In a new novel, a dramatized account of her life, Renaissance scholar Carlo Vetze 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” (“The Smile of Caterina”) at Villa La Loggia in Florence, Italy on March 14, 2023. Credit: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images
Entitled “The Smile of Caterina, the mother of Leonardo,” the book was inspired by a discovery that Vecce — a professor at the University of Naples and an expert on the Old Master — made in the State Archives of Florence in 2019 when working on the commemoration of 500 years since the death of the great polymath.
There, he stumbles upon a previously unknown document that he says dates from the fall of 1452 and is signed by the man known to be the master’s father, which he says frees a slave named Katerina from her mistress, Monna Ginevra. The date, which was 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.
Two years earlier, according to the same document, Ginevra had hired Caterina as nurse to a Florentine knight.
“I discovered the document about a slave named Caterina five years ago and I became obsessed,” Vecce, a professor of Italian literature at the University of Naples “L’Orientale,” told CNN. “Then I searched and found the supporting documents. In the end, I was able to find evidence for the most likely cases. We can’t say it’s certain, we’re not looking for the absolute truth, we’re looking for the highest degree of truth, and this is the most obvious case” .
A Leonardo da Vinci notebook, pictured at 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 Caucasus region of central Asia and trafficked to Italy.
Vetze planned to continue his research in Moscow, where he felt sure he could find even more evidence about the slave trade in Italy and Katerina’s life. But the Covid-19 pandemic halted his travel plans and he instead, he said, “obsessed” with history.
“The further I went, the more the story made sense. The story of a slave girl who was kidnapped at 13 and freed at 25, the year after Leonardo was born. The best years of her life were spent as a slave,” he said.
“A woman who lost her freedom”
Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452 in Anchiano, a small village near the Tuscan town of Vinci, about 25 miles west of Florence. His full name was Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, meaning “Leonardo, son of Piero, of Vinci”.
His mother was believed to be a local peasant named Katerina and his father a wealthy notary public, 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 remarried after his birth, but he spent his childhood on his father’s estate, where he was educated and treated like a legitimate son.
There has been some suggestion in academic circles that Katerina was in fact a slave, but there has never been any hard evidence to support this theory — until now. Vecce said the slave trade in Italy is rarely talked about, which may have led to the delay in this discovery.
“Here in Europe we know almost nothing about slavery in the Mediterranean. It was born in the Mediterranean at an extraordinary time, during the Renaissance,” he said.
Vetze said he wrote his book about Katerina as a historical novel because so little is known about her entire life that he could not write an academic account.
“I could only fill 20 pages if I (wrote) an academic book, so I wrote a historical novel. I was drawn to that form of writing. I felt liberated to tell the story that way,” he said.
The 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 is “extremely plausible.”
“It’s based on documents and it’s not just fiction,” he said.
Although written as a novel, the story is inspired by “scientific research,” Galluzzi said, and is “by far the most convincing version yet” of Caterina’s story.
“We don’t have the DNA of Leonardo or his mother or father, which would obviously provide the only scientific evidence,” he said. “We rely on documents and the documents he (Vecce) relied on are quite convincing.”
Not everyone agrees, however.
Martin Kemp, a leading Leonardo scholar and emeritus professor of art history at Oxford University, expressed more caution about Vecce’s theory.
In an emailed statement to CNN, he described Vecce as an “excellent scholar” but added: “It is surprising that he published his papers under a ‘phantom’ account.”
He said: “There have been several claims that Leonardo’s mother was a slave. This fits the need to find something extraordinary and exotic in Leonardo’s background, and a connection to slavery fits current concerns.”
Kemp explained that Catherine 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 in 2017 published “Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting” with co-author Giuseppe Pallanti, presented an alternative view of Caterina.
“I still prefer a ‘peasant mother’ — Caterina di Meo — a more or less destitute orphan in Vinci, but that’s not such a big story if she had a ‘slave mother,'” he said in his statement.
Whatever the truth about her identity, Vecce believes that 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, not religious iconography, and he believes that Caterina’s influence inspired his great success.
“The idea of mother stayed in his heart all his life. Katerina was the only woman in his life all his life and he loved Katerina’s smile,” he said.