What do we really know about Leonardo da Vinci's mother?

What do we know about Leonardo da Vinci's mother? A Circassian slave or a peasant girl from Vinci? Everything, but everything, that is currently possible to know about Catherine, the mother of the genius.

What do we really know about Catherine, the mother of Leonardo da Vinci? A great stir was caused yesterday by the news of the discovery by historian and philologist Carlo Vecce of thedeed of liberation of a Circassian slave, named Caterina, notarized on November 2, 1452, by Leonardo’s father, notary Piero da Vinci. Vecce, a lecturer at the University of Naples L’Orientale, with publications on Leonardo da Vinci already to his credit, and recognized as an authoritative scholar, announced that he had found the document at theState Archives in Florence, and that he had woven around the story of Leonardo’s probable mother a novel entitled The Smile of Caterina. Leonardo’s Mother, published by Giunti publishing house (the announcement of the discovery was made during a press conference to present the book). The book mixes fact and fiction and will also include the newly found document.

During the book’s presentation, Vecce said he opted for a docu-fiction style approach to make sure that the discovery reaches as many people as possible, although, reached by phone by the New York Times, he let it be known that a scientific article on the subject is in preparation. Many questions have been raised by the news with the public: is this really a breakthrough? Is it really a “historical discovery of revolutionary importance,” as Giunti’s editorial director Antonio Franchini put it, in a judgment shared by another influential scholar, Paolo Galluzzi, academician of the Lincei? On what basis does the deed signed by Leonardo’s father endorse the conclusion that the Catherine mentioned in the document, where she is said to be “filia Jacobi eius schiava seu serva de partibus Circassie” (“daughter of Jacob and slave or servant of Circassian origin”), is indeed the mother of Leonardo da Vinci?

We can start precisely from the news of Vecce’s discovery. The existence of the deed, notarized in Florence on November 2, 1452, was already known: it is in fact mentioned in the Ricordanze di Francesco di Matteo Castellani, a 15th-century Florentine knight, son-in-law of Palla Strozzi (one of the richest men in Renaissance Florence) having married his daughter Ginevra, and an interesting figure in the eyes of contemporary historians especially for the relationships he had with some of the most illustrious personalities of his time (such as Luigi Pulci and Lorenzo the Magnificent). Castellani’s memoir reads that “Ser Piero d’Antonio di ser Piero [Leonardo’s father, nda] was notarized of the liberatione della Catherina balia della Maria, facta per monna Ginevra d’Antonio Redditi, patrona di detta Caterina e donna di Donato di Filippo di Salvestro di Nato, a dì 2 of November 1452, since the paper by mistake says on dì 2 of December and so less’io, Francesco Matheo Castellani, this dì 5 of November 1452.”

Leonardo da Vinci's birth certificate
Leonardo da Vinci’s birth certificate

So what happens on November 2, 1452? A certain Ginevra d’Antonio Redditi, wife (“woman”) of Donato di Filippo di Salvestro di Nato (or Donato di Filippo di Salvestro Nati) decides to free one of his slaves named Caterina, who was acting as wet nurse to Ginevra’s daughter, Maria. Castellani, who gets to see the document three days later, on Nov. 5, realizes that Ser Piero da Vinci, however, got the date wrong, having written “Dec. 2” instead of “Nov. 2” (a circumstance that ledAGI to fantasize about a Piero da Vinci making the mistake because “his hand trembles” with emotion, since “that slave is ’his’ Caterina, the girl who gave him her love”). The act discovered by Vecce, according to the press conference announcement, adds two new elements: the name of the girl’s father (Jacob) and her origin, namely Circassia, a historical region in the North Caucasus, along the shores of the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. The hypothesis is that Catherine was abducted in her homeland by Tatars, taken around 1439 to Constantinople where she was purchased by Venetian slave traders (human trafficking was a widespread phenomenon in the 15th century on the Mediterranean routes) and then brought to Florence in 1442.

What documents unequivocally link the 1452 deed to Leonardo da Vinci’s mother? The short answer is: none at the moment, although during the press conference Vecce stated, as reported again by the New York Times, that “the evidence that the document refers specifically to Leonardo’s mother is strengthened [...] by other papers that trace a chain of ownership and familiarity with Caterina, all of which are linked to Leonardo’s father.” According to what has transpired so far, however, we have no irrefutable evidence that could lead us to establish with certainty that the Caterina in question is the mother of the genius. There is, however, a series of clues (which, as all mystery movies teach, when put together do not make a proof: they can, however, contribute to a highly plausible lead) that has led some scholars, most notably Renzo Cianchi, Francesco Cianchi, Alessandro Vezzosi and Viacheslav Chirikba, to believe that the hypothesis that Leonardo’s mother was a Circassian slave is highly probable.

It was Renzo Cianchi (1901 - 1985), founder of the Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci, based in Vinci, who first advanced the hypothesis based on the discovery of some documents. Meanwhile, those that attested to the fact that Piero, though originally from Vinci, was practicing in Florence between 1451 and 1452 (and thus it is highly likely that he resided here), a reason that led Renzo Cianchi, and then his son Francesco to whom we owe the credit for organizing and publishing his father’s studies in 2008, to believe that Leonardo was conceived in today’s Tuscan capital. At the time Piero da Vinci had a client, a certain Vanni di Niccolò di ser Vanni, who drew up his will in 1451: in this will (Piero da Vinci was one of the executors) a “Caterina schiava” is mentioned, and the hypothesis was that Piero da Vinci had had with the moneylender Vanni di Niccolò such an acquaintance that he had gotten to know his slave and had had an affair with her.

In 2015, a study by theUniversity of Chieti and Pescara, which had subjected the fingerprints left by Leonardo on his papers to a lengthy investigation, had caused discussion: out of a sample of more than 200 prints, it had been found, made known by Luigi Capasso, director of the Institute of Anthropology and the Museum of the History of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Chieti and Pescara, and Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Museo Ideale in Vinci, a “whorl-like structure with y-branches, called triradio,” which would be “common to about 65 percent of the Arab population,” a circumstance that, according to Capasso and Vezzosi, reinforced the idea that Levantine blood also flowed in Leonardo’s veins. This research was viewed with great skepticism, however, by Simon Cole, an associate professor of criminology at the University of California, who stated that it is impossible to determine a person’s ethnicity based on his or her fingerprints.

Instead, the Russian scholar Viacheslav Chirikba, in 2018, insisted on certain details, first and foremost the fact that, contrary to the usage of the time, the papers related to Leonardo da Vinci’s birth do not mention his mother’s name, a reason that leads one to believe, Chirikba wrote, that “Catherine did not have an official surname or even a patronymic, and that she was not a native of Vinci. Consequently, she must have belonged to the lowest class of Italian society: she was a domestic slave, a common category in 14th- and 15th-century Italy.” Chirikba specified, however, that “Caterina was the most common of the female names given to oriental slaves after Catholic baptism.” Therefore, it is not certain that the Catherine freed in 1452 is indeed the slave Catherine who was eventually Leonardo’s mother. There are, however, other clues that would suggest that the artist’s mother was a slave: for example, Chirikba further argues, the fact that Piero did not marry the woman after he impregnated her, because of the too wide social gap, and the fact that Leonardo’s paternal grandfather, Antonio, does not mention her in the private document in which the child’s birth is recorded. Only after Catherine married (thus, in the case she was a slave, following her liberation), and thus acquired a legally recognized surname, is she mentioned by Antonio da Vinci in the documents, albeit without her maiden name and without patronymic. And again, Chirikba hypothesizes, since Leonardo was the illegitimate son, and of a slave girl to boot, he could not follow in his father’s footsteps and become a notary by enrolling in the Guild of Judges and Notaries because of his status. However, Chirikba had already speculated on Catherine’s Circassian origin, since Circassia was the land of origin of many slaves sold in the markets of Venice, Genoa and Florence, and also because of the fact, the Russian scholar wrote, that “Leonardo’s writings denote an obvious interest in Asia Minor, the Caucasus and the Black Sea.” Finally, Chirikba argued, “it is highly probable that Catherine was not purchased by Ser Piero, but was a domestic slave who belonged to one of his friends or colleagues in Florence.”

Francesco Melzi, Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1510; sanguine on paper, 275 x 190 mm; Windsor, Royal Collection)
Francesco Melzi, Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1510; sanguine on paper, 275 x 190 mm; Windsor, Royal Collection)

But how do we know that Leonardo da Vinci’s mother was named Caterina? We owe it again to his grandfather Antonio, who first mentions the artist’s mother in his declaration for the cadastre of Vinci in 1457: in the document, Antonio declares himself to be 85 years old, living in the Santa Croce district of Florence, husband of Lucia, 64 years old, father of Francesco and 30-year-old Piero, married to Albiera Amadori, age 21 (Piero da Vinci would marry three times giving Leonardo twelve half-brothers and half-sisters), and father of “Lionardo figliuolo di detto ser Piero non legittimo nato di lui e della Chaterina che al presente è donna d’Achattabriga di Piero del Vacca da Vinci, d’anni 5.” From this point forward, the story of Leonardo’s mother is quite well known: she married an inhabitant of vinci, Antonio Buti, known as “Attaccabrighe” (evidently he was a fellow certainly not known for having a quiet and mild disposition), and had five other children, four girls and one boy. And it seems that towards the end of the 15th century she was reunited with Leonardo in Milan, living with him for some time.

The married name of Leonardo’s mother was thus Caterina Buti. For the sake of completeness it should be reported that on Caterina’s origin there is also another hypothesis, formulated by Martin Kemp and Giuseppe Pallanti, and decidedly less exotic: that she was a poor peasant woman originally from Vinci. Meanwhile, Kemp and Pallanti point out that births of illegitimate children, contrary to what we might think, did not arouse scandal and were quite common in Florentine families, especially wealthy ones. Moreover, the child of a maid or slave could safely live together with the children of the father’s legitimate wife, and such births were routinely reported to the civil authorities. However, illegitimate children had certain restrictions (e.g., they were excluded from inheritance and, as seen above, could not be enrolled in certain guilds, including that of judges and notaries, which was the reason why Leonardo could not do the same profession as his father). Leonardo’s birth itself was not at all hidden, indeed we know from documents that the child was properly celebrated and celebrated (i.e., the baptism took place in the presence of ten witnesses, five men and five women, and among them were some of the wealthiest citizens of Vinci).

So far, nothing that would clash with the idea that Catherine was a slave. Kemp and Pallanti rule out this idea first because “there is no evidence of the presence of slaves in provincial Vinci.” And then because, according to the two scholars, the “best candidate” for the role of Leonardo’s mother is probably the then 15-year-old Caterina di Meo Lippi, who lived in a house (which, moreover, still exists) located about a kilometer from the village of Vinci. This Caterina’s family had lived in the Mattoni locality near Vinci for at least two generations: her grandfather, Lippo di Nanni Lippi, had married a Giovanna and together they had given birth to Bartolomeo, called Meo, Caterina’s father. The families of Lippo and his brother Giusto (who married an Antonia by whom he had four children) lived together. When Lippo died, his wife Giovanna demanded, according to the law of the time, restitution of the dowry, but she got into a dispute with her son Meo over the division of Lippo’s property, and decided to take the case to court. The judge ruled that to Giovanna would go the family farm with some surrounding plots of land, while the son fared worse because he received only a quarter of a house (called “trista” in the documents, i.e., dilapidated) in the village of Vinci, and three plots of land, one of which he co-owned with his uncle Giusto. It was, in short, an unequal division: probably this affair was at the origin of Meo’s dissolute life and his death at a relatively young age (around forty), poor, moreover (as attested by one of his tax returns from 1427). Catherine was born in 1436, and in 1449 Meo gave birth to a boy (the mother of both of Meo’s children is unknown), dying shortly thereafter. The two children, after Meo’s death, were taken in charge by their grandmother, who, however, died in 1451, leaving Catherine and her brother Papo, just two years old, alone. They were therefore collected by Uncle Justus, the only relative who was left.

Catherine, at the age of fifteen, was already of marriageable age by the standards of the time, yet given her situation, with no family and no dowry, she would not have easily found a groom and, Kemp and Pallanti write, “could too easily have ended up in the arms of an opportunistic man, particularly someone of a higher class who was interested in her. She could not resist the advances of the young notary of a prominent local family. Caterina di Meo Lippi was poor and vulnerable, a teenager with few expectations. She had the right profile to be the mother of an illegitimate child.” According to the two scholars, “there is an intricate web of evidence that supports the identification of Caterina di Meo as Leonardo’s mother. The ’Caterina’ of popular tradition, as she has been generally imagined until now, is of a similar age to Ser Piero [...]. Caterina di Meo Lippi, as an orphaned teenager, was a ready target for Piero’s sexual attentions, and it would not have been so difficult to marry her off later with the support of ser Piero’s family.” Kemp and Pallanti mention as a clue Antonio da Vinci’s declaration of 1457, in which Leonrdo’s grandfather listed the members of his family in order to obtain an allowance of 200 florins for each of them, a sum that was exempt from taxation. He recorded, as anticipated, first his wife and children and then added Leonardo, the illegitimate son of Ser Piero who, as his grandfather specified, was born to him and Caterina, the current wife of “Accattabrighe.” Antonio did not get any allowance for Leonardo’s mother. “The tone of his recording,” Kemp and Pallanti write, “was more colloquial than formal; he spoke of ’Caterina’ as if locally it was obvious to whom he was referring, with no need to add anything else. Caterina Lippi and her little brother would have been pitied in the small community. They were nobody’s children. Their circumstances would not have been unique. However, theirs was an extreme case that was bound to attract attention. Given that she had a son by the notary and later married Accattabrighe, her life would have been an immediate subject of conversation.”

Kemp and Pallanti found links between the Buti family, that of “Attaccabrighe,” and the Lippi family, that of Caterina: for example, the fact that Antonio and Caterina had given one of their daughters, Sandra, a very unusual name for the time, attested, however, in the Lippi family (Sandra was the wife of Orso, Caterina’s cousin and son of Giusto). Again, the marriage contract of Maria, one of Antonio and Caterina’s daughters, had among its witnesses Orso and Aandra’s son, Antonio. Another connection dates back to 1480, when Attaccabrighe had to sell a piece of land: witnesses included Leonardo’s uncle Francesco, brother of Piero da Vinci. And even, in 1487, when Attaccabrighe had his third daughter, Lisabetta, married to a peasant from Montespertoli, the notary who certified the deeds was Piero da Vinci himself: “a rather high-level lawyer for a modest local transaction,” Kemp and Pallanti write. In short, another chain of clues that would tie Meo Lippi’s daughter Caterina to the one cited as Leonardo’s mother by her grandfather Antonio.

For both theories, in short, irrefutable and certain evidence is lacking. But we will wait for the publication of new scientific papers that may increase the probability of one track rather than the other.

What do we really know about Leonardo da Vinci's mother?
What do we really know about Leonardo da Vinci's mother?

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