In a new novel, a dramatized account of his 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
Titled “The Smile of Caterina, Leonardo’s Mother”, the book is inspired by a discovery that Vecce – a professor at the University of Naples and an expert on Old Masters – made at the State Archives of Florence in 2019 when working on the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the death of the great polymath.
There he came across a previously unknown document which he says is dated the fall of 1452 and signed by the man known to be the father of the master, who he says frees a slave girl called Caterina 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 it became an obsession for me,” Vecce, 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 probable hypotheses. We cannot say that it is certain, we are not looking for the absolute truth, we are looking for the highest degree of truth, and that is the most obvious assumption.”
A Leonardo da Vinci notebook, photographed 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.
Vecce planned to continue his research in Moscow, where he was sure he could find even more documentation on the slave trade in Italy and on 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 further I went, the more the story made sense. The story of a slave kidnapped at 13 and freed at 25, the year after Leonardo was born. What should have been the best years of his life was spent as a slave,” he says.
“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 km west of Florence. His full birth name was Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, which means “Leonardo, son of Piero, of Vinci”.
His mother was thought to be a local peasant named Caterina and his father a wealthy notary, according to official biographies of his life which were released on the 500th anniversary of his death in 2019.
Leonardo was born out of wedlock and both parents married others after his birth, but he spent his childhood in his father’s estate, where he was educated and treated as a legitimate son.
There had been suggestions in academic circles that Caterina had in fact been a slave, but there had never been documentary evidence to support this theory – until now. Vecce said that the slave trade in Italy is rarely talked about, which may have delayed 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.
Vecce said he wrote his book about Caterina 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 was writing) an academic book, so I was writing a historical novel. I was drawn to that form of writing. I felt liberated to tell the story that way” , did he declare.
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 fantasy,” he said.
Although written as a novel, the story draws on “scholarly research”, Galluzzi said, and is “by far the most compelling version so far” of Caterina’s story.
“We don’t have Leonardo’s DNA or his mother’s or his father’s, which obviously would provide the only scientific proof,” he said. “We rely on documents, and the documents he (Vecce) relied on are quite compelling.”
However, not everyone agrees.
Martin Kemp, a prominent 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’s a surprise that he released his materials in the context of a ‘fictional’ narrative. ”
He said: “There have been a number of claims that Leonardo’s mother was a slave. This fits the need to find something exceptional and exotic in Leonardo’s past, and a connection with slavery corresponds to 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 who allegedly commissioned the Mona Lisa as his wife’s portrait, 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 take on Caterina.
“I always prefer a ‘rural mother’ – Caterina di Meo – a more or less destitute orphan in Vinci, but it’s not such a big story if he had a ‘slave mother’,” he said in his press release.
Whatever the truth about his identity, Vecce believes Leonardo’s life work reflects his relationship with his mother.
He said that Leonardo’s portrayals of the Madonna figure have always been based on a real woman, not religious iconography, and he believes Caterina’s influence inspired her great success.
“The idea of 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.