Recent archival discoveries suggest that world-famous Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci may have been born to an enslaved woman named Caterina.
Piero da Vinci, Leonardo’s father, emancipated a woman named Caterina in November 1452, according to a recently discovered note.
Scholar Carlo Vecce suggests that Caterina was Leonardo’s mother, and he weaves together the few known facts in his novel, Il Sorriso di Caterina (Caterina’s Smile).
Leonardo’s grandfather, Antonio da Vinci, listed his family members in a 1457 tax return, including Piero da Vinci’s illegitimate son “born of him and Caterina,” leading scholars to identify Leonardo’s mother as 15-year-old orphan Caterina di Meo Lippi.
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If Leonardo had been a legitimate son, he would have followed his father’s career as a notary. Instead, he was apprenticed to a goldsmith and painter, Andrea del Verrochio, because of his status as an illegitimate child.
The discovery of Piero da Vinci’s emancipation of Caterina and Antonio da Vinci’s tax return shed light on the social background of Leonardo’s mother and the commonality of enslavement in Renaissance Europe.
Slavery was an intrinsic part of the social structure of Renaissance Europe and well documented in legal records.
Slaves came from different backgrounds, including Circassians, who were celebrated for their beauty, and the social scale reached down far.
Piero da Vinci, who was reasonably well off, owned an enslaved woman and could afford to emancipate her, following contemporary social conventions.
Enslaved people were not considered a distinct group but belonged within the wider social context of serfdom and servitude.
What set them apart was their fixed market value and that they could be sold and (re)sold unless emancipated, making them luxury possessions.
Vecce’s document does not change our understanding of da Vinci’s life and work, but it sheds light on the extent of enslavement in Renaissance Europe and demonstrates how far down the social scale it reached.
Leonardo’s story shows that even the most celebrated artists and inventors had humble beginnings and had to overcome social barriers to achieve success.
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