Leonardo da Vinci’s mother was a slave, Italian novelist claims

Carlo Vecce, professor of Italian literature at the University of Naples L’Orientale, has revealed his theory in a new novel, Il Sorriso di Caterina, or Caterina’s Smile.

He based his claim on a document discovered in the State Archives in Florence that granted the freedom of a girl named Caterina.

Leonardo’s father notarized the record six months after the birth of the Renaissance genius, who went on to paint masterpieces like the Mona Lisa.

The historian Carlo Vecce with his latest novel, Caterina's Smile
Historian Carlo Vecce with his latest novel, Caterina’s Smile (Giunti Editore via AP)

Vecce said that it was originally intended to prove that Leonardo’s mother was not an enslaved person from the east, a long-held theory.

“But when the evidence goes in the other direction, you have to pay attention,” he said.

Vecce said he chose to put his research into a novel rather than an academic text because he felt an urgency to share his theory with a wider audience.

“I could joke that nobody reads a book with footnotes and a bibliography,” added the author.

Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of art history at Oxford University, co-wrote a 2017 book that identified Leonardo’s mother as Caterina di Meo Lippi, a 15-year-old orphan.

He said he continued to favor the theory that the girl who gave birth to the painter and inventor of the masterpiece was a “rural mother.”

“There have been a number of claims that Leonardo’s mother was a slave,” Professor Kemp said in a statement provided to The Associated Press.

“This fits with the need to find something rare and exotic in Leonardo’s past, and a link to slavery fits with current obsessions.”

This image made by historian Carlo Vecce shows what he says is the original act of freeing slave Caterina, who is believed to be Leonardo da Vinci's mother and notarized by Leonardo's father, Piero da Vinci.
This image made by historian Carlo Vecce shows what he says is the original act of freeing the slave Caterina, who is believed to be the mother of Leonardo da Vinci and notarized by Leonardo’s father, Piero da Vinci (Carlo Vecce via PA)

The art historian suggested that the document may not be conclusive.

It was Leonardo’s grandfather who said his mother’s name was Caterina, according to Professor Kemp.

Caterina was a common name given to slaves when they were forced to convert to Christianity, and the husband of the woman who freed the girl in the Vecce document exchanged two slaves with that name in one year, Professor Kemp said.

Professor Kemp praised Vecce’s work as a scholar and expressed surprise that the Italian professor published his findings as a fictional account.


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