by Emanuele Mastrangelo

A notarial act, a shared name, and a novel to "fill in the gaps." These are the elements through which the Italian press is mounting the story of Leonardo da Vinci's alleged Circassian origin (recklessly presented by a news agency as "definitive truth"). It is a hype that combines sensationalist clickbaiting with a liberal political agenda ("She arrived in Italy on a boat," headlines one newspaper), thus having their cake and eat it too for the newspapers that ride it.

To recap: Carlo Vecce, who teaches at the Oriental University of Naples, found in the State Archives of Florence a document dating back to 1453 - the year of Leonardo's birth - in which notary ser Piero da Vinci formalized the emancipation of a certain Caterina, daughter of Giacomo, Circassian, from her mistress, monna Ginevra di Donato. Vecce then wrote a novel, presented last March 14 in Florence, starting from this document, suggesting that the "Caterina" freed by Ginevra di Donato was simultaneously also the same "Caterina" who - impregnated by ser Piero out of wedlock - had given birth to Leonardo.

The identity of the mother of the "Mona Lisa" genius has long been debated. For many decades, however, there has been a belief that the woman was a Tuscan peasant woman, recently identified as Caterina di Meo Lippi. Probably born near Vinci in 1431, she was - at age 16 - the mistress of the wealthy notary ser Piero and gave her a bastard, Leonardo, whom Piero kept with him and lovingly raised. Catherine later went on to marry a local potter - skanky enough to take a "corrupted" girl (after all, he was nicknamed "Attaccabriga", "Troublemaker"...) - and, it is thought, would later die in 1493 after giving birth to more children.

For many years, however, the fact that the name Caterina was used in Florence for slaves purchased in foreign markets (as well as Maria) after baptizing them has given rise to much speculation about its real origin. This has been suggested by Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Ideal Leonardo da Vinci Museum since 1996. Based on Da Vinci Code-style investigations, many other hypotheses have followed over the years: for example, a Leonardo's fingerprint reconstructed in a laboratory allegedly gave rise to a forced theory that Leonardo was of Middle Eastern origin. A thesis dryly refuted by criminologist Simon Cole, who denied it is possible to trace an individual's ethnicity from his fingerprint.

With the new century, came new theories: Renzo Cianchi, the first librarian of the Leonardo da Vinci Library, speculated in 2008 that Caterina was a servant who lived in the house of Vanni di Niccolò di Ser Vanni, a wealthy friend of Leonardo's father. Six years later, Angelo Paratico suggested that Leonardo's mother had been none other than ... Chinese. The proof? Leonardo was left-handed, wrote from right to left (like the Chinese) and was a vegetarian. Paratico found papers that would prove the presence at Da Vinci's home of a servant girl named Caterina in the years before the genius was born.

But from Vezzosi to Paratico to Vecce, what is missing is the "smoking gun": how many Caterinas will have been around Ser Piero da Vinci as neighbors, servants, mere acquaintances?

In 2017, Oxford scholar Martin Kemp had identified Caterina di Meo Lippi as Leonardo's mother. The girl, Kemp writes in Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting (Oxford University Press), was the classic poor peasant girl who is lusted after by the rich man. Orphaned, she lived with her brother Papo and grandmother in the hamlet of Mattoni, near Vinci. Kemp, together with Italian researcher Giuseppe Pallanti, has reconstructed the story without romanticizing, rather, with the avowed intention of debunking myths and Pindaric flights around figures like Mona Lisa del Giocondo, through archival research on the identities of family members, friends, patrons and models of Leonardo's paintings.

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According to Paolo Galluzzi, an expert on Leonardo and former director of the Galileo Museum in Florence, Vecce's is an interesting hypothesis, solid and also based on convincing documentation, but only "bound to stimulate debate." This last statement by Galluzzi, however, does not appear in the Italian press, but in the "New York Times" (which, more correctly, talks about "theory" and not "definitive truth"). In Italy, of Galluzzi's caution - even though he attended the press conference for the presentation of Vecce's novel - there seems to be no trace in the press, which prefers to select only Galluzzi's statements that would make him appear as an enthusiastic advocate of what is still a hypothesis and not a "proven truth."

Sure, the documentation has its own weight. As indeed does Kemp's. Who stated in an interview that none of the narratives about Leonardo's mother are conclusively proven. However, Kemp adds, there is the media detail: an "unremarkable" story (such as that of the orphaned peasant girl Caterina being lusted after by Ser Piero) "does not match the popular need for a sensational story in tune with the current obsession with slavery."

Today, indeed, the frame that is in vogue is composed of all the elements that make up Vecce's thesis: mestizaje, slavery, arrival by boats, let's even throw in ius soli, why not... Vecce himself is keen to point out that "the best part of Leonardo is not the Italian part" on his father's side, but that of the immigrant brought as a slave "on a boat." And it is this that attracts and excites the Italian press, eager to destroy the myth of the Italian genius to replace it with that of the "mestizo genius" with an added sprinkling of rhetoric about slavery (so as to prepare the groundwork for a blaming of Italy as is done with nations involved in the Atlantic trade).

"Checkmate, bigots: without the Turkish smugglers and the Circassian migrant, you wouldn't have had the Mona Lisa!"

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Editor of the Machiavelli Study Center's blog "Belfablog," Emanuele Mastrangelo has been editor-in-chief of "Storia in Rete" since 2006. A military-historical cartographer, he is the author of several books (with Enrico Petrucci, Iconoclastia. La pazzia contagiosa della cancel culture che sta distruggendo la nostra storia e Wikipedia. L'enciclopedia libera e l'egemonia dell'informazione).