New theory reignites the debate over the identity of Leonardo da Vinci’s mother

Zoom in / Alleged self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (circa 1510) in the Royal Library of Turin, Italy.

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Could Leonardo da Vinci’s mother, Caterina, have been a slave kidnapped from the Caucasus Mountains of Central Asia? This is the latest case to reignite a long-running debate over the identity of this mysterious woman who has been largely lost to history. Historian Carlo Vecce of the University of Naples told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday that he discovered a previously unknown document that supports the claim. He has also written a historical novel about Katerina’s life (Il Sorriso di Caterina the Katerina’s smile) based on his research.

It is proven that Leonardo was born in 1452, the illegitimate son of a Florentine notary named Ser Piero d’Antonio and a woman named Caterina. Ser Piero married a woman named Albiera Amadori and three subsequent marriages followed after her death in 1464. His various unions produced 16 children (11 of whom survived their early years), except for Leonardo, who grew up in his father’s house and received a good education.

As for Caterina, many historians have identified her as a local peasant and eventually the wife of a furnace worker named Antonio di Piero del Vacca (nicknamed “L’Accattabriga” or “the brawler”). But that’s all we know about her. Naturally, over the years, various alternative identifications have been proposed. Perhaps the most controversial, proposed in 2014 by Italian historian Angelo Paratico, is that Caterina was a Chinese domestic slave imported from the Crimea by Venetian merchants and sold to a Florentine banker.

The only certain contemporary portrait of Leonardo, attributed to Francesco Melzi, c.  1515–1518
Zoom in / The only certain contemporary portrait of Leonardo, attributed to Francesco Melzi, c. 1515–1518

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Paratico’s book, Leonardo da Vinci: A Chinese Scholar Lost in Renaissance Italy, was published the following year. His theory was based in part on the research of Renzo Cianchi of the Leonardo Library at Vinci, who suggested that Caterina was a slave belonging to one of Sir Piero’s wealthy friends. According to the New York Times, this is also the premise of an upcoming book on Leonardo’s genealogy by Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Leonardo da Vinci legacy.

Renowned Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp of Oxford University took a different tack, arguing in his 2017 book, Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting (co-authored by Giuseppe Pallanti), that Katerina was a 15-year-old orphan girl. Kemp discovered documentary evidence that a young girl of that age named Caterina di Meo Lippi had lived less than a mile from Vinci with her brother Papo. She could have become pregnant by Ser Piero during one of his visits to his homeland. Among the evidence: Antonio da Vinci’s tax return from 1458, confirming that the five-year-old Leonardo was then living in his home.

As for Vecce, he acknowledged that his own research had been “guided” by the slave hypotheses formulated by Paratico and Vezzosi, although he initially resisted the idea. But then he discovered a document dated November 2, 1452, six months after Leonardo’s birth, freeing an enslaved Circassian woman named Caterina on behalf of her mistress, the wife of Donato di Felippo di Salvestro Nati. The notary who signed the document was none other than Sir Piero, Leonardo’s father.

Historian Carlo Vecce found this original deed of emancipation of a slave named Caterina, who he believes to be Leonardo da Vinci's mother.  Endorsed by Leonardo's father, Sir Piero da Vinci.
Zoom in / Historian Carlo Vecce found this original deed of emancipation of a slave named Caterina, who he believes to be Leonardo da Vinci’s mother. Endorsed by Leonardo’s father, Sir Piero da Vinci.

Carlo Vecce via AP

“When I saw this document I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Vecce told NBC News. “I never gave much credence to the theory that she was a foreign slave. So I spent months trying to prove that the Katerina in that notarial deed was not Leonardo’s mother, but eventually all the documents I found pointed in that direction and I surrendered to the evidence. At the time, many slaves were named Katerina, but this was the only act of freeing a slave named Katerina [that] Sir Pierrot wrote throughout his long career. Moreover, the document is full of small errors and omissions, a sign that he may have been nervous when he wrote it, because impregnating someone else’s slave was a crime.”

A healthy skepticism is warranted here, and Vecce has yet to publish a scientific paper carefully describing his findings. (It’s obviously ongoing.)

“Carlo Vecce is a good scholar,” Kemp told NBC News. “His ‘fantasy’ account needs the feel of a slave mother. I still prefer our ‘peasant’ mother, who fits better, especially as the future wife of a local ‘farmer.’ But an unusual story does not fit the popular need for a shocking story in keeping with the current obsession with slavery.” At the end of the day, Kemp added, “none of the stories are demonstrably proven.”

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