a start, what does all this have to do with Columbus? Well, if we look at any roughly contemporary portrait of the man, or at any of his maps, we find that he was not always called Christopher. He adopted that name later, changing from his original name when he began planning a very long voyage. And what more propitious name for such a trip, than that of the patron saint of travellers, St Christopher? But what was this original name? It was Arturo. Arturo 8, to be exact, and he was born in 1451.
Sure enough, if we look in any history book to find the name of his father, what should we find but ‘Domenico Colombo’… a key alias of Arturo 7. And the secret name of Maria Antonia, when she was busy being the mother of Christopher Columbus? ‘Susanna Fontanarossa’. Susanna was the Biblical character unjustly accused of adultery: Paolo was the one she loved; Arturo, who she was forced to marry.