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Identity of Leonardo da Vinci’s mother revealed in new book

Released on May 22, 2017

Mona Lisa Cover

The identity of Leonardo’s mother has until now been shrouded in mystery.  As revealed in the forthcoming book Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting by Professor Martin Kemp and Dr Giuseppe Pallanti , Leonardo’s mother can now be identified as 15 year old orphan Caterina di Meo Lippi, who gave birth to Leonardo on 15 April 1452.

Who was Caterina di Meo Lippi?
There have been many theories regarding Leonardo’s mother’s identity, including that she was a slave of Eastern descent who was given the name Caterina. New research undertaken in the archives of Vinci show that in 1451, in a farmhouse under a mile from Vinci, there lived the 15 year old Caterina di Meo – shedding light on Leonardo’s maternal family tree for the first time. Caterina lived with her infant brother Papo; they had lost their parents, and their grandmother had recently brought them to live in her house in the hamlet of Mattoni. Poor, vulnerable, and with no prospects, she became pregnant by Ser Piero da Vinci during one of the ambitious young lawyer’s visits to his home town in July 1451. Ser Piero was then forging a highly successful career in Florence.

An intricate web of evidence supports the identification of Caterina di Meo as Leonardo’s mother, including Antonio da Vinci’s tax return on 28 February 1458 which asserts that Leonardo, his five year old grandson, was still living with him while Leonardo’s mother is recorded as married to ‘Acchattabriga di Piero del Vaccha’ (Antonio di Piero Buti, a local farmer who the da Vinci family did indeed help secure as Caterina di Meo’s husband soon after Leonardo’s birth). A modest dowry would have been provided by Ser Piero to close the matter and leave him free to make a suitable marriage in Florence. The following year, a daughter was born to Caterina and Antonio, the first of their five children. 

Leonardo’s birth was publicly celebrated with his baptism on 16 April 1452. Prominent citizens were registered at the baptism as godparents and the baby was welcomed into the family – as was common with illegitimate children at that time – and he was brought up in the house of his grandfather, Antonio da Vinci.

Using Leonardo’s life to interpret the Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting illuminates the true story of the Mona Lisa using previously undiscovered archival information about the families of both Leonardo da Vinci and Lisa del Giocondo, the subject of the portrait. Newly documented detail relating to the participants’ lives enable the authors to ground the Mona Lisa in reality, and develop a new theory of the Mona Lisa as a ‘universal picture’.

Martin Kemp comments: “In this book, we have concentrated on real people doing real things in real places at real times.  Above all, we cut though the suppositions and the myths about Leonardo and his work to show that the Mona Lisa portrait is a product of real people with ordinary lives. We sought to bring back a sense of reality into the creation of the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. Leonardo was doing extraordinary things, but the context that gave rise to the portrait was no less embedded in the daily business of life in Renaissance Florence than when Lisa’s husband, Francesco del Giocondo, imported leather from Ireland. It is from these human circumstances we can see that what began as a portrait assumes the guise of a ‘universal picture’, in which Leonardo strove for his ultimate remaking of human and natural worlds through his imagination. Above all, we cut though the suppositions and the myths to show that the portrait is a product of real people with ordinary lives. We sought to bring back a sense of reality into the creation of the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo.”

Where was Leonardo born?
On Leonardo’s birthplace, Giuseppe Pallanti commented:

“Legend has promoted the ‘Casa Natale’ in Anchiano, in the hills two miles from Vinci, as Leonardo’s birthplace. This modest house has been developed as a place of pilgrimage for Leonardo tourists, replete with multimedia displays. But through the archives of Florence and Vinci, we have ascertained without doubt that this property was not owned by the da Vinci family at that time and had no links to Lippi family. We were then able to discover Leonardo’s probable birthplace in his paternal grandfather’s house, in what is now the Via Roma.”

About the book and authors
Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting, by Professor Martin Kemp FBA and Dr Giuseppe Pallanti, will be published by Oxford University Press on 8 June 2017. Martin Kemp is Emeritus Professor in the History of Art at Trinity College, Oxford University, and one of the world's leading authorities on Leonardo da Vinci; Giuseppe Pallanti has been researching the archival history of the del Giocondo and da Vinci families for many years.

Alongside the revelations about Leonardo’s mother and birthplace, the book includes a wealth of new information about the ambitious merchant who married into the old gentry of Lisa's family; Lisa's life as a wife and mother, her association with sexual scandals, and her later life in a convent; and the career and possessions of Leonardo’s father Ser Piero.

It also features chapters on the meaning of the portrait illuminated through Renaissance love poetry; how Leonardo's sciences of optics, psychology, anatomy and geology are embraced in his poetic science of art; and recent scientific examinations which disclose how the painting evolved to assume its present appearance in Leonardo's experimental hands.

Notes for editors
PR contact
:  Nicola Burton, Publicity Manager, nicola.burton@oup.com

Book title:  Mona Lisa: The People and The Painting
Authors: Martin Kemp and Giuseppe Pallanti
Publication date: 8th June 2017
ISBN: 9780198749905
Format: Hardback/eBook
RRP: £25
Publisher: Oxford University Press

About Oxford University Press

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