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ITALIAN HISTORY

New research claims Italy’s Leonardo da Vinci was son of a slave

Leonardo da Vinci, the painter of the Mona Lisa and a symbol of the Renaissance, was only half-Italian, his mother a slave from the Caucasus, new research revealed on Tuesday.

New research claims Italy's Leonardo da Vinci was son of a slave
Leonardo da Vinci's 'The Trivulzian Codex' in Villa La Loggia in Florence, on March 14, 2023. Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP.

Da Vinci’s mother had long been thought a Tuscan peasant, but University of Naples professor Carlo Vecce, a specialist in the Old Master, believes the truth is more complicated.

“Leonardo’s mother was a Circassian slave… taken from her home in the Caucasus Mountains, sold and resold several times in Constantinople, then Venice, before arriving in Florence,” he told AFP at the launch of a new book.

In the Italian city, she met young notary Piero da Vinci “and their son was called Leonardo”.

The findings of Vecce, who has spent decades studying da Vinci and curating his works, are based on Florence city archives.

READ ALSO: In the footsteps of genius: A travel guide to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Italy

They have formed the basis of a new novel – “The Smile of Caterina, the mother of Leonardo” — while also shedding new light on the artist himself.

Any new discovery about da Vinci is hotly contested by the small world of experts who study him, but Vecce insists the evidence is there.

Among the documents he found is one written by da Vinci’s father himself, a legal document of emancipation for Caterina, “to recover her freedom and recover her human dignity”.

A person stands next to a self-portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci at the Biblioteca Reale in Turin.

A person stands next to a self-portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci at the Biblioteca Reale in Turin. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO/ AFP.

‘Spirit of freedom’

This document is dated 1452, and was presented on Tuesday at a press conference at the headquarters of publishing house Giunti in Florence.

It was written by “the man who loved Caterina when she was still a slave, who gave her this child named Leonardo and (was) also the person who helped to free her”, Vecce said.

His assertion offers a radical change of perspective on da Vinci, who was believed to have been the product of an affair between Piero da Vinci and a different woman, young Tuscan peasant Caterina di Meo Lippi.

Born in 1452 in the countryside outside Florence, da Vinci spent his life travelling around Italy before dying in Amboise, France in 1519, at the court of King Francis 1.

Vecce believes the difficult life of his “migrant” mother had an impact on the work of her brilliant son.

READ ALSO: Italian researchers discover 14 descendants of Leonardo Da Vinci living in Tuscany

“Caterina left Leonardo a great legacy, certainly, the spirit of freedom,” he said, “which inspires all of his intellectual scientific work”.

Da Vinci was a polymath, an artist who mastered several disciplines including sculpture, drawing, music and painting, but also engineering, anatomy, botany and architecture.

“He doesn’t let anything stop him,” Vecce said.

Some may consider the idea that this epitome of a “Renaissance man” was the product of such a union too good to be true.

But Paolo Galluzzi, a da Vinci historian and member of the prestigious Lincei scientific academy in Rome, said it is “by far the most convincing”.

Speaking to AFP, he highlighted the quality of the documents discovered by his colleague, adding that there “must remain a minimum of doubt, because we cannot do a DNA test”.

Galluzzi said he was also not surprised.

The period into which da Vinci was born marks “the beginning of modernity, the exchanges between people, cultures and civilisations which gave birth to the modern world”, he said.

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CULTURE

Italian opera celebrated in Verona’s ‘magical’ Arena

Verona's ancient Roman Arena will host a star-studded classical concert on Friday to celebrate the addition of Italian opera singing to UNESCO's list of intangible global heritage.

Italian opera celebrated in Verona's 'magical' Arena

Some of the world’s finest singers will perform arias, including Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, French baritone Ludovic Tezier and Italian soprano Eleonora Buratto.

More than 10,000 people will attend the concert at the Arena, the largest open-air theatre in the world.

Italian opera was added to the UN’s heritage list in December.

The citation acknowledged it as an art associated with specific facial expressions and body gestures involving a combination of music, drama, acting and staging.

“Italian opera is our common ancestor,” baritone Tezier told AFP. “Opera is an Italian invention which has spread all over the world.”

Conductor Riccardo Muti will direct 160 orchestra musicians and more than 300 choristers from prestigious Italian institutes such as La Scala in Milan and La Fenice in Venice.

The programme includes arias from Madame Butterfly, La Boheme and Tosca, all by Giacomo Puccini and marking the centenary of his death.

But there will also be extracts from Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata and Rigoletto.

‘Like a gladiator’

“There is a real vocal pleasure in Italian singing because the Italian language is itself extremely musical and sonorous,” Tezier said.

Verona’s Arena offered the ideal setting, he added: its atmosphere “is warm, conducive to opera. We experience truly magical moments.

“When you enter the arena, with this huge audience in front of you, you have a feeling of humility, you have the impression of being very small.

“But at the same time you feel like a gladiator going into battle because there is an exceptional energy that emanates from this place”.

The Arena in the northeastern Italian city was built in the first century AD to entertain Romans with gladiator fights, spectacular shows featuring wild beasts, and even naval battles.

The concert, which will be broadcast live, kicks off the 101st edition of the Verona Arena Opera Festival, which runs to September 7 and is expected to draw over 500,000 music lovers.

The festival was created on August 10, 1913 by the Veronese tenor Giovanni Zenatello. He the stone amphitheatre’s remarkable acoustics when he performed Verdi’s Aida there.

Opera came into being around 1600 in Florence, with the founding of an academy promoting an innovative combination of sung text and music.

The first great composer of opera is considered to be Italy’s Claudio Monteverdi, who lived from 1567 to 1643.

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