Leonardo da Vinci was only half-Italian and his mother was a slave trafficked from the Caucasus region, according to new research.
Carlo Vecce, a professor at the University of Naples who studies the Mona Lisa artist’s life and work, unveiled his discoveries this week, at the launch of his new book in Florence.
The background of the iconic da Vinci, who was born in 1452, is a huge point of contention among experts, with them only ever agreeing on his birth date and the name of his parents. While his father was said to be a young Florentine notary called Ser Piero da Vinci, his mother was thought to be a Caterina, a Tuscan peasant. Vecce’s findings have put the cat amongst the pigeons, so to speak – and he’s already seen a great deal of disagreement surrounding his book.
Speaking at the launch, Vecce told AFP: “Leonardo’s mother was a Circassian slave… taken from her home in the Caucasus Mountains, sold and resold several times in Constantinople, then Venice, before arriving in Florence. In the Italian city, she met a young notary, Piero (Peter) da Vinci, “and their son was called Leonardo”.
Vecce, who has spent decades studying the Renaissance figure, explained his findings are based on Florence city archives. His book, “Caterina’s Smile”, features one particularly interesting document, apparently written by da Vinci’s father himself. Dated 1452, it calls for the emancipation of Caterina, “to recover her freedom and recover her human dignity”.
Vecce said the writing proves the artist’s father, “loved Caterina when she was still a slave, who gave her this child named Leonardo and (was) also the person who helped to free her”.
This assertion offers a very difficult perspective on Leonardo, who was thought to have been the product of an illicit affair between Piero (Peter) da Vinci and a young Tuscan peasant, also called Caterina.
Any new claims about Leonardo da Vinci are always contested by the experts who study him, but Vecce has insisted the evidence he’s found stands up.
The artist is often described as the ultimate ‘Renaissance man’ and there has been doubt cast on the veracity of the claims, with some saying da Vinci being the product of such a union as ‘too good to be true’.
However, Vecce does have the might of one important scholar behind him. Historian Paolo Galluzzi, a member of the prestigious Lincei scientific academy in Rome, said the research on Caterina is “by far the most convincing”, telling AFP that the documents were of high quality and that there, “must remain a minimum of doubt, because we cannot do a DNA test”.
Born in 1452 in the countryside outside Florence, da Vinci spent his life in various Italian towns and cities before dying in Amboise, France in 1519.
He was a polymath and an artist in several disciplines including drawing, sculpture, painting and music – and was also talented in architecture, botany, engineering and anatomy.
Vecce’s findings come as a major new exhibition featuring a famous work of da Vinci’s goes on show at London’s National Gallery: launching on today (Thursday 16 March) is The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance.
The titular The Ugly Duchess is an iconic 16th century portrait of a ‘grotesque’ woman with exaggerated facial features and unflattering clothes by artist Quinten Massys. The caricature of the woman is actually a careful copy of a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci – and the exhibition features a red chalk sketch by da Vinci’s pupil Francesco Melzi alongside both works.
While da Vinci is known for his depictions of beautiful women, including the Mona Lisa and Cecilia Gallerani, the subject of his painting c.1489 The Lady with an Ermine, he was also fascinated with less attractive specimens.
Also featuring in the art show are drawings including A Satire on Aged Lovers, a study of a man with the face of a corpse and a woman with barely any nose, as well as many showing people with serious facial deformities or non-human features.
He was well known for spending a lot of time in hospitals, where he would meet the sick and dissect them after their deaths. In his notebooks, he describes one patient, Giovannina, as having a ‘viso fantastico’, or ‘fantastic(al) face’.
While it’s been much discussed whether da Vinci created these artworks with something of a cruel inspiration behind them, many think these ‘monstrous’ sketches – as opposed to the conventionally attractive faces in many of his more famous works – are actually simply an accurate reflection of the ageing process and not ‘monstrous’ at all.
In fact, while his most famous work – and possibly the most famous portrait of all time – Mona Lisa is typically thought of as beautiful, people who have studied her face say she’s actually somewhat unusual looking – and is certainly in possession of a ‘viso fantastico’.
The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance runs from 16 March to 11 June at the National Gallery, London.