Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), La belle Ferronière, ca 1490, oil on panel, 63 x 45 cm
The brilliant Italian artist was not the product of a love affair between the notary Pietro da Vinci and a young Tuscan peasant girl, as was previously believed, but his mother must have been a Jewish Circassian slave, as reported in an article in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily. The discovery was revealed earlier this year by Carlo Vecce, one of Italy’s leading specialists on the Renaissance painter, who has just published a book on this lineage in his new work, ‘Il sorriso di Caterina’, la madre di Leonardo (published in Italian by Giunti).
The most curious thing about the story is that the researcher came across evidence just when he wanted to put an end to the hypothesis that had been circulating about the troubled and mysterious origins of the young Leonardo da Vinci. I’ve never given too much credence to the story that Leonardo’s mother was a slave living in Florence during the splendour of the Renaissance,” explains Vecce. “I wanted to prove that it wasn’t possible, and in the end I had to change my mind…”
The story of da Vinci’s mother starts in present-day Ukraine. From there, according to Vecce, Caterina da Vinci’s path led her through multiple lands until she reached Italy where slavery persisted in 15th-century Italy. (Although, as Vecce notes, to a lesser extent than in the Ottoman Empire). Caterina’s journey began in Ukraine, where she likely traversed the Taman peninsula near Crimea, which had ties to the Khazar kingdom. From there, she traveled from the Venetian colony in Azov to Constantinople, eventually finding herself in Venice before finally settling in Florence, under the “sollecito” of Donato di Filippo, a Lord in Florence, until she acquainted Pietro da Vinci, ultimately freeing.
da Vinci’s story, teaches us, that the unvarying and constant past, can always be challenged, as truth is a multi faced entity. This allows us to be critical of the past, always wondering about our identity.
As the Talmud says (Pirkei Avot), “אדם צריך לדעת מי הוא”, a person should know who they are, and because “האדם הוא מה שהוא למד” a person is what they have learned, “האדם הוא מה שהוא בוחר להיות” a person is what they choose to be.