A new theory released to the public on March 14 suggests that the Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci was actually half Italian, and his mother was a slave from the Caucasus, according to NBC News. The theory, advanced by Carlo Vecce, a scholar of da Vinci’s life and work, was publicly announced at a news conference in Florence.
Very little biographical information exists on da Vinci’s mother, and her identity has long been the subject of intense historical speculation. While many theories about her abound, there are few details that are widely agreed upon, including the fact that her name was Caterina and that she had a relationship with Florentine notary Ser Pierio da Vinci, which resulted in the illegitimate birth of da Vinci in April 1452, according to The New York Times.
According to Vecce, da Vinci’s mother was a slave from the North Caucasus region, today part of southern Russia. The Circassians are a mainly Muslim ethnic group, and up until the 19th century lived in the North Caucasus. Hundreds of thousands fled the area when czarist Russia invaded their homeland, according to NBC News.
Vecce says he found evidence of da Vinci’s mother being a Circassian slave in the State Archives in Florence. He discovered an act enabling the liberation of a slave called Caterina, who belonged to Monna Ginevra, the wife of a Florentine man who owned several slaves from the Black Sea region, according to NBC News. The act was written by Ser Piero da Vinci in November 1452, when da Vinci would have been just a few months old.
“I never gave much credit to the theory that she was a slave from abroad,” said Vecce in an interview with NBC News. “So, I spent months trying to prove that the Caterina in that notary act was not Leonardo’s mother, but in the end, all the documents I found went in that direction, and I surrendered to the evidence.”
Vecce points out that many slaves in Florence at the time were given the name Caterina, but what makes the document interesting is that it was the only act of liberation Ser Piero wrote for a slave by that name. In addition, the scholar points out that the document is riddled with minor errors, which could be a sign of guilt or anxiety on behalf of Ser Piero. According to NBC News, sleeping with and getting another person’s slave pregnant was a serious crime at the time.
According to The New York Times, da Vinci’s father eventually married a Florentine woman. He also arranged a marriage between the slave Caterina and a farm worker, who had four daughters and a son together.
Asia London Palomba
Asia London Palomba is a trilingual freelance journalist from Rome, Italy. In the past, her work on culture, travel, and history has been published in The Boston Globe, Atlas Obscura, The Christian Science Monitor, and Grub Street, New York Magazine's food section. In her free time, Asia enjoys traveling home to Italy to spend time with family and friends, drinking Hugo Spritzes, and making her nonna's homemade cavatelli.