Aly, son of Michelangelo and a moorish slave, and part of a family who include some of the most revered artists of the Renaissance. Learning from the masters, Aly follows in his father’s footsteps and learns not only how to paint but also how to hide messages in his paintings. Aly’s life takes him around the world, from the America’s, to the Far East and from the Renaissance court’s of Spain and Portugal to England and Scotland. He finds himself involved in political power play, war, intrigue and even murder. As Aly tells his story he writes of an alternative to the Renaissance history that we know.
By now my regular readers will know of my great love for historical fiction and the history of art, so I was very excited to read Michelangelo’s Son, which combines the two. The plot is mainly narrated by Aly, who at the end of his life decides to write down all that has happened to him, and in the process tell of secrets and lies that he has kept for years. The book starts at the very end of the fifteenth century and finishes late in the sixteenth century a period of that takes in the many wars, political machinations, religious reformation and exploration of the new world.
Aly is noted in history as the son of Michelangelo, and while it is conceivable that Michelangelo did have a son, as there is not that much information on him. Peter Cane uses Aly’s story to give an alternative history of this period, that will make you challenge all that you thought you knew. The plot its self is multi layered, first of all it is Aly’s story, from his beginnings as a slave, to his being depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, his involvement in many of the political intrigues of the period, and even his skill as an assassin. Then there is one of my favourite plots of this book, the many aliases used by the main protagonists as they traveled the world in the fifteenth century, mainly those of Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and the double lives of others. I will admit that at first I wasn’t convinced with all of this, and did consider giving up on the book. I am so glad I didn’t, I emailed Peter Cane who sent me all the evidence he had collected over the years, family trees, paintings etc, and I have also looked at his blog, that has much of the information and research on it (I will give details of this at the end of my review).
This feels like a work of passion for Peter Cane, there is a lot of historical detail in this book, and obviously a lot of research. It is well written and Peter does remind you throughout the book who the characters and their aliases are so you don’t have to remember them all. This is a big book, at eight hundred pages, and is not a book you can speed read; you need the time to take it all in and enjoy it, like a good whisky, to get the most out of this book. It is a wonderful and interesting read, perfect for those who like a big slice go historical fiction, mixed with fact.
Below I have an email sent to me about Michelangelo’s Son from Peter Cane that explains how and why he came to write this book. This is a fascinating email so please take the time to read it and learn more about this amazing author who has put so much into this book. I am also putting the link to Peter Cane’s WordPress sight where you can read more about the different subjects raised in this book.
To find out more please see Peter’s blog https://petermerlincane.wordpress.com
This is the reply I received when I asked Peter about how he came to write this book, it is a very interesting read.
What gave me the idea?
Well, first thing you need to know is that I’m 73, and have long been fascinated by communication, and the hidden things that influence and control it. My first love in this regard was linguistics, and the ways in which the very structure of language directs what we perceive and express ourselves, not just vocabulary, but the very syntax by which it is turned into a facsimile of the ‘real’ world. (I was a huge fan of the Sapir-Whorf theory, alas though, when it was totally out of fashion). Then one evening in the early 90s I watched a short documentary by a professor called Manfred Clynes, who had discovered characteristic structures in both sound and touch that conveyed basic senses of joy, sadness, tranquility, fear, etc. (He was both a professor of neurobiology, and a concert pianist, and this combination proved enormously fertile). If you can imagine saying the word ‘Oh’ imbued with different emotions, again joy, sadness, awe, surprise, and then compare the prosody of the sound in each case – each one conveys its distinctive emotion even if you change the ‘Oh’ to ‘Wow’, or indeed any other word. And when he got people to press against a pad to express this emotion, the length of the gesture, its intensity, its profile, its surge and dying away were identical. He had found the characteristic wave patterns of communicating emotion. It was so profound in its implications, I couldn’t get it out of my mind.
At the time I worked in the field of popular art, and I had gone to great lengths to try to figure out why some forms of art (and indeed even kitsch) moved people, and others, even when superbly painted, did not. It occurred to me that if these wave patterns appeared in the senses of both hearing and touch, then they were likely universals, and should appear in vision also, and I was determined to discover them if they were there. The first one popped out at me almost immediately. It was the cusp: the shape of a rose thorn, of a fang, a shark’s fin, a talon, and elongated even the horns of a buffalo. One glance and we instinctively withdraw from contact. The sharp tip inspires fear of being pierced, the curve, of being pierced and then retained by a predator, or ripped. It’s a primordial shape, and I immediately realised how artists had used it throughout history. In particular, in cartoons. Take a creature with soft round eyes, and replace the curves with a pointed cusp, its eyebrows too, its nose, its ears and you don’t even have to bother about its teeth or claws – it looks evil and cruel. Build that cusp into the shape of its cloak, and you have a vampire, or wings – a bat. Into its hat, a wicked wizard or witch. Its shoes… It was universal, and it worked cross-culturally too. Everyone reacted the same… we might withdraw in distaste, young boys might challenge it to show how brave they were, but everyone recognised that the invented being was dangerous.
It’s complementary shape was easy, too. Anything rounded. If it’s rounded it can’t pierce us. It’s symbolic of everything we want instinctively to reach out and touch, fondle. Unwelcome touching was a problem for well rounded parts of one’s anatomy, and for grocers, who had to put up signs saying ‘don’t touch me until I’m yours’ on their peaches, and other soft fruit. And the shape was directly analogous to Manfred Clynes’ audio and tactile ‘shape’ for ‘love’. And then, having picked up two ‘sentic’ forms using in communicating appropriate emotion, the floodgates opened, and I found a wealth more. Big, tall things denoted power. Little things tended to turn on parental instincts. Things that are attenuated, long and strong in one direction, and slender in another aroused fascination, one pause, looked in awe at the grace of a cheetah, a racehorse, a saluki dog, and arrow, a flowering grass, a ballerina. Things that were chunky did not inspire the same awe. They could be treated roughly and wouldn’t break. Pigs, bulldogs, Miss Piggy even… After a few years I started lecturing on this new subject – bioaesthetics – at an institute in London, giving occasional seminars on ‘sensory triggers’, and their use in art and marketing. I built a huge website of about 2000 pages displaying what I had found, and eagerly added to it each day as examples accumulated.
That was when it happened.
I was looking for ‘tension’ triggers. Those simple visual forms that make you stop in your tracks, freeze, hold your breath, and stand open mouthed watching, waiting for something – we know not what – to happen. I knew that tense curves were used in car profiles and panels, and had some good photos to show people. I had heard that Michelangelo used tense spirals in his sculptures, and that the sense of frozen movement would mesmerise those who looked at them – so I wanted examples, and Googled what I thought were appropriate words. Alas, my choice was inept, and all I got were endless pictures of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, and the creation of Adam. After some hours fruitless effort in finding that perfect exemplary sculpture, it struck me WHY all I could find was God reaching out to touch Adam’s finger. This was a tension trigger. And it was so powerful that it not only made this feature the central point in the whole vast ceiling, but it hypnotised people to the extent that it was almost all that I could find. So – having found gold, I selected the highest resolution image of the pregnant gap between the two fingers that I could find, and set to work colour correcting it, and improving the contrast to put it on my site. The only thing was, I could see misty, evanescent forms between the two fingers. Initially I ignored it, because I assumed it was the result of centuries of wear and tear, but then it struck me (camouflage having been one aspect of the directing of human attention that I had studied), that what I was seeing was – perhaps – not the result of accident and misfortune, but intentional but hidden.
And so I darkened the light areas, and intensified the contrast, dramatically so. Before the age of Photoshop it would have been impossible, but I knew how to break camouflage digitally, and if there was something there, I was determined to find it. Letters emerged, and then a word. The word was ‘CHIAVE’, which in English means ‘key’. That was the goosebumps moment. Michelangelo had written the word ‘key ‘ in the most salient spot of the most dramatic feature on the entire ceiling. I started reading about hidden features in Michelangelo’s art, and immediately came across an article that related the ubiquitous presence of acorns on the Pope’s ceiling to the name of the then Pope, and Michelangelo’s patron – Giuliano della Rovere, ‘della Rovere’ meaning ‘of the oak’. The article pointed out that in Tuscan dialect, the same word was used for acorn as for the end of the male appendage, and that this Pope was notorious for his fascination for youths and young men. When I looked again at the sacks of acorns and the analogous parts of the naked youths on the ceiling, they bore more than a fortuitous resemblance to one another. Michelangelo was having a go at the Pope, who it is well know, he hated. I went back to the lettering, and found all around the fresco of the Creation of Adam the word ‘vendetta’. It cascaded in a cloud from the two legendary fingers, and paraded across empty spaces in profusion. I found words flowing from Adam’s mouth, accusing the Pope of being scandalous ‘papa birba’, and found also that the cloud of dust beneath the two hands contained the word ‘arsenico’. I looked to see when Pope Julius had died, and found it was just shortly after Michelangelo had finished the ceiling, and days after he had gotten a signature from His Holiness for a further commission. It seemed quite possible that his death was no accident, and that it involved something that had happened to Adam.
I was hooked. And then I found two things. The profile of an African lad up in the shadows over God’s shoulder, and the words ‘Aly, te amo’. I had to know two things. Was this extraordinary hiding of material something of Michelangelo’s invention, or was it something he had learned from Ghirlandaio. I looked at his earliest work, and there it was again, well developed. The Torment of St Anthony was not really about St Anthony. It was an allegory. I looked at Ghirlandaio’s work, and found he did it too. Who did he learn from? I traced back the techniques generation by generation, back to the very start of the Renaissance, and before. All the way to Rome, indeed all the way back to the frescos in the Palace of Knossos. It was a human universal, in times of tyranny. I had found Michelangelo’s name in his work, and found the names of other artists too. Most paintings were signed, and carried – it seemed an entire genealogy of who the father was, written below the eye of the person (in a portrait), and along the chin the name of the mother. Occasionally I found more than one name. On Jan van Eyck’s paintings, I found, to my consternation, the word ‘Masolino’. And then on another part of the Pope’s Ceiling, I found the two words together also. Could it be? They are both credited with originating oil painting. I drew up timelines for them both, and they dovetailed. They didn’t conflict, they dovetailed. One could not find the two people at the same time in different parts of Europe. And then I slowly unveiled the true meaning of the Arnolfini Wedding… The new story made sense in a way the old one simply did not. Arnolfini was the name Jan used when working as a merchant. Masolino when he was in Italy. ‘Arnolfini’ in the painting was the Duke of Burgundy, and his wife was the Infanta of Portugal, and she was pregnant with Charles the Bold. Oh, but that was not the half of it. Across the wall was splattered the words ‘Als ik xan, Costanza’. And on the bed spread two stains that spelled out ‘Vend’ and ‘etta’. Across the lady’s belly it said that Charles the Bold was a bastard, and that he, Jan was the father. The brush on the wall said it had brushed clean the throne of Burgundy (the wooden chair) from the Valois, and that revenge – for Costanza’s rape by the Duke of Burgundy a decade before, had been served.
And so on, over five years and several thousand paintings, the story developed, family trees were revealed and drawn, and the story you find in the book revealed.
But one thing lingered with me all along. That there was hidden material in the paintings was beyond doubt, but did it say what I thought it said? The new emergent story told of a very different Renaissance, and it was a story that explained many inexplicable features of conventional history. There were occasions, such as when I combined two studies of the Mona Lisa that I had done years apart, having discovered a portrait of Leonardo hidden to the far right in one, and lettering spelling out the date of the painting and where it was painted in roughly the same area. When I combined the two files, fed up with never knowing in which one was the text I remembered seeing, I was astonished to find the text now came directly from Leonardo’s mouth. These sorts of things gave it credibility, much as one seeks credibility in deciphering any camouflage – in warfare, weapons are camouflaged, and fake ones set up to draw the fire. Fail to bomb the real weapons, and they will take you out. Bomb the fake ones and you use up your ammunition and won’t have it to defend yourself when the attack comes from somewhere else. Life and death decisions have to be made with inadequate and confusing data. Indeed, in communications theory, there are two epic problems recorded: the ‘type one error’, and the ‘type two error’. One is to see something that is not there – seeing a face in the clouds, pareidolia. The other is to NOT see something that IS there. The first error leaves one open to ridicule, the second to death. So – was what I was seeing truer than what I found in the history books? My research showed that Masaccio changed his name in 1428, and pursued a ecclesiastical and political career thereafter, plus some wonderful bas-relief sculpting. I seemed to have portraits of the same person under different names, too. What was the basis for the historical claim of 1428? Well, there is a Florentine tax record that has written in the margin by his name ‘it is said he died in Rome’. Now, being 73, I have a certain experience of tax records, and I would not expect medieval Florentine ones to be any more reliable. That was the only base for the ‘truth’ of his death in 1428. Similarly for Hieronymus Bosch, Leonardo, and even Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus…
So, as I wrote, I came to realise that I was not so much propagating a new vision of history, as talking about the inherent duplicity of truth, and how we all manage to live in a world of endless uncertainty, a counterfeit world of words. This really became the main theme of Aly, Michelangelo’s Son.