Was Leonardo’s Mother a Slave (Chinese or Otherwise)? December 6, 2014Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback
Madness on the internet in the last few days with the announcement that Leonardo da Vinci’s mother was a Chinese slave and that she is the Mona Lisa. Many readers will have stumbled upon this theory and enjoyed its improbability, but they may not know that there has been almost ten years of similar theories of which this is only the most extreme. In 2009 it was announced that Leonardo’s mother was from Azerbaijan and back in 2008 there were many stories in the Italian media arguing that she was Muslim!
Now to facts. Let’s ignore all the nonsense about Leonardo being half Chinese because he enjoyed a vegetarian diet and let’s discard, too, the ethnic analysis of his thumbprint, which is a science in its infancy. Let’s, instead, look at the documentary evidence, by which this story lives or dies. First, Leonardo was a bastard, the child of ser Piero da Vinci and a woman named Caterina. This is well attested. To quote one contemporary document: ‘Lionardo figliuolo di detto ser Piero non legiptimo nato di lui e della Chatarina, al presente donna d’Achattabriga di Piero del Vacca da Vinci, d’anni 5’, ‘Leonardo, five year-old illegimitate son of the aforementioned Piero, born to him by Catarina, now woman of Piero della Vacca ‘Achattabriga’ from Vinci.
Second, Caterina seems to have been of low status. The hints of this are numerous and important. The fact that she had sexual liaisons with Piero, while Piero was married. The fact that she was not recorded as being present at Leonardo’s baptism. The fact that she married (with encouragement from Piero?) the disreputable Piero del Vacca, whose nickname Achattabriga makes him sound like a bandit.
Third, slaves were relatively common in fifteenth-century Italy, as long as the slave was not Christian. Indeed, Europe’s long culture of rejecting slavery had begun to be overturned in late Renaissance Italy.
But as Caterina is a common Italian name, there is the temptation to assume that she was simply a contadina, a Tuscan peasant who was bedded by a local squire. Why should we assume differently? There is one small piece of evidence that has been rolled out repeatedly in the slave theories. In 1451, a year before Leonardo was born. A family named Vanni, based in the Santa Croce district of Florence (Via Ghibellina) had a slave named Caterina. This fact is confirmed by several documents. In 1451 Vanni di Niccolo di Ser Vanni changed his will and left this house to Leonardo’s father, Piero, with the condition that Niccolo’s wife Agnola could use the house in her lifetime. Caterina disappears at this time from the documentation and another Caterina appears in April 1452 giving birth to Leonardo. The evidence, then, is merely circumstantial and given the commonness of Caterina not very circumstantial at that. From there though we have serious disquisitions about the Chinese eyes of the Mona Lisa…
Other thoughts on the ethnicity of Caterina: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com