Was Leonardo da Vinci’s mother a slave? An Italian professor thinks so
Written by By Barbie Latza NadeauLianne Kolirin, CNN
In a new novel, a dramatized account of their lives, Renaissance scholars Carlo Vecce writes that Leonardo’s mother Caterina was originally from the Caucasus but was sold into slavery in Italy.
Carlo Vecce holds a copy of his book ‘Il Sorriso di Caterina’ (‘Caterina’s Smile’) at Villa La Loggia in Florence, Italy, March 14, 2023. Credit: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images
The book, titled “The Smile of Caterina, Leonardo’s mother,” was inspired by a discovery made by Vecce – a professor at the University of Naples and an expert on Old Masters – in the State Archives in Florence in 2019, while working on the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci. anniversary of the death of the great universal scholar.
There he stumbled upon a previously unknown document which he says is dated the autumn of 1452 and signed by the man known as the master’s father, who, he says, obtained a slave named Caterina from her mistress Monna Ginevra freed. The date, which was a few months after Leonardo’s birth, and the fact that Leonardo’s father had signed it, seemed to Vacce to serve as proof that this woman was Leonardo’s mother.
According to the same document, two years earlier Ginevra had employed Caterina as wet nurse to a Florentine knight.
“I discovered the document about a slave named Caterina five years ago and it became an obsession for me,” Vecce, a professor of Italian literature at L’Orientale University in Naples, told CNN. “Then I looked for the evidence and found it. In the end, I was able to find evidence for the most likely hypotheses. We can’t say it’s for sure, we’re not looking for absolute truth, we’re looking for the highest degree of truth, and that’s the most obvious hypothesis.”
A notebook by Leonardo da Vinci pictured at Villa La Loggia, Florence on March 14, 2023 Credit: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images
The document describes that the freed slave was born in the Caucasus region of Central Asia and was smuggled to Italy.
Vecce planned to continue his research in Moscow, where he was sure he would find more documentation on the slave trade in Italy and Caterina’s life. But the Covid-19 pandemic put an end to his travel plans and instead, he said, he became “obsessed” with the story.
“The more I progressed, the more the story made sense. The story of a slave kidnapped at 13 and freed at 25, a slave the year after Leonardo was born,” he said.
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Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452 in Anchiano, a hamlet near the Tuscan town of Vinci, about 40 km west of Florence. His full birth name was Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, meaning “Leonardo, son of Piero, of Vinci”.
According to official biographies of his life released to mark the 500th anniversary of his death in 2019, his mother was believed to be a local peasant named Caterina and his father a wealthy notary.
Leonardo was born illegitimate, and both parents married other people after his birth, but he spent his childhood on his father’s estate, where he was raised and treated as a legitimate son.
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There had been some speculation in academic circles that Caterina had actually been a slave, but there was never any documentary evidence to support that theory – until now. Vecce said that the slave trade is rarely talked about in Italy, which may have contributed to the delay in this discovery.
“Here in Europe we know almost nothing about slavery in the Mediterranean. It arose in the Mediterranean at an extraordinary time, during the Renaissance,” he said.
Vecce said he wrote his book about Caterina as a historical novel because so little is known about her whole life that he could not write an academic account.
“I could only fill 20 pages if I were writing an academic book, so I wrote a historical novel. I was drawn to this form of writing. I felt free to tell the story in this way,” he said.
Theory divides experts
Paolo Galluzzi, a historian of Leonardo’s scientific work and a member of the Lincei Academy of Sciences in Rome, told CNN that Vecce’s theory was “extremely plausible”.
“It’s based on documents and it’s not just fantasy,” he said.
Though written as a novel, the story is inspired by “scientific research,” Galluzzi said, and is “by far the most compelling version yet” of Caterina’s backstory.
“We don’t have Leonardo’s DNA or his mother or his father’s DNA, which obviously would be the only scientific evidence,” he said. “We rely on documents, and the documents that he (Vecce) relied on are quite convincing.”
However, not everyone agrees.
Martin Kemp, a leading Leonardo researcher and Professor Emeritus of Art History at Oxford University, was more cautious about Vecce’s theory.
In a statement emailed to CNN, he described Vecce as a “good scholar,” but added, “It’s a surprise that he published his documents in the context of a ‘fictitious’ report.”
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He said: “There have been a number of claims that Leonardo’s mother was a slave. This responds to a need to find something extraordinary and exotic in Leonardo’s background, and a link to slavery fits current concerns.”
Kemp explained that Caterina was a common name for slaves who had converted to Christianity. He pointed out that Francesco del Giocondo, the man believed to have commissioned the Mona Lisa as his wife’s portrait, traded slaves and, according to historical records, traded two “Caterinas” in one year.
Kemp, who published Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting with co-author Giuseppe Pallanti in 2017, presented an alternative view of Caterina.
“I still prefer a ‘rural mother’ – Caterina di Meo – a more or less destitute orphan in Vinci, but that’s not such a big deal if he had a ‘slave mother,'” he said in his statement.
Whatever the truth about their identities, Vecce believes Leonardo’s life’s work reflects his relationship with his mother.
He said that Leonardo’s depictions of the Madonna figure were always based on a real woman and not religious iconography, and he believes Caterina’s influence inspired his great success.
“The idea of the mother stayed in his heart all his life. Caterina was the only woman in his life all his life and he loved Caterina’s smile,” he said.