An Italian scholar and novelist has provided a fresh theory for an old debate over the identity of Leonardo da Vinci’s mother, drawing on a recently unearthed document as evidence that she arrived on the Italian peninsula as a slave from the Caucasus region of Central Asia.
Carlo Vecce, an Italian literature professor 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 freedom to a girl named Caterina.
Leonardo’s father, Piero, notarized the record six months after the birth of the Renaissance genius, who went on to paint masterpieces including the “Mona Lisa.”
Vecce said he originally was intent on proving that Leonardo’s mother was not an enslaved person from the East, Circassia. “But when the evidence goes in the other direction, one must pay attention,” he said.
In the book, Vecce writes that Caterina was brought to Italy from Circassia, a historical region in the North Caucasus, because of her ability to work with fabrics. She was brought to Venice by boat, he says, and then taken to Florence, where she worked in a home near the cathedral and was hired out as a nanny until her liberation on November 2, 1452.
He said he chose to put his research in a novel and not in a scholarly text because he felt an urgency to share his theory with a wider public. “I could joke that no one reads a book with footnotes and a bibliography,” the author added, making light of a decision that is seen as trivializing such an important claim.
Martin Kemp, an Oxford University art history professor emeritus who co-wrote a 2017 book that identified Leonardo’s mother as Caterina di Meo Lippi, a 15-year-old orphan, is disputing this new theory. He said he continued to favor the theory that the girl who gave birth to the Renaissance genius was a “rural mother.”
“There have been a number of claims that Leonardo’s mother was a slave,” Kemp said in a statement provided to The Associated Press. “This fits the need to find something exceptional and exotic in Leonardo’s background, and a link to slavery fits with current obsessions.” He suggested the document may not be conclusive.
It was Leonardo’s grandfather who said his mother’s name was Caterina, according to Kemp, but that too has little meaning since 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 Vecce’s document traded two slaves with that name in one year, Kemp said.
Kemp both praised Vecce’s work as a scholar and expressed surprise that the Italian professor published his findings as a fictionalized account.
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