Professor Claims da Vinci Was the Son of a Slave

Carlo Vecce traces mother to North Caucasus based on ties to Leonardo's notary dad
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 16, 2023 1:57 PM CDT
Professor Claims da Vinci Was the Son of a Slave
Historian Carlo Vecce poses with his latest novel 'Caterina's Smile.'   (Giunti Editore via AP)

Caterina's Smile, a new novel from historian Carlo Vecce, follows Leonardo da Vinci's mother on a journey from slavery to freedom and beyond. And it's based in fact, according to Vecce, an Italian literature professor at Orientale University, who claims da Vinci's mother was enslaved as a girl in Central Asia, per NBC News. Researchers know da Vinci's mother was called Caterina and had an out-of-wedlock relationship with Florentine notary Piero da Vinci before giving birth to a son in 1452. But little else is known for sure. Historian Martin Kemp has argued she was a teenage orphan from Vinci, while historian Angelo Paratico has claimed she was an enslaved Chinese woman, reports the New York Times.

Vecce, however, says he's uncovered evidence that Caterina was enslaved in the North Caucasus region of Central Asia, between the Sea of Azov and Black Sea. He says he uncovered a document handwritten by Piero da Vinci six months after Leonardo's birth, which records the liberation of an enslaved Circassian woman named Caterina by Monna Ginevra, the wife of a Florentine man who held enslaved people from North Caucasus. "When I saw that document [in the State Archives of Florence] I couldn't believe my eyes," Vecce tells NBC. Enslaved women who arrived in Europe were typically baptized as Christian and rechristened with Caterina as a common name. But this is "the only liberation act of a slave named Caterina" written by Piero "in all his long career," Vecce says.

The document is riddled with mistakes which could signal nerves. As Vecce notes, "getting someone else's slave pregnant was a crime." He cites other documents showing Piero da Vinci arranged for Caterina's marriage to a farmer in 1453, per the Times. Though a scholarly article on the discovery is reportedly in the works, Vecce says he chose to reveal his findings in a historical novel, out Wednesday, because of the wide reach of such a book. Leonardo expert Paolo Galluzzi describes the novel as "a docu-fiction," a credible story sure "to spur debate." There's no debate for Kemp, who calls it a "fictionalized" account, per NBC. Meanwhile, scholar Alessandro Vezzosi says an upcoming book will reiterate an earlier theory that Leonardo's mother was enslaved by a wealthy friend of Piero's. (More Leonardo da Vinci stories.)

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