Its a mystery that has intrigued and confounded scholars for centuries: Who, exactly, was Leonardo da Vincis mother?
A few facts are known. Her name was Caterina, and sometime in 1451 she had a relationship with notary Piero da Vinci, and gave birth on April 15, 1452, to a son who was born out of wedlock and baptized Leonardo. A memorial tablet, with a record of the artists birth, is in the Church of Santa Croce in the town of Vinci, about 30 miles from Florence, where the baptism most likely took place.
Over the years, researchers have speculated that the artists mother might have been a local peasant, an orphaned teenager of humble birth or a woman of Jewish or Chinese origin.
On Tuesday, another theory that is likely to fuel the academic debate was made public in Florence at a preview of a new historical novel. Its author, historian Carlo Vecce, believes that Leonardos mother was kidnapped and enslaved as a girl in the mountainous Caucasus area of Central Asia.
The novel, Il Sorriso di Caterina, or Caterinas Smile, has at its scholarly core a newly found document that Vecce uncovered in the State Archives of Florence, handwritten by Leonardos father. For the book, Vecce, who teaches at the Orientale University in Naples, merged fact and fiction to spin a tumultuous tale that takes the reader with Caterina as she makes her way to Florence, and later Vinci, via the Sea of Azov, Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and Venice. It ends with her death in Milan, where she has joined her son, who is working at the local court.
I would define it as a docu-fiction. It takes an oxymoron to explain this book because it is a combination of two traditionally distinct genres, said Paolo Galluzzi, a Leonardo expert and former director of the Galileo Museum in Florence. He said that the book, which will be released Wednesday, gave identities, faces and passion to characters, elements that are absent from scholarly accounts. But the research was sound, he said.
The documentation gathered by Vecce made a convincing case, Galluzzi said, even if its a hypothesis destined to spur debate.
The document Vecce found dates to the fall of 1452, some six months after the birth of Leonardo. It records the emancipation of an enslaved Circassian woman named Caterina by her owner. Evidence that the document refers specifically to Leonardos mother is bolstered, Vecce said Tuesday at a news conference, by other papers that trace a chain of ownership and familiarity with Caterina, all linked to Leonardos father.
Eventually, Leonardos father married a young Florentine woman, and the year after Leonardo was born, Piero da Vinci arranged a marriage between Caterina and a farmer and kiln worker who lived on the outskirts of Vinci. Caterina went on to have four daughters and another son.
It could be said that Leonardos birth worked out in his and the worlds favor. Author Walter Isaacson opens his 2017 biography of the artist by noting: Leonardo da Vinci had the good luck to be born out of wedlock. Otherwise, he would have been expected to become a notary, like the firstborn legitimate sons in his family stretching back at least five generations.
Vecce said that he decided on a literary approach to broadcasting his find because he hoped to reach a wider audience, though he mentioned in a telephone interview last week that a scholarly article was in the works. He also said that he was moved by Caterinas story, which he said reflected the suffering of many modern-day refugees.
I felt the urgency of telling the story in a different way, he said Tuesday.
His theory is only the latest on Caterinas life before Leonardo. Researcher Angelo Paratico said he found himself in the media spotlight after he publicly posited in 2014 that Leonardos mother was an enslaved Chinese woman. Id said that if it was true, as Sigmund Freud once wrote, that Leonardo had modeled the Mona Lisa after his mother, then the Mona Lisa was Chinese, he recalled in a telephone interview. You can imagine how people reacted, he laughed.
Paraticos theory, he said, was grounded in a previous study by Renzo Cianchi, a librarian of the Leonardo Library in Vinci who hypothesized years ago that Caterina was an enslaved woman who lived in the house of Vanni di Niccolo di Ser Vann, a wealthy friend of Leonardos father.
Alessandro Vezzosi, a Leonardo scholar and director of Leonardo da Vinci Heritage, an association that has identified the artists descendants, said a soon-to-be-published book about Leonardos genealogy would again propose the notion that Leonardos mother was the Caterina owned by Vanni. We are convinced the documents lead to that Caterina, he said. But he was curious to read Vecces book, saying they would compare notes.
Vecce said Tuesday that the earlier research by Cianchi and Vezzosi had guided his work, even if he didnt agree on Caterinas identity.
Before Italy was unified in the 19th century, slavery was commonplace, though in Italy it remains a field where more research is required, said Giulia Bonazza, a professor at the University of Venice who has written on the topic. Trafficking in humans from Central Asia had started by the 13th century and was carried out primarily by Genoese and Venetian merchants. Most of the victims were women and non-Christians. Their children were not legally considered enslaved.
Once they arrived in Europe, they were baptized and given Christian names, often Maria or Caterina, and sold as servants to well-to-do families. But even if there were families who owned enslaved persons, it wasnt the standard, said Sergio Tognetti, a professor of medieval history at the University of Cagliari who has written about slavery. Some were eventually freed by their owners, usually as part of a will.
A few years ago, Martin Kemp, a Leonardo expert, published a book with an Italian researcher that identified Leonardos mother as a local teenage orphan, but he said that the theory of her captivity was also a conceivable model.
In an interview, he said that he thought that people were fascinated by the question of Leonardos mother because even though the artist had written thousands and thousands of pages on a wide array of subjects, his personality remained something of an enigma.
But, then again, did knowing who Caterina was really matter? Kemp asked.
In terms of understanding his art, his science, his engineering, the question is, So what?
This article originally appeared in The New York Times