Загадка Катерины. Кем была мать Леонардо Да Винчи? (The Mystery of Caterina. Who Was the Mother of Leonardo da Vinci?)
Author: Viacheslav Chirikba
Place of Publication: St. Petersburg
Published by: Piter
Number of pages: 160
Language: Russian (English pp. 133-138).
The Mystery of Caterina. Who Was the Mother of Leonardo da Vinci?
The father of the great artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci was the Florentine notary ser Piero da Vinci. But who was his mother? Apart from her name – Caterina – nothing is known about her, her life story is shrouded in darkness. The author of the essay is trying to lift the veil of the mystery of the origin of the enigmatic genius of the Renaissance. Based on the analysis of a number of facts and evidence, he puts forward a hypothesis that the artist’s mother could be an Abkhazian or Circassian slave woman brought to Italy from the Black Sea coast of the Caucasus. The romantic relationship of the slave Caterina with the young successful notary Piero da Vinci ended with the birth of a boy, baptized with the name Leonardo. Professor of Philology Viacheslav Chirikba defended his doctoral dissertation at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He is the author of a series books and articles on the languages, history and mythology of the peoples of the Caucasus.
The full book in PDF can be downloaded by clicking here (5.3 MB)
+ Viacheslav Chirikba's Hypothesis on da Vinci's Mother Confirmed by Italian Archives
+ Abkhazia and Italian city-states of the XIII-XV centuries, by Viacheslav Chirikba
The principle of Roman law reads: “Mater semper certa est, pater numquam” (The mother is always certain, the father never). Paradoxically, in the case of Leonardo da Vinci we are faced with an inverse situation. The greatest Renaissance artist, scientist and inventor was born on 15 April 1452. His father was Piero d’Antonio di Ser Guido da Vinci. But there is no information about his mother other than her name — Сaterina. Who was the mother of the genius?
Many biographers say Caterina was a local peasant girl (contadina) from the area around Vinci, the town where the artist’s family lived. Had this been so, in his records, including in the official tax return, Leonardo’s grandfather Antonio would have certainly mentioned the mother’s maiden name, patronymic and/or place of her origin. We do not find such information in any of the sources, including the archives, which suggests that Caterina did not have an official surname or even a patronymic, and was not a native of Vinci. Thus, she must have belonged to the lowest social stratum of Italian society and was a domestic slave — a category that was common in 14th to 15th centuries Italy. Her very name, Caterina, was the most common one given to foreign female slaves from the East after Catholic baptism.
Another indication that Caterina was a slave was that Ser Piero did not marry her after her pregnancy, because the social gulf was too great between her and a man of noble birth.
Possibly, at the time of Leonardo’s birth in 1452, Caterina was still a slave, which prevented his grandfather Antonio from mentioning her name even in the private record of his birth. Only when Catherina was married (after the alleged ransom and release from slavery) and she for the first time acquired a legal surname, Antonio reported in the tax declaration her name, but not her maiden name or patronymic, mentioning instead her husband’s name and his place of residence (Achattabrigha di Piero del Vacca da Vinci).
Him being, presumably, the illegitimate son of a slave, Leonardo could not follow in the footsteps of his father and, continuing the family tradition, enter university and then become a notary and member of the Guild of Lawyers and Notaries (Arte dei Giudici e Notai). Children born out of wedlock could not inherit their father’s property and their real rights and status were minimal compared to other family members. The fact that, despite the intervention of very high patrons, Leonardo failed to get either a share of his father’s inheritance or of his uncle Francesco’s plot of land in Vinci, may also indicate that Leonardo, although born free and baptized, nevertheless, as the son of a slave woman, had even more limited legal (including hereditary) rights, than had he been simply an illegitimate child.
In the 14th — 15th centuries, slaves were brought to Italy in large numbers from the slave markets of the Crimea, Tana (Azov), Abkhazia, Circassia, Constantinople and Trebizond they worked alongside Venetians. From Genoa and Venice, the slaves were resold throughout Italy, including Tuscany, Lombardy and Piedmont. Consequently, there is the possibility of finding documents confirming the purchase of the slave Caterina by Ser Piero da Vinci in the archives of Genoa, Florence or Venice. But it is also likely that Caterina was not bought by Ser Piero himself, but was a domestic slave owned by one of his friends or fellow notary in Florence.
If in the 14th century the largest percentage of slaves in Italy were designated “Tartars”, in the 15th Abkhazians and Circassians, along with the Russians, comprised the largest percentage of white slaves, especially female, in Genoa and Florence. According to modern research, between 1425 and 1450 it was Abkhazians who made up the second largest ethnic group of slaves in Genoa. In the 15th century, of the total number of 165 domestic slaves of Abkhazian origin documented in Genoa, by far the majority, more than 140, were women.
For the Genoese, in the 15th century the most accessible were the Abkhazian and Circassian slaves, because there were large slave markets close to seaports, with a sufficient supply of slaves of any age and sex, in Abkhazia (in Savastopoli/Sukhum and in smaller trading posts) and in nearby Circassia, as well as in Caffa (Feodosia), Tana (Azov), Constantinople (Istanbul) and Trebizond. Another important reason why there were so many Abkhazian and Circassian slaves was that they, due to the decline of Christianity in their respective countries, in contrast to Megrelians, Georgians and Armenians, were usually not Christians, professing their own indigenous religious beliefs, and only a small number of them nominally considered themselves Christians. This made it easier for Italians to justify trading them as slaves: the church banned (albeit often nominally) the sale of Christians.
If the mother of Leonardo da Vinci Caterina was a slave, as suggested by some indirect evidence, it is highly likely that she was a native of Abkhazia or coastal Circassia rather than other areas of the Mediterranean, as there was a particularly large number of Abkhazian and Circassian female slaves in Italy by the middle of the 15th century.
The writings of Leonardo show a clear interest in Asia Minor, the Caucasus and the Black Sea. Many works by Leonardo feature the recurring theme of “fantastic” landscape: high peaked mountains, melting in a bluish haze. Some elements of this mountain scenery could reflect real landscapes. Thus, it is possible that the outlines of the Montalbano mountain chain with its peaks, visible from his mother’s San Pantaleone village and well known to Leonardo since early childhood, are depicted in his painting “Madonna Litta”.
But mostly these landscapes, so full of mystical drama and characteristic of the artist’s many works, apparently did not actually depict the real mountains but were created by his imagination. Perhaps the inspiration for these mountain scenes came, on the subconscious level, from the earliest layers of his memory from time spent with his mother. This landscape is present in most of his works depicting The Madonna with the Child, sometimes with her Mother, St. Anne, as in the Louvre painting. We see the same “fantastic” landscape in the background of his famous portrait of Gioconda, as well as on the “Annunciation” from the Uffizi Gallery, which depicts the young Maria and the archangel Gabriel, a possible model for the image of whom, as I believe, could be the artist himself.
The image of distant imagined “fantastic” mountain shapes can be interpreted as the artist’s allusion to the origin of his mother supposedly from the mountainous region of the Caucasus. To pursue further this line of thought, it is interesting to note that iconic for many works by Leonardo image of a high mountain with sharp peaks is repeated in the form of a drawing on the artist’s draft letter to the Dawadar of Syria, and is directly associated by Leonardo with the “Taurus mountain” in Asia Minor, which in his time was considered a spur or ridge of the Caucasus (“il giogo del Monte Caucasso”) and which, as the artist himself assumed, was “the true Caucasus Mountain” (“il vero Monte Caucaso”).
Researchers have noted Leonardo’s recurring reference to the circumstances of his origin and early childhood, as well as to the image of a smiling woman, in the form of Madonna or St. Anne, which perhaps shows the features of his own mother. It is this feminine image with a smile that Sigmund Freud attributed to the association in the artist’s child’s memory with his mother Caterina, which is seen in the fascinating portrait known to us as “La Gioconda” or “Mona Lisa”
It is not unreasonable to assume that that famous painting does not depict Lisa Gherardini, the wife of silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo from Florence, and not Pacifica Brandano of Urbino, the lover of Giuliano de’ Medici, but the artist’s mother, Caterina. This hypothesis is made stronger by a number of specific features in this portrait: a very modest and dark outfit of a woman and the absence of any adornment, which may point to her rather low social and economic status, her loose hair, which contrasts sharply with Italy’s feminine fashion of the time, and a dark veil over her head, something that was not characteristic of Florentine women’s style of the period. The evidence of the exceptional emotional significance that this female image carried for the artist is the fact that Leonardo did not part with the painting for the rest of his life. This would be incomprehensible were it simply a portrait of a minor customer’s wife.
The analysis of the pattern on the discovered fingerprint of Leonardo, in the opinion of the Italian researcher Luigi Capasso, indicates that it coincided with the pattern prevalent in the southern Mediterranean. Of great interest would be the results of a study of the artist’s DNA. The analysis of the genetic material of Leonardo and other descendants of Caterina, if found, would be important for the study of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) contained in it, which is inherited through the maternal line, and which could shed light on the genotype of Leonardo’s mother, including the possible presence of signs indicating her foreign origin and closeness to one or another ethnic population.
If Leonardo da Vinci’s origins from a Caucasian mother were confirmed, he would be the most famous offspring of a woman originating from the Abkhazian-Circassian Black Sea coastal region. But there were other well-known individuals in Renaissance Italy with the same roots. Thus, a fellow-Florentine, almost of the same age as Leonardo, was the humanist Francesco da Meleto (1449 — after 1517), the son of the merchant Niccolo di Piero and the Circassian slave Caterina. A little older than Leonardo was the well-known Florentine church figure Carlo di Cosimo de’ Medici (1428 or 1430–1492), the illegitimate son of the powerful ruler of Florence Cosimo de’ Medici and the young Circassian slave Maddalena, bought by Cosimo in Venice in 1427.
The hypotheses and assumptions presented in this essay are based on circumstantial evidence. And yet, it can be argued that the main postulate of the work — the high probability of the Abkhazian or Circassian origin of Leonardo da Vinci’s mother Caterina, in the event that she really was a slave — can have a wellfounded basis. My goal has been to emphasize that this direction of search is worthy of serious consideration.
The origin of Leonardo da Vinci’s mother is just one of the many mysteries that envelop the life and work of this great artist and scientist. This enticing mystery and ambiguity will continue to motivate new attempts to analyse and reinterpret the few extant facts of the biography of Leonardo da Vinci, this most outstanding and most mysterious figure of the Italian Renaissance.