apprentice, assassin, Boccaccio, Borgata, Cimabue, ethnocentrism, Family, Ghiberti, gold leaf, Lapis Lazuli, Lives of the Artists, meritocracy, murder, Paris Bordone, parochial, perspective, Rome, shepherd boy, spy, trade, Vasari
1441, Ali, Amadeus V, Arnolfini Wedding, Charles IV, Cimabue, Constantinople, Duccio, Henry VIII, Jan van Eyck, King of Aragon, King of Naples, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Ottoman, Pietro Cavallini, renaissance, Slave, St Francis, Uccello, Vatican, Virgin Queen
This section features a series of articles drawn from the book ‘Masterpieces of Deception’, and it traces the fortunes of a most remarkable family, from the age of St Francis, in the twelfth century, until the deaths of Leonardo and Michelangelo. The family was clandestine. It hid its connections, but it was the family that invented the Renaissance, and each glimpse tells a tale in radical conflict with what we find in books to this day. These, then, are the tales:
‘St Francis was a Zombie?’ reveals that the practice of packaging oneself under a variety of false identities, and faking one’s demise was a tradition even in St Francis’ time. He did it himself. And the outrageous title of the tale? While it sounds like something from the National Advertiser, it has a purpose: that of playing mischief with the idea that we commonly accept one kind of mythological being – the ‘Saint’ – as being uncontroversial, but scornfully deny another mythological being, the ‘undead’. We think it OK to believe the wild and extravagant fantasy that someone could be perfect, but are uncomfortable with those who live on after their death…
‘The Irresistible Stepmother’ jumps forward two generations, and looks at the first great names of the Renaissance, Duccio, Cimabue, Pietro Cavallini, and Giotto, family members all. It reveals scandals in the court of Count Amadeus V of Savoy, who abused his sons, and then, when he suspected one of them of having an incestuous affair with his wife, murdered her. The son fled to a powerful relative in Portugal, and his other two sons secretly declared a vendetta against him for killing their mother, a vendetta that created a scandal of historic dimensions when Amadeus remarried, to a young and pretty princess from Brabant. And then when she and one of his sons fell in love.
Forward another generation to ‘The Theft of France’, and we find that one of the sons of this illicit affair, Rolando, installed himself as court painter in France, with a view to killing the King and putting his cousin on the throne in his place. The deal was that once done, the King’s son, John, would marry Rolando’s sister, and that their children, uniting the two families, would eventually rule France. The King was poisoned, his cousin took over, the young prince married Margareta and she got pregnant, and then the deal was betrayed. A vendetta ensued that eventually wiped the Valois dynasty from the face of the Earth.
A hundred years down the line, ”V’ for Vendetta’ stars the great grandson of Margareta and young Prince John of France: Jan van Eyck, and his masterpiece in which he documented a surreptitious act of vengeance. Indeed, he brazenly recorded it in one of the most famous paintings of the early Renaissance, the so-called ‘Arnolfini Wedding’. Apples scattered to the left, a brush hanging on the wall, and outrageous stains on the bedcover reveal what the painting is really about. And ‘The Artist who Spied’ continues the astonishing story of his life, revealing that he faked his death in 1441, and aided by his 12 year-old son, played the key role in overthrowing the King of Naples. the tale is told by Jan himself, by his son, and with irrepressible humour, by his nephew Uccello.
‘Feathers from a Fleeing Phoenix’ continues the tale of Uccello, and the desperate battle with his psychopathic half-brother, Arturo. The feud was for the love of the daughter of the King of Aragon, and having fathered a child by her – after she and Arturo married – the tale tells how Uccello fled for his life far from Europe, perilously deep into Mongol territory. And we glimpse some of the astonishing works of art he created along the way, magnificent paintings still mistakenly thought to be Persian, Turkish and even Chinese. And in ‘Columbus’ Mother and the Werewolf’ we continue the story of the psychopath, Arturo, and the chilling background to what seems like the most innocent of paintings.
In 1453, the year after Uccello fled East across the Black Sea to Asia, the last remaining part of the Roman Empire – Constantinople – fell to the Ottoman Turks. For the family is was a disaster. Their trade route to India and China was closed, and they faced ruin. The banking side of the family slowly went broke, and the most adventurous in desperation, began to search out other ways to get to the Spice Islands, to India and to the Far East. Some pressed east around the Cape of Good Hope, some tried to reach Cathay going west, and this was the world into which the young, and very secretive Leonardo da Vinci was born. Contrary to everything we have been told, at the age of 15 he married, and before his wife was stolen by someone of unparalleled navigational fame, he had a number of equally famous sons. The incredible story is told in ‘Leonardo’s Wife’.
The next two stories provide us with a first glimpse of the real meaning of the Mona Lisa, where Leonardo tells of his family’s struggle for power and glory. ‘Behind the Smile’ looks at the backdrop in the painting and shows how it tells of the birth of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the role he and his family played in it. ‘Excalibur’, though, focusses on the lady herself, and tells how his daughter won the heart of a future King, and gave birth to four queens and two Holy Roman Emperors. The Mona Lisa refers to how the family gained unprecedented control not only of the Americas and the coasts of Africa and India, but also of most of continental Europe.
Not everyone approved of what the family was doing though. One of Leonardo’s schemes went off the rails in Italy, resulting in the death of two of Michelangelo’s nephews, a story recounted in ‘Then Adam Spoke’. The Sistine Chapel ceiling was Michelangelo’s response to this tragedy, and we discover how he turned it into the greatest denunciation of evil in history. It is an appalling tale of corruption, vice and murder in the Vatican, a tale in which the legendary Adam plays the part of Michelangelo’s nephew.
‘Ali, Michelangelo’s Son’ recounts the breathtaking story of someone now forgotten by history, someone of charisma, courage, and genius who changed history in many unexpected ways. His mother, Fatima, was owned by Leonardo’s greatest friend, and so by law, Ali belonged to him also. And so, when Ali poisoned his slavemaster to death, Leonardo inherited the boy, and a profound dislike then grew into a vendetta between the boy’s father, Michelangelo, and Leonardo, who owned him. Ali’s career, from slave to great artist, and lover of princesses – and those of his two sons – will leave the world of art aghast, and the reputation of who has until been known as the Virgin Queen in tatters.
Our glimpses conclude with a look into the court of King Henry VIII, and the murders of those who opposed him. ‘Henry VIII’s Skull’ tells the tale of one of the most famous paintings in the world, and of the King’s ultimate murder by one of Leonardo’s grandsons.
Dip into the stories at will, and check out the paintings to see the evidence for yourself. The glimpses here, though, only include a miniscule part of the evidence. The presence of all the hidden text and drawings referred to, letter by letter, spread across hundreds of Renaissance paintings is all fully documented in a series of 3200 images. This resource will be made available when the book is published, along with family trees showing the intimate relationships of almost every prominent Renaissance artist, and scores of other personalities of the age until now believed to have been completely unrelated.
Beware, though, because the world you will find here is a world you will not recognise – it is what REALLY happened.
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!