Was Leonardo da Vinci Jewish?

April 5, 2023 • 1:15 pm

I paid particular attention to this piece because it was published in Tablet, which has a decent history of accurate reporting. That doesn’t mean I believe the claim that one of history’s greatest painters was Jewish, but they do cite a Leonardo da Vinci authority who came to the conclusion, despite his leanings to the contrary, that this was indeed the case.  If he’s right, and Leonardo was a landsmann, then perhaps we should change his name to Lenny da Vinci.

This isn’t a joke, though; click on the article below to see the facts, which are suggestive but not strong enough to convince me of Leonardo’s semitism with a high probability

I’ll have to quote a bit to show you the evidence. Here’s the new theory:

In all likelihood, Leonardo da Vinci was only half Italian. His mother, Caterina, was a Circassian Jew born somewhere in the Caucasus, abducted as a teenager and sold as a sex slave several times in Russia, Constantinople, and Venice before finally being freed in Florence at age 15. This, at least, is the conclusion reached in the new book Il sorriso di Caterina, la madre di Leonardo, by the historian Carlo Vecce, one of the most distinguished specialists on Leonardo da Vinci.

And the conventional wisdom as adumbrated in the 2019 article below (click screenshot) from the Jerusalem Post (quote is from Tablet piece):

The official version of da Vinci’s birth is that it was the fruit of a brief fling between the Florentine solicitor Piero da Vinci and a young peasant from Tuscany called Caterina, of whom almost nothing was known. Yet there had long been a seemingly unfounded theory that Leonardo had foreign origins and that Caterina was an Arab slave. Six years ago, professor Vecce decided to kill the rumor for good. “I simply found it impossible to believe that the mother of the greatest Italian genius would be a non-Italian slave,” he told me. “Now, not only do I believe it, but the most probable hypothesis, given what I found, is that Caterina was Jewish.”

The new evidence (my emphasis):

Vecce was the right man for the job—he published an anthology of da Vinci’s writings and a biography, Leonardo, translated into several languages, and he collaborated on the exhibition of da Vinci’s drawings and manuscripts at the Louvre and Metropolitan Museum in 2003. He embarked on the research for his latest book during the reconstruction of da Vinci’s library, which is where he found the document that changed everything. Dated Nov. 2, 1452, seven months after Leonardo’s birth, and signed by Piero da Vinci [Leonardo’s father] in his professional capacity, it is an emancipation act regarding the daughter of a certain Jacob, originating from the Caucasian mountains,” and named Caterina. According to the document, Catarina’s owner appears to have been the wife of rich merchant Donato di Filippo, who lived near the San Michele Visdomini church in Florence, and whose usual solicitor for business was Piero da Vinci. The date on the document is underlined several times, as if da Vinci’s hand was shaking as he proceeds to the liberation of the woman who just gave him a child.

Leonardo’s mom Caterina, instead of being Italian, is hypothesized as coming from Russia, and brought to Italy to be the property of Leonardo’s father, who made her work and also impregnated her several times. Vecce argues that Caterina was brought to Italy through Constantinople to Venice and then to Florence, where she became pregnant by Piero:

From there, we can follow Caterina to Venice, and then to Florence where she was brought by her new master, Donato di Filippo, who put her to work both in his clothing workshop and at the service of his wife. That she was a sex slave is attested by the fact that she already had several children by Filippo when, at 15, she met da Vinci, Filippo’s solicitor, who at first “borrowed” her as a nanny for his daughter Marie and then fell so much in love with her that he freed her from slavery after Leonardo’s birth. “Da Vinci himself was no stranger to the Jews,” says professor Vecce. “His main customers were among the Jewish community of Florence.”

So much for that. Leonardo’s dad left Florence for Milan, where Caterina, Leonardo’s putative mom, died in 1493. There’s a bit of unconvincing evidence that Leonardo’s painting “Annunciation” has hints of his mother’s origin, but would he really have known?

I’m not sure if the above convinces you (and I’m on the fence), but it did convince the skeptic Carlo Vecce, who is no tyro when it comes to Leonardo.

For counterevidence, though, read this article from 2019. Note that in all likelihood, the “evidence” that convinced Vecce was not available to author Erol Araf:

At the time there were already several claims that Leonardo was Jewish (under Jewish law, if your mother is a Jew, so are you; Jewishness can be regarded as traveling along with mitochondrial DNA). But here Araf takes issue:

As additional proof that he was ashamed of his mother’s origins as a lowly Jewish slave, the implausible argument has been advanced that he treated her funeral as an embarrassment. This contention is not supported by facts: The burial costs listed in the Codex Foster – under a receipt containing wax and lemon juice – includes expenses for a doctor, sugar, wax for the candles, bier with a cross, four priests and four altar boys, the bells and the gravediggers. It all costs a very tidy sum of 123 soldi; a not-insignificant amount.

So much for that. And the best evidence Araf could adduce at the time is this:

Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of art history at Oxford University and recognized as a leading Leonardo scholar, has researched the origins of Leonardo’s mother hoping it will put an end to “totally implausible myths” that have built up about Leonardo’s life. He analyzed 15th-century tax records kept in Vinci, Florence. In various interviews, preceding the publication of his book Mona Lisa: the People and the Painting, written together with Dr. Giuseppe Pallanti, an economist and art researcher, Kemp argued that the evidence was obtained by meticulously kept real estate taxation declarations.

“In the case of Vinci, “Kemp said, “they verified that Caterina’s father, who seems to be pretty useless, had a rickety house which wasn’t lived in and they couldn’t tax him…. He had disappeared and then apparently died young. So Caterina’s was a real sob story.” The records also showed that Caterina had an infant stepbrother, Papo, and her grandmother died shortly before 1451, leaving them with no assets or support, apart from an uncle with a “half-ruined” house and cattle. In short, she was a poor orphaned peasant girl who fell on hard times and in love with Leonardo’s rakish father.

The crucial question, then, since Leonardo was born in 1452, was whether they could establish that Caterina had a real Italian father whose existence can be established with a paper record. Also, Kemp’s claim that mother Caterina was a “poor orphaned peasant girl who fell on hard times and in love with Leonardo’s rakish father” doesn’t comport with Carlo Vecce’s claim that Caterina was the slave of Leonardo’s father’s solicitor, who impregnated her several times before giving her to Leonardo’s father. And was a child produced while Caterina was under the thumb of Piero da Vinci?

So we have a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Are there any living relatives of Leonardo who could be used to establish whether his mitochondria came from Russia? I don’t know, and can’t be arsed to find out. Only history will adjudicate this one, and Vecce’s book is available, though only yet in Italian. The title means “Catherine’s smile”:

One of my favorite Leonardos, Lady with an Ermine (1498-1491). I was lucky enough to see it at the  Czartoryski Museum in Kraków, Poland.

24 thoughts on “Was Leonardo da Vinci Jewish?

  1. It would not be that surprising. Secular Jews always seem to be at the forefront of human progress and the source of much if not most of human genius. Historically, the more viciously antisemitic a society becomes, the sooner it is doomed to collapse.

  2. I read about that as I follow art blogs. My thoughts are “it could be.” No way to know for a certainty. One point that interests me is that people are discovering new documents concerning Leonardo. I thought that such a world famous person whose genius was acknowledged during his own lifetime would have been studied exhaustively after hundreds of years. I love Lady with an Ermine and hope to see it in person one day.

  3. I had never even heard of this theory, but the letter of emancipation from Leonardo’s father seems to pretty definitively establish that Leo’s mother was likely that very slave. So, my question for Mr. Araf is why such a document exists (with apparently excellent provenance) if Caterina was not a slave from outside the region, but rather a mere peasant girl from nearby.

    I guess that means the question comes down to where Caterina came from and how she came into the possession of Leo’s father. I find Araf’s explanation less convincing because of the letter from Leo’s father, but I need to know more about Caterina’s origins and, more specifically, where and when she was first enslaved.

    Regardless, this is fascinating!

  4. Jerry, you know very well that mitochondria are inherited from the mother. You said as much, but contradicted yourself when you asked whether “there any descendants of Leonardo who could be used to establish whether his mitochondria came from Russia?” Now, if Catarina had any daughters …

  5. Since Leonardo was almost certainly gay, it is unlikely there are any direct descendants of Leonardo, although his siblings could conceivably provide a path to genetic origins.

    1. What – so my gay colleague with the biological son (fathered while he was “exploring his sexuality” in his early 20s) was the first ever such?
      Before homosexuality became (vaguely) socially acceptable, it was very common for a homosexual man to have a wife and children because that was what was expected of him. Case in point : Vyvyan Wilde – as a second son, not a one-off event.
      Of course, tracking down such offspring at this distance in time – tricky.

      1. Since the info on Leonardo’s early life is sketchy, it’s hard to say if he tried to go straight. Social pressures were, of course different than today. If he did and had offspring, I doubt there would be any way to find out. His biographers recount a few instances of police arresting him as a young man in the “company of” other young men with a known reputation. That’s about it as far as I know.
        As far as later life, he seems to have had exclusively male companions and was never married, so…

  6. My favourite Leonardo is La Bella Principessa
    although it’s disputed whether it is by him. I like it even more because the rather good forger Shaun Greenhalgh claimed that he painted it and that it portrays Bossy Sally, a check-out girl at the Bolton Co-op supermarket. I’m disappointed that noone has tried to locate this Sally.

  7. When I read the headline, I immediately thought “Sephardi or Spanish exile”?
    Going the other way? Well, not so common, but hey, slave traders were never particularly fussy about who they took.

  8. One of the passages cited says:
    “That she was a sex slave is attested by the fact that she already had several children by Filippo when, at 15, she met da Vinci, Filippo’s solicitor, who at first “borrowed” her as a nanny for his daughter Marie and then fell so much in love with her that he freed her from slavery after Leonardo’s birth.”
    I guess I never thought too much about when women first become fertile, but always thought it would be around 12 which first made me think that something had to be wrong about the sentence above.
    Going by the information on Wikipedia, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menarche) it does seem that 12 is not a bad guess, but a span of 8 to 16 is given. There is also another page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menarche) with a list of youngest mothers which was mind blowing to me.

  9. The new theory about Leonardo being Jewish by matrilineal descent is intriguing. I wonder what Araf and other experts make of the newly discovered documentary evidence?

  10. So we have a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

    You sampling Churchill on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, or Joe Pesci as David Ferrie in JFK? 🙂

  11. A Jewish origin is certainly possible, but the evidence suggests only plausibility and not much more. Perhaps a bit of Leonardo’s mitochondrial DNA can be obtained and compared to that of Jews from the putative area of his mother’s origin. Maybe a bit of his skin can be scraped from one of his paintings or from between the pages of one of his original manuscripts or notebooks. (I don’t know what kind of material is needed for this kind of test.) I’d like to see better evidence than what was presented.

    Leonardo really was amazing. I devoured Walter Isaacson’s biography and recommend it highly.

  12. This is one of the questions where I don’t much care. He was a great artist who emerged in a remarkable time and place. Why should his ancestry matter? This is not to say that we should never be interested in general information about population movement, mixing, etc., just not fixating on particular (famous) cases.

  13. What you typed is not correct, Jerry: “Carlo Vecce’s claim that Caterina was the slave of Leonardo’s father’s solicitor, who impregnated her several times before giving her to Leonardo’s father.” Vecce claimed that she was the slave of Piero da Vinci’s client, Donato di Filippo. Piero was the solicitor.

  14. “Are there any living relatives of Leonardo who could be used to establish whether his mitochondria came from Russia?”

    I do not think there is such a thing as a Russia specific mitochondria allele. Even if there were some, they would be not super frequent and most people would have the shared ones.

    Mitochondria DNA has a slower effective mutation rate than the paternal Y-chromosome DNA, because it is smaller and its ratio of important (so selection protected) segments is higher. Also historically the reproduction success of women is much more even than that of men, so new lineages won’t become dominant quickly.

    And Russia is not isolated.

  15. I just want to say how thankful I am that everybody here seems to be referring to Leonardo da Vinci as “Leonardo”, unlike the article. I once heard an art critic (Brian Sewell I think) explain why he thought the Da Vinci Code was utter bunk. One of the things he said was that “Da Vinci” is not a surname, it just means “from Vinci” which is the nearest big town to Leonardo’s birth place. Ever since then, for some reason, hearing “Da Vinci” without being preceded by “Leonardo” is like fingernails on a blackboard to me. Don’t know why: it’s such a small thing.

    1. I agree. I hear his name so frequently referred to as “Da Vinci” that I have created in my brain a mental asterisk telling me: “It’s Leonardo!” I refer to that asterisk every time.

  16. The slave evidence seems pretty convincing to me. There were lots of Circassian slaves in the Ottoman Empire and its close trading partner Venice. But I seem to have missed the evidence for her Jewishness — was it contemporary rumpurs? Surely it can’t be simply that the name of her father was Jacob, a common name in the Christian and Muslim tradition as well (for example, a well known Caucasian nicknamed Stalin was called Josef, and his brother Jacob). Circassians were mostly Christian in those days, and later converted to Islam. Caterina is hardly a Jewish name, though of course she may have been renamed by her owners.
    By the way, I seem to remember that Caucasian Jews have local Caucasian female founder chromosomes, so the chromosome wouldn’t necessarily be diagnostic one way or the other. And any Levantine nuclear DNA will be very diluted in modern descendants. Ashkenazi Jewish DNA is half Italian anyway.

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