By Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News
Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Museo Ideale Leonardo Da Vinci, announced last week at the museum that, after over 25 years of research, he has concluded that Da Vinci's father was a minor nobleman or craftsman named Ser Piero Da Vinci, while the artist's mother was a Middle Eastern slave, known by the name Caterina.
Her exact country of origin remains unclear due to limited written records. "Caterina, unlike Leonardo's other relatives, is never mentioned in primary sources from the period and was not married to (Ser Piero Da Vinci) because she was a slave who had likely converted to the Christian religion using the most common (women's) name for Eastern, pagan and Jewish slaves who had converted to Christianity, Caterina," Vezzosi wrote in a paper distributed at the museum presentation.
He explained that it was common in the 15th century for Tuscans to have owned slaves from the Middle East. In 1452, a law was passed in Florence that gave slave owners greater power over their charges. Vezzosi discovered, through registries, that shortly after this law was passed, Leonardo's father married Caterina off to one of his workers, a bondsman named Antonio di Piero del Vacca, who lived nearby. The marriage took place a few months after she gave birth to Leonardo.
According to Vezzosi, Caterina later gave birth to a girl, Piera, named after Leonardo's father. At the age of 60, when her husband died, Caterina moved to Milan where Leonardo was then living. When the artist was away from his mother he stayed connected to her through letters, which now survive in collections such as the Codex Atlanticus and the Codex Forster II.
Vezzosi claims that Caterina's Middle Eastern heritage influenced Leonardo.
"He was left-handed, but began all of his notebooks on the last page, which was customary for Arabs and Jews," said Vezzosi, who added that the master's artwork featured references to Philo of Byzantium and the apparition of a Lebanese giant, not to mention references in writing to Ottoman Court recipes and a plan to build a bridge in Constantinople.
Diane Stanley, author of the book "Leonardo Da Vinci," is skeptical of Vezzosi's theory.
"I did a great deal of research before writing my book and there was never any indication that Caterina was anything but an Italian peasant," Stanley told Discovery News.
"It is true that (Caterina) came to live with (Leonardo) in Milan in her old age and he paid for her burial, but that's all I know about their relationship," Stanley said. "Even if it turned out that Caterina was of Middle Eastern origin, I seriously doubt it had any effect on him whatsoever."