Was Leonardo da Vinci’s mother a slave? An Italian professor thinks so

Written by By Barbie Latza NadeauLianne Kolirin, CNN

Leonardo da Vinci’s mother was a slave trafficked to Italy, an expert on the Renaissance artist claimed.

In a new novel, a dramatized account of her life, Renaissance scholar 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 on 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 the Old Master – in the State Archives in Florence in 2019 then working on the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the great scholar’s death.

There he came across a previously unknown document which he says dates from the autumn of 1452 and was signed by the man known as the master’s father. The date, a few months after Leonardo’s birth, and the fact that Leonardo’s father signed it struck Vacce as proof that this woman was Leonardo’s mother.

According to the same document, Ginevra had hired Caterina two years earlier as a nurse to a Florentine knight.

“I discovered the document about a slave girl named Caterina five years ago and it became an obsession with me,” Vecce, a professor of Italian literature at the University of Naples “L’Orientale,” told CNN. “I then searched and found the supporting documents. In the end I was able to find evidence for the most likely hypotheses. We cannot say for sure, we are not looking for the absolute truth, we are looking for the highest degree of truth, and this is the most obvious hypothesis.”

A notebook by Leonardo da Vinci, pictured in Villa La Loggia, Florence on March 14, 2023

A notebook by Leonardo da Vinci, pictured in Villa La Loggia, Florence on March 14, 2023 Credit: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

The document describes the freed slave as having been born in the Caucsus region of Central Asia and traded to Italy.

Vecce intended to continue his research in Moscow, where he was sure he could find even more documentation about 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 went on, the more the story made sense. The story of a slave who was kidnapped at the age of 13 and freed at the age of 25, the year after Leonardo was born. What should have been the best years of her life being, she spent like a slave,” he said.

“A Woman Who Lost Her Freedom”

Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452 in Anchiano, a hamlet near the Tuscan town of Vinci, about 40 kilometers west of Florence. His full birth name was Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, meaning “Leonardo, son of Piero, of Vinci”.

His mother was thought to be a local farmer named Caterina and his father a wealthy notary, according to official biographies of his life published on the 500th anniversary of his death in 2019.

Leonardo was born out of wedlock and both parents married other people after his birth, but he spent his childhood on his father’s estate, where he was educated and treated like a legitimate son.

There was some suggestion within academic circles that Caterina had in fact been a slave, but until now there was never any documentary evidence to support this theory. Vecce said the slave trade is rarely talked about in Italy, which may have led to the delay in this discovery.

“Here in Europe, we know almost nothing about slavery in the Mediterranean. It originated in the Mediterranean at an extraordinary time, during the Renaissance,” he said.

Vecce said he wrote his book on Caterina as a historical novel because so little is known about her entire life that he was unable to write an academic record.

“I could only fill 20 pages as (I wrote) an academic book, so I wrote a historical novel. I was drawn to this form of writing. I felt liberated to tell the story this way,” he said .

Theory divides experts

Paolo Galluzzi, a historian of Leonardo’s scientific work and a member of the Lincei Academy of Science in Rome, told CNN that Vecce’s theory is “extremely plausible.”

“It’s based on documents and it’s not just fantasy,” he said.

Although 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 father, which of course would be the only scientific evidence,” he said. “We rely on documents and the documents he (Vecce) has relied on are quite convincing.”

However, not everyone agrees.

Martin Kemp, a leading Leonardo scholar and emeritus professor of art history at the University of Oxford, expressed more caution about Vecce’s theory.

In an emailed statement to CNN, he described Vecce as a “well-learned person,” but added, “It’s a surprise that he published his papers in the context of a ‘fictionalized’ account.”

He said: “There are a number of claims that Leonardo’s mother was a slave. This fits the need to find something exceptional 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 a portrait of his wife, 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 take on Caterina.

“I still prefer a ‘rural mother’ – Caterina di Meo – a more or less needy orphan in Vinci, but this is not such a big story if he had a ‘slave mother’,” he said in his statement .

Whatever the truth about her identity, Vecce believes Leonardo’s life’s work reflects his rapport with his mother.

He said that Leonardo’s depictions of the Madonna figure are always based on a real woman, 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.

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