Italian Peasant Or Oriental Slave: Who Was Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mother?

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Italian Peasant Or Oriental Slave: Who Was Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mother?

The real identity of da Vinci’s mother has always been shrouded in mystery, with historians remaining confused about Leonardo da Vinci’s maternal fami

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The real identity of da Vinci’s mother has always been shrouded in mystery, with historians remaining confused about Leonardo da Vinci’s maternal family. But now, a scholar has claimed that he found the woman behind the Italian Renaissance man. After in-depth research into a lady named Caterina di Meo Lippi, the da Vinci expert Martin Kemp, Professor of Art History at Oxford University, believes that the famous artist was born to her on April 15, 1452 when she was just 15 years old. 

Several more pieces of information have been uncovered. Leonardo da Vinci’s father, Ser Piero da Vinci, was a young notary working in Florence, who had recently returned to his hometown of Vinci, near the Tuscan hills. There it appears he met Leonardo’s mother, Caterina, who gave birth to the baby Leonardo, a man who would grow up to change the world. 

Leonardo da Vinci ( Georgios Kollidas  / Adobe Stock)

Sadly there was not much more information about the elusive Caterina, which allowed for plenty of speculation over the years. Previously, several scholars claimed that Caterina was not  Italian, and was actually a slave who came from North  AfricaTurkey, or even further afield. But the research of Martin Kemp has finally uncovered the plain truth of the identity of the great artist’s mother. 

Caterina’s Early Life

Caterina was a teenage girl when she met Ser Piero da Vinci who was at that time 25 years old. As per Martin Kemp and art researcher Giuseppe Pallanti, the mother of Leonardo was a 15-year-old girl who lived in a  farmhouse just a mile away from Vinci. Caterina was an  orphan, and after the death of her parents, she lived with her grandmother and 2-year-old brother, Papo. 

According to Pallanti and Kemp, Caterina’s grandmother died before 1451, and the two children then relied in their uncle for support, who lived next door. Ser Piero da Vinci, by contrast, was a lawyer in Florence who was on the path to success. However when he returned to his hometown, he met Caterina. And, in due course, they had a  baby boy

Ser Piero da Vinci went on to father more than 17 children over the course of his life, the last when Leonardo was more than 40 years of age. Despite records than Ser Piero da Vinci married four times, there is no evidence that Leonardo’s father married Caterina. This lack of evidence has previously led to much speculation around the mother’s identity. However Kemp’s theory, developed along with Giuseppe Pallanti and published in his book  Mona Lisa , appears to clear up the mystery.

Property Records and Tax Returns

Upon researching property tax records and other files held in both Florence and Vinci, Kemp and Pallanti found strong evidence for Caterina as the mother of Leonardo. Looking back through the complex tangle of family records, they found a series of repeating christian names such as Caterina, Antonio, Francesco, and Piero. 

Vinci, near Florence (Bernd Thaller /  CC BY-NC 2.0 )

They also discovered evidence that the families of Caterina and Ser Piero overlapped at several points. It seems certain that after meeting Ser Piero, Caterina discovered she was  pregnant, and it became clear that Ser Piero was not going to marry her. However, Ser Piero’s parents apparently never hid their illegitimate grandson’s birth, as this was not a rare occurrence for rich Tuscan families in that era. 

Leonardo’s grandfather listed him on his tax return and considered him as a family member as early as 1458. The family of Ser Piero also provided a dowry for Caterina, and she was married off to a local  farmer named Antonio di Piero Buti. With Antonio, Caterina had another son and four daughters. 

As well as the property tax records establishing this, Kemp also found records of a legal transaction between Caterina’s husband and Ser Piero. Caterina’s husband appears to have traveled to enlist the services of Ser Piero in Florence. This provides further evidence of the connection between the artist’s two parents. 

As per Leonardo’s notebooks, Caterina came to stay with him in Milan when he was around 40. It seems that she died within a year of her arrival, and Leonardo recorded a note about the payment of her funeral expenses. Caterina’s  funeral also appears in the municipal records of Milan.  

Along with these revelations about Leonardo’s mother, Kemp and Pallanti have also challenged the traditionally accepted birthplace of the artist. According to them, the so-called “Casa Natale” near the hamlet of Anchiano was not the birthplace of Leonardo, as neither his father nor grandfather had the property in Anchiano at that time. Ser Piero did own the property in the 15th century, but he bought it much later, when Leonardo was already a grown man. 

The Slave Theory

Other recent investigations have found some indirect evidence which suggests that Leonardo’s mother may have been a slave from further afield. Leonardo’s fingerprints have some features similar to people of  Middle Eastern  origin, suggesting that his mother might be  Turkish, or from North Africa. Alternatively, the art historian Angelo Paratico believes the model for the Mona Lisa might actually be Leonardo’s mother, a Chinese slave.  

 Leonardo da Vinci’s mother? (Dennis Jarvis /  CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Paratico, a Hong Kong based historian, believes that Caterina was from the  Orient and was taken to the Vinci town outside Florence to give birth to the child. Paratico’s theory is that she was removed from the household due to the improper relationship between her and her master. However, there is very little supporting evidence for this theory outside of wishful thinking, and Kemp’s more detailed research appears to clear up Caterina’s identity once and for all.

That Mona Lisa Smile

Apart from the various speculations about Caterina, there are also further wild speculations about the Mona Lisa, Leonardo’s most famous  masterpiece. Some claim that the painting has certain Kaballistic symbols, while some think there are hidden images in the painting. 

Sigmund Freud believed that the beautiful, mysterious smile in the painting must have been inspired by the mother of Leonardo, but offered no concrete evidence to support his claim. The authors Kemp and Pallanti have also written about Lisa del Giocondo, the accepted model for the Mona Lisa, and her husband. They see no real reason to doubt the model’s identity, or that the painting is grounded in the real world.

Top Image: Self-Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. Source: MAMJODH /  CC BY 2.0 .

By Bipin Dimri

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