For 500 years, until 2012, when secret text was first discovered hidden in old paintings, it was thought that Michelangelo was gay. The question was not whether he had ever had any children… It was whether he had ever had sex – or whether instead he merely thought about it.
But how was it that the experts came to get it so wrong? His poetry brandishes lurid fantasies about women, after all! Perhaps it was because he painted twenty huge naked youths on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? The fact is, though, that while he was as capable as any man of appreciating the beauty of the male form, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was less a celebration of masculine beauty, more a soaring criticism of someone very powerful and very famous who was obsessed with it: His Holiness Pope Julius II. But that is a different story. Our story is hiding away up in God’s cloud of cherubs.
As He reaches out to pass the spark of life to Adam, there, peering down from the shadows, is Michelangelo’s son. The boy’s name was Aly, he says, and he was born in 1492. His mother was Fatima, the slave of Leonardo da Vinci’s closest friend, and then, after the man was murdered, she (and thus Ali) ‘belonged’ to da Vinci himself. And Aly was famous: Michelangelo sketched him; Hieronymus Bosch depicted him; and (over page), Mantegna too, in his painting of ‘The Three Kings’. Ali is the Christ Child, in the arms of his mother Fatima (albeit disguised to look Caucasian). Fame, though, was no substitute for freedom: a famous slave was still a slave.
Aly was outraged at the cruelty Leonardo’s friend, Iohes, showed towards his mother and the other slaves. The man was notorious for it, and hardly surprising: he was the brother of Bartolomeo Marchionni, the biggest slave trader in the world at the time. To give some idea, there is a letter by Iohes, preserved to this day, boasting of how he beat an Amerindian girl into submission, before repeatedly and contemptuously raping her. Mantegna, who painted Ali in his ‘Three Kings’, despised him, and he has the African King calling Iohes a rat, and Joseph giving the child Aly a red flask marked ‘poison to kill Iohes Marchionni’. The child looks apprehensive, but so it was to be.
Hidden in a posthumous portrait of Iohes it says that Aly, at the tender age of 11, along with one of Leonardo’s apprentices, brought the man to justice. They poisoned him to death. But even though Iohes was gone, Aly’s ordeal was far from over. Michelangelo says (in a sketch he later turned into one of the youths on the Sistine Chapel ceiling), that as a slave Aly was for years the subject of sexual abuse.
Michelangelo spent so many happy hours with Aly’s mother, that Hieronymus Bosch painted the couple together, many times over, in his ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’. Pope Julius, on the other hand, Michelangelo despised. When asked to design a massive tomb for the Holy Father, he chose to sculpt slaves to hold it up. And he left them partly trapped in their encasing stone, since the slaves were not yet free either.
Michelangelo also loathed Leonardo, the man who owned Alys mother. By law, this ownership extended to her children too, and so Leonardo also ‘owned’ Michelangelo’s son. In 1509, when a an encounter with Pope Julius went disastrously wrong, Leonardo fled with Aly and two of his apprentices (actually his grandsons), and for the next 4 years, while everyone thought they were in Milan, they weren’t. All Leonardo’s work, and that of his apprentices too, are not only dated, but they also tell us the name of the town they had taken refuge in. It was about as far as anyone could go from Rome: the town was Isabella, in Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean.
And there, Aly’s friendship with one of Leonardo’s grandsons, Salay, flourished so intensely that they would write their names as one: ‘Alsalay’… and on their return to Europe, Aly was freed, became a great artist, and went to work in a royal court. We know because we have a portrait of him, in all his finery (top right, above).
Before long both lads were married, Salay to another of Leonardo’s grandchildren, a girl by the name of ‘Lisa’. (Yes, that ‘Lisa’!) And Aly, never forgetting the love his friend had shown him, named his son after Salay. There’s a painting of the boy as a page with the most powerful man in Europe, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, in which Charles’ son, the future Philip II of Spain, is accused of sexually abusing the boy.
By 1550, Aly was in the service of the young Princess Elizabeth of England, destined to become the ‘Virgin Queen’ – one of the most famous monarchs of all time. We know this because there is a drawing of him (to the left), dated 1558, the year Elizabeth took the throne. Do you see the Crowned Tudor Rose stamp, bottom right, marking the drawing as the Queen’s? Close by, the artist breaks the startling news that Aly and Elizabeth were lovers. But how could Veronese have known this? Well, Aly was not Michelangelo’s only son. Veronese was too, not by Fatima, of course, but by Vittoria, his long term lover. Veronese was Aly’s much younger half-brother.
But this isn’t the main news. In a ‘Sketch of a Black Man’ drawn in 1596 we find the thunderbolt of this story.
In 1557, the year before she became Queen, Elizabeth had Aly’s son. They called him Robert, and he appears in a number of paintings, such as this one by Passarroti:
And that is ironical indeed, since Robert was the name of the Queen’s new boyfriend: Robert Dudley. And it was he, a cameo of the unacknowledged Prince Robert says, who replaced Aly in the Queen’s affections, and – he suspected – killed him.
In fact he didn’t. Faced with Elizabeth’s new romance, Aly had decided it was a wise time for him to disappear, and so he returned to Italy to paint as… Paris Bordone.
But why was Prince Robert sketched in 1596? Why the drawing above? Did he die? No. Clearly across his lips is written ‘Vivo’ (‘alive’). It wasn’t that, it was that in 1596 Elizabeth ordered the expulsion of all ‘blackmoors’ from England. And why did she drive her son from his country instead of making him King? ‘Vergogna’ says the artist. ‘Shame’. And he depicts the Queen’s sister, Mary, who preceeded her, and her Spanish husband, Philip II, calling her a whore…
Yes, Philip II. The same King Philip of Spain who was sexually abusing Robert’s brother, Salay, when he was just 9 years old. And that is the reason, to our eternal shame, that we English had the half-Scottish James I, instead of Michelangelo’s grandson, the half-African Robert I as our next King.
And what happened to poor Robert Tudor? That is another tale I will have to leave for later!