Da Vinci's mother was an enslaved teenager trafficked to Italy, new documents suggest

A statue of Leonardo da Vinci by Italian sculpture Pietro Magni in Milan's Piazza della Scala.
A statue of Leonardo da Vinci by Italian sculpture Pietro Magni in Milan's Piazza della Scala. (Image credit: Victor Ovies Arenas)

Leonardo da Vinci's mother was kidnapped and enslaved as a teenager in the Caucasus and sent to Italy, a new analysis of nearly 600-year-old documents suggests. 

The documents, discovered by an Italian historian, suggest that da Vinci's mother, Caterina, was kidnapped and torn from her home by the Black Sea in Circassia before being shipped to Venice. 

If they're accurate, it would mean that Leonardo da Vinci, considered to be one of the greatest painters and scientists of the Italian Renaissance, was only half-Italian. Carlo Vecce, the documents' finder and a professor of Italian literature at the University "L’Orientale" of Naples, has used the discovery as the subject of a historical novel. The book — called "Il Sorriso di Caterina," or  "The Smile of Caterina, the Mother of Leonardo" — contains factually accurate details from his research, Vecce said. The findings, however, have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Related: Scientists may have cracked the mystery of da Vinci's DNA

"Leonardo's mother was a Circassian slave," Vecce said at a news conference on Tuesday (Mar. 14). "Taken from her home in the Caucasus Mountains, sold and resold several times in Constantinople, then Venice, before finally arriving in Florence, where she met a young notary, Piero da Vinci," who was Leonardo's father. 

Best known for his painting of the Mona Lisa, da Vinci was an artist, architect, inventor, anatomist, engineer and scientist. He filled dozens of secret notebooks with scientific observations, inventions and anatomical observations. Along with detailed drawings of human anatomy, his notebooks contain designs for bicycles, helicopters, tanks and airplanes. 

Researching da Vinci's family history is difficult because until now only his father's ancestry could be properly traced. Others have suggested that da Vinci's mother was an orphan who lived in a derelict farmhouse when she met Piero da Vinci.

But the only firmly known fact about the famous polymath's family was that his parents weren't married and he was born out of wedlock in the Tuscan town of Anchiano, and was the son of the notary Piero da Vinci and a woman named Caterina. 

Vecce found the previously unknown documents while conducting research in the State Archives of Florence. Among them is a Latin certificate, signed by Piero and dated Nov. 2, 1452, that freed Caterina from slavery. A year before, in 1451, Caterina had met Piero after being bought by a Florentine knight to work as a wet nurse, Vecce said. 

"The notary who freed Caterina was the same person who loved her when she was still a slave and with whom he had this child," Vecce said.

Vecce added that he believes Piero was emotional while writing the document, adding small mistakes that could have betrayed his nervousness — getting another person’s slave pregnant was a crime, Vecce said.

"Vecce's reconstruction is extremely convincing," Paolo Galluzzi, a historian of science and the honorary president of the Galileo Museum in Florence, told Live Science in an email. "Certainly it is the most convincing reconstruction formulated up to now. It is based on new original documents and makes a lot of sense."

Not all historians are convinced by the theory. Martin Kemp, an emeritus professor of the History of Art at the University of Oxford in England (who suggested that Caterina was a peasant orphan) said that Caterina was a common name for slave women forcibly converted to Christianity, so the documents could refer to someone else.

"Carlo Vecce is a fine scholar. It is a surprise that he has published  his documents in the context of a 'fictionalised' account," Kemp told Live Science via email. "I still favour a 'rural mother' — Caterina di Meo (see the book I wrote with Giuseppe Pallanti) — a more or less destitute orphan in Vinci, but this is not as big a story as if he had a 'slave mother.'"

Ben Turner
Staff Writer

Ben Turner is a U.K. based staff writer at Live Science. He covers physics and astronomy, among other topics like tech and climate change. He graduated from University College London with a degree in particle physics before training as a journalist. When he's not writing, Ben enjoys reading literature, playing the guitar and embarrassing himself with chess.