In 1467, at the age of 15, contrary to all we have been told, Leonardo da Vinci got married. And his young bride, Beatrice, was the sister of Bartolomeo Marchionni, destined to become the biggest slave trader the world had ever known. Even more unexpected, since the couple so successfully hid them, was that they had ten children together. But why such stealth and secrecy?
When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, the door to India and China on which both Beatrice’s and Leonardo’s families depended was effectively slammed shut. Without a new trade route to the East, for the export of European goods, and also for importing oriental silk, spices, and slaves, they would be ruined. And so Beatrice’s family moved from the Black Sea to Florence, the home of Leonardo, and it was there the two of them grew up.
Italy was stagnant, though, while Portugal was already exploring the coast of Africa, trading in slaves and gold, and hoping eventually to sail around Africa to the Indies. And so the Marchionnis moved again, this time from Florence to where it was all happening, Lisbon. Such were the rivalries and vendettas, though, that for survival and commercial advantage, true names were usually hidden. It was a world of deception and false identities.
And so it was that many of Leonardo and Beatrice’s sons, hidden under aliases and probably raised by other families, were groomed as navigators and explorers, clandestinely to become some of the most famous names in our children’s history books.
It is here the surprises really begin. We have believed a fairy tale so long, that the truth seems at first utterly beyond belief.
Their first boy, Pedro Alvares Cabral, led the second armada of Portuguese ships to India, bumping into Brazil on the way. Second was Vasco da Gama, the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope and reach India.
Third was Ferdinand Magellan, who sailed with da Gama and Cabral to India in 1500, and was the first to circumnavigate the entire globe. Their fourth boy became a leading diplomat. But although the family resemblance was extraordinary, not one publicly acknowledged being da Vinci’s son.
Then, it seems, in 1471/2, Beatrice moved to Spain, and a new phase of the family strategy was born. While the Portuguese went around the Cape eastbound to the Indies, in the 1490s the Spanish tried to get there going west. And when they found the way was blocked, they turned America into big business instead. So Leonardo and Beatrice’s fifth son joined the Spanish Church and became a Cardinal, indeed, Primate of all Spain, and Regent of the Crown of Castile; their sixth boy, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, became the first European to cross the Panama Isthmus and see the Pacific Ocean. Then, in 1474, came Bartolomeo de las Casas, who went against the current, defending the American Indians against the worst cruelties of the Spaniards. And last came Juan Ponce de Leon, a barbaric man who killed countless natives in Hispaniola, plundered Puerto Rico, and ‘discovered’ Florida.
But what of their daughters? Didn’t they have any? They certainly did, and one of them was to achieve more in advancing the family than all their sons put together. But that is another story… and anyway, there is still one son to go, perhaps the most important of all, since he was the only one Dürer bothered to sketch, and the only one most of us could identify with. Leonardo’s other son was not born to Beatrice. In 1473 one of his brother-in-law’s African slaves gave birth to a boy she called Mahammad, and Dürer thought da Vinci was the dad.
It was around this time that things started to go seriously wrong between Leonardo and Beatrice. She met a man called ‘Don Alonso Fernandez de Lugo’, whose heart was in stealing the Canary Islands from their native peoples… and in Leonardo’s absence, romance flourished. She bore him four boys: Pedro Fernandez de Lugo, who took over from his dad in the Canaries; another who became Spanish Secretary of State; a third who became a leading Humanist scholar; and lastly Hernan Cortes, the Conquistador who overthrew the Aztec Empire in Mexico.
During an absence by Don Alonso, though, she moved to the Spanish court, and began flirting with the King instead. The Queen was not amused, and jealously (and promptly) married her off to an adventurer, and sent them both back to the Canaries, where, after the local people killed her new husband, she finally married Leonardo’s rival in love, Don Alonso. (‘Alonso’ is the Portuguese version of the Spanish ‘Alfonso’). But why should this Don Alonso/Alfonso be of interest to us?
Well – the name was a fake. The conqueror of the Canaries was born in Genoa in 1451, and as we can see in the depiction below, he was christened ‘Arturo Colombo’. When deciding on a new name, though, for someone planning a long and dangerous journey, he changed it to that of the patron saint of travellers: ‘Cristoforo’, and thus became known as Christopher Columbus.
Historians have long thought there was some strange connection between him and Leonardo, but now we know what that was. Christopher Columbus stole Leonardo’s wife. But that isn’t the big news.
In 1500, Leonardo’s son Pedro Alvares Cabral was entrusted by the King of Portugal to lead an armada of 13 ships round the Cape of Good Hope to India. The fleet went a little off course on the way, and found Brazil, where Pedro Alvares ‘claimed it’ for the Portuguese Crown. With him when he first set foot on the beach was one Diogo Dias, brother of the famous navigator Bartolomeo Dias. And Diogo immortalised himself by dancing on the beach to the sound of the local Indian pipes, and thereby winning their trust.
After announcing their intention of stealing the continent of South America, the fleet set off again, but was hit by a storm near the Cape, and four ships sank, taking Bartolomeo Dias to the bottom of the Atlantic. Diogo’s ship was separated, and after discovering Madagascar, and sailing all around Africa, he ended up in Senegal, where he was rescued. All this was officially recorded in pictures and text by Dias’ son, Simão, in his ‘Book of the Armadas’.
Hidden between the lines of text, in the bow wave, and on the hull of Diogo’s caravel, though, Simão tells us what really happened to his uncle.
Diogo Dias, he says, was really none other than Leonardo da Vinci, who refused to be left out of the greatest adventure of his age. It was he who leapt ashore and danced with the native Indians. And then, far from discovering Madagascar, he sailed the ship to Hispaniola, arriving on 29th June, 1500. And the four ships that sunk? ‘Menzogna de Luca’, he says, ‘…Papa rubo’. ‘A lie by Luca… Dad stole them’. Luca? This was Bartolomeo Dias’ alias when he was painting rather than exploring.
For 500 years, we all bought the story, but the King of Portugal didn’t. He never forgave Pedro Alvares for the missing ships. The admiral of the Portuguese armada to the Indies was shunned, and as Pedro Alvares Cabral, he faded into oblivion.
But this isn’t the big news either. The big news is that ‘Diogo Dias’ was not Leonardo’s only alias. He had another, also recorded in Simão’s drawing. When he was in the Spanish Caribbean, Leonardo shaved his beard, dressed modestly in black, and called himself… ‘Giacomo Colombo’.
Leonardo was Christopher’s brother.