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Leonardo da Vinci’s mother was a slave from the Caucasus, new research finds

ROME – Leonardo da Vinci may be one of the most studied human beings in history. And yet one important detail about the Renaissance master remains shrouded in mystery: Who was his mother?

Now new research claims to have the answer.

Da Vinci – painter of the “Mona Lisa” and icon of Italian culture – was actually only half-Italian, according to a theory unearthed Tuesday that his mother was a slave from the Caucasus.

The research, unveiled at a press conference in Florence by Leonardo’s life and work scholar Carlo Vesey, will add new fuel to the fierce historical debate.

‘I couldn’t believe my eyes’

For centuries, as millions around the world admired his art and experts noted his groundbreaking work in the fields of science, engineering and beyond, the exact identity of Leonardo’s mother has been the subject of intense scrutiny and speculation.

Some details were broadly agreed upon: her name was Caterina and Leonardo was born in 1452 as the illegitimate product of her relationship with her father, a young Florentine notary named Ser Piero da Vinci.

Beyond that, theories abound.

Image: italy-culture-literature-leonardo
Manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci go on display at the Villa La Loggia in Florence on Tuesday. Marco Bertorello / AFP – Getty Images

Some scholars suggest that Leonardo’s mother was a farmer, others an orphan and some a slave from the Middle East or North Africa. Now one of a small group of Leonardo experts, Vesey says the evidence suggests she was a Circassian slave torn from the North Caucasus region that is today part of southern Russia near the Black Sea coast.

Among the previously unknown documents is the “smoking gun” Vex claims to have found in the State Archives in Florence, an act of emancipation of a slave named Caterina, who was married to her mistress, Mona Ginevra, the wife of a “Florentine adventurer”. Was owned by Slaves from the Black Sea region.

The document was written by Ser Piero da Vinci, Leonardo’s father, and is dated November 1452, when Leonardo would have been six months old.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that document,” Weiss told NBC News. “I have never given much credence to the theory that she was an imported slave. So, I tried for months to prove that Caterina was not Leonardo’s mother in that notary act, but in the end all the documents I found pointed in that direction, and I surrendered the evidence.”

“Many slaves at the time were named Caterina, but this was the only emancipation act of a slave named Caterina Ser Piero, who wrote in her entire long career,” Vesey said. In addition, the document is full of minor mistakes and oversights, a sign perhaps he was nervous when he drafted it, as it was a crime to impregnate someone else’s slave.

Italian writer Carlo Vesey
Carlo Vesey holds a copy of his book in Florence on Tuesday. Weiss is an expert on the life and work of da Vinci.Marco Bertorello / AFP – Getty Images

The findings are the basis of a new historical novel by Vex titled “Il sorriso di Caterina,” (The Smile of Caterina). According to Giunti, the book’s publisher, in the 15th century slavery from the Black Sea was a lucrative business for merchants from the powerful maritime republics of Venice and Genoa.

“The market in Florence demanded young women above all, for use as servants, caregivers, as well as concubines—sex slaves who, when pregnant, remained useful after giving birth, to the master’s continued to provide her milk to the children,” it said in a press release.

If da Vinci’s heritage was just half-Italian, as the research suggests, it would add a new layer to Leonardo’s rich legacy.

Circassians are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group who lived in the north of the Caucasus until the 19th century, when more than one million people were forced to flee their homeland after Tsarist Russia invaded the region.

Circassians now live in about 40 different countries around the world, including Turkey, Israel, Syria, Jordan, and the United States.

According to a news release accompanying Tuesday’s research about Leonardo’s mysterious mother, “of one thing we can be sure.” “It is she who instilled in him a respect and reverence for life and nature, and an inexhaustible desire for freedom.”

Carlo Vex's latest book 'Il sorriso di Caterina Madre di Leonardo' on March 14, 2023 in Florence.
The research was unveiled at a press conference in Florence on Tuesday.Marco Bertorello / AFP – Getty Images

To date, one of the most respected theories about da Vinci’s mother has been put forward by Martin Kemp, another Leonardo expert and former professor of history of art at the University of Oxford in England.

In a 2017 book, Kemp concluded that Leonardo’s mother was Caterina di Meo Lippi, an orphan who lived in a farmhouse about a mile from Vinci, the Tuscan village where Leonardo was born and His name was derived.

From documents found in Vinci’s archive, Kemp concluded that Caterina and her infant brother moved to their grandmother’s home near Vinci after the death of their parents. Soon after, according to his theory, the former orphan became pregnant by 25-year-old Ser Piero da Vinci during a visit to his hometown in July 1451.

“Carlo Weiss is a fine scholar. Her ‘fictional’ account needs the feel of a slave mother,” Kemp said in an interview Tuesday. “I still favor our “rural” mother, who is a better fit. At least not as the future wife of a local “farmer,” he said.

“But a simple story did not match the popular need for a sensational story to suit the current obsession with slavery.”

Still, at the end of the day, Kemp cautioned, “None of the stories have been conclusively proven.”



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