Oriental Slaves in Italy During the Renaissance
A friend asks me if I am not afraid to be locked up in a nuthouse because of my book “Leonardo Da Vinci. A Chinese Scholar Lost in Renaissance Italy” where I put forward the bold idea that Leonardo’s mother was a Chinese slave. Then he further elaborate why he is afraid of my mental state: “You should know that the first Chinese reached Europe in the late XVI and the beginning of the XVII centuries, sent by the Jesuits who came to Macau, Alessandro Valignano, Matteo Ricci, Martino Martini.”
This friend knowns a bit about oriental history but he has not yet read my book. But then, afraid to have offended me with his outburst, tries to mitigate the slap adding that anyway all historians who write about Leonardo remind him the story of the three blind men asked to describe the elephant. I am not upset with him, because this is an opinion which is widespread among historians: strange to say but most of them ignore domestic slavery, a phenomenon which was widespread in Europe. This black-out in spite of all contrary proof is so common that one cannot avoid thinking that we should rather talk of a case of mental suppression.
An international seminar was held in Prato, Italy, in 2014, organized by the Francesco Datini Foundation, with historians coming from all over Europe. Their contributions were then collected and printed in two multilingual volumes, having the title of “Slavery and servitude in the European economy. XI–XVIII centuries.”
Such studies based on archival explorations were in fashion starting from the last part of the XIX century. I just quote here an illustrious historian who has been completely forgotten in Italy: Luigi Cibrario (1802-1870) who authored several books – all very well researched and detailed – among them in 1868, a “Della Schiavitù e del Servaggio” in which he presented his discoveries of documents concerning the purchase of slaves, with relevant court action and punishments meted out for rebellion and murder. In several cases were releasing from servitude put into the testament by their masters, in order to go in front of St Peter with a clean conscience. From such studies we can notice that the Catholic Church was never against slavery, quite the contrary! Even St Augustin had attributed slavery to the personal sins of men and women and then several priests and bishops owned slaves. In fact slaves were on ships belonging to the Holy See until the XVIII century. Be that as it may, the section of slavery as a phenomena which mostly interests us in studying the origins of Leonardo Da Vinci’s mother is that known as ‘domestic slavery’ which developed in the Mediterranean area after the devastating passage of the plague in 1347. The plague had come from Crimea and then spread all over Europe with a dead rate even higher than 60%. That was a world-changing event which caused a great socio-economic revolution which is still influencing, even today, our society. Plague marked the end of the feudal society and serfdom. Great revolts were staged by poor workers, like that of the Ciompi in Florence and few years later in England, where the poor went close to topple the monarchy. That period heralded the beginning of a golden age for paid workers; the mechanical sciences received a boost because of the lack of manpower and women demanded to get a salary like men. Cities were empty and nobody was tilling the soil. It was then that slaves, known collectively as Tartars, from Crimea were imported by Genoese and Venetians from Tana – today’s Azov – on the Black Sea and a terminus of the Silk Road. Crimea was then part of the Mongol empire, like China itself. And even the Polo family kept a station in Sudak (Soldaia) and from Marco Polo’s testament, still kept in Venice, we learn that he took back a Mongol slave called Peter who was thereby set free. Until the beginning of the XV century – close to 90% – of the imported girls to be used as domestic helpers were classified as tartars, with the remaining 10% being Russians, Arabs and Greeks.
The Chinese Yuan Dynasty was actually Mongolian, founded by Kublai Khan. The confusion between Mongol and Chinese is understandable since large part of Chinese territory was under Mongol domination and as such remained up to 1368 when the Chinese expelled them, establishing the Ming Dynasty. But even if they were dethroned in 1368 Mongols kept a tight control on China’s boundaries and in fact they would have captured her once more in 1405 if not because of the dead by plague by Timur, a descendant of Genghis Khan, after getting out of his capital, Samarcanda, heading to China with his powerful army.
The traffic of slaves flourished until 1453 when Turks captured Constantinople changing its name into Istanbul, shut the route. Their price, according to their fairness, could vary from 20 to 80 gold florins per head, and their age was between 8 and 20 years old. They were mostly classified are Tartars in the documents and in few cases only they were indicated as ‘orta kataiorum’ that is to say originating from China.
Sexual violence and abuses were common in Italian homes and Italian housewives hated them because of their youth could attract the attention of their old husbands, even Francesco Petrarca called them: ‘Enemies in our houses.’
Joseph Needham (1900-1995) author of a monumental History of Science and Civilization of in China in 22 books mentions the useful contribution of genes by Mongols and Chinese girls to the Europe. With my book I try to prove that Caterina, mother of Leonardo Da Vinci, was raped by Ser Piero Da Vinci, Leonardo’s father, while working in the house of one of his client, Ser Vanni. To hide the scandal he moved the girl from Florence to Vinci. And it was right there, in Vinci, that she gave birth to one of the most mysterious and genial men ever existed.
A longer version of this article was published on the Blog of Dino Messina – Corriere della Sera.