New research claims Italy’s Leonardo da Vinci was son of a slave

Leonardo da Vinci, the painter of the Mona Lisa and a symbol of the Renaissance, was only half-Italian, his mother a slave from the Caucasus, new research revealed on Tuesday.

New research claims Italy's Leonardo da Vinci was son of a slave
Leonardo da Vinci's 'The Trivulzian Codex' in Villa La Loggia in Florence, on March 14, 2023. Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP.

Da Vinci’s mother had long been thought a Tuscan peasant, but University of Naples professor Carlo Vecce, a specialist in the Old Master, believes the truth is more complicated.

“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,” he told AFP at the launch of a new book.

In the Italian city, she met young notary Piero da Vinci “and their son was called Leonardo”.

The findings of Vecce, who has spent decades studying da Vinci and curating his works, are based on Florence city archives.

READ ALSO: In the footsteps of genius: A travel guide to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Italy

They have formed the basis of a new novel – “The Smile of Caterina, the mother of Leonardo” — while also shedding new light on the artist himself.

Any new discovery about da Vinci is hotly contested by the small world of experts who study him, but Vecce insists the evidence is there.

Among the documents he found is one written by da Vinci’s father himself, a legal document of emancipation for Caterina, “to recover her freedom and recover her human dignity”.

A person stands next to a self-portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci at the Biblioteca Reale in Turin.

A person stands next to a self-portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci at the Biblioteca Reale in Turin. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO/ AFP.

‘Spirit of freedom’

This document is dated 1452, and was presented on Tuesday at a press conference at the headquarters of publishing house Giunti in Florence.

It was written by “the man who 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”, Vecce said.

His assertion offers a radical change of perspective on da Vinci, who was believed to have been the product of an affair between Piero da Vinci and a different woman, young Tuscan peasant Caterina di Meo Lippi.

Born in 1452 in the countryside outside Florence, da Vinci spent his life travelling around Italy before dying in Amboise, France in 1519, at the court of King Francis 1.

Vecce believes the difficult life of his “migrant” mother had an impact on the work of her brilliant son.

READ ALSO: Italian researchers discover 14 descendants of Leonardo Da Vinci living in Tuscany

“Caterina left Leonardo a great legacy, certainly, the spirit of freedom,” he said, “which inspires all of his intellectual scientific work”.

Da Vinci was a polymath, an artist who mastered several disciplines including sculpture, drawing, music and painting, but also engineering, anatomy, botany and architecture.

“He doesn’t let anything stop him,” Vecce said.

Some may consider the idea that this epitome of a “Renaissance man” was the product of such a union too good to be true.

But Paolo Galluzzi, a da Vinci historian and member of the prestigious Lincei scientific academy in Rome, said it is “by far the most convincing”.

Speaking to AFP, he highlighted the quality of the documents discovered by his colleague, adding that there “must remain a minimum of doubt, because we cannot do a DNA test”.

Galluzzi said he was also not surprised.

The period into which da Vinci was born marks “the beginning of modernity, the exchanges between people, cultures and civilisations which gave birth to the modern world”, he said.

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Two more victims of volcanic eruption found in Italy’s Pompeii ruins

Archaeologists at Pompeii said on Tuesday that they had uncovered two more skeletons in the ruins of the ancient Roman city wiped out by a volcanic eruption nearly 2,000 years ago.

Two more victims of volcanic eruption found in Italy's Pompeii ruins

The pair of male victims, believed to be aged at least 55, were found in recent excavations at Pompeii’s ‘Chaste Lovers’ block of buildings.

They are believed to have been killed as an earthquake that accompanied the eruption of Moutn Vesuvius in 79 AD knocked down a wall in the room where they sought shelter.

Pompeii Archaeological Park Director Gabriel Zuchtriegel said the two were killed not by volcanic ash but by collapsing buildings, noting that wall fragments were found between their fractured bones.

In the room where the men were found, part of a wall had collapsed, hitting one of the victims “whose raised arm perhaps refers to the tragic image of a vain attempt to protect himself from falling masonry”, a statement from the park said.

The skeletons were found lying on their side with their legs curled up, and one wore a ring on his left hand.

They were found in what is believed to be a storeroom inside the “Chaste Lovers” block, where colourful frescoes and the skeletons of mules who worked the millstones for grain have been uncovered in the past.

IN PHOTOS: Pompeii’s treasures go on display at reopened Antiquarium museum

Inside the room was an amphora and a collection of bowls and jugs, while an adjacent room contained a home shrine in the form of a fresco, and a narrow bathroom with a toilet.

The earthquake struck as the huge blast from nearby Mount Vesuvius covered the city of Pompeii with thick volcanic ash, preserving the bodies of many of its residents.

Archaeologists estimate that 15 to 20 percent of Pompeii’s population died in the eruption, which had a force equivalent to many atomic bombs, mostly from thermal shock as a giant cloud of gases and ash covered the city.

Pompeii’s site director Gabriel Zuchtriegel. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

Earthquakes before and during the eruption, as documented in letters by Roman author Pliny the Younger, also took their toll.

“At least 15-20 percent of the population” was killed, according to the park.

Over the past two and a half centuries, archaeologists have recovered the remains of more than 1,300 victims, most recently in November 2020 when archaeologists unearthed two bodies, believed to be of a young slave and his master.

“Modern excavation techniques help us to better understand the inferno that completely destroyed the city of Pompeii over two days, killing many inhabitants”, archaeologist Zuchtriegel stated on Tuesday.

READ ALSO: Roman chariot unearthed ‘almost intact’ near Pompeii

There has been a flurry of recent archaeological activity at Pompeii, aimed at halting years of decay and neglect, largely funded by a 105-million-euro EU project.

Italian Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano said on Tuesday conservation and archaeological research efforts would continue.

“The discovery of these two skeletons shows us that we still need to study a lot, do more excavations to bring out everything that is still inside this immense treasure,” he said.