The riddle of Leonardo Da Vinci’s mother in the Book of Martin Kemp and Giuseppe Pallanti
Martin Kemp and Giuseppe Pallanti have jointly written and published an important book under the title of Mona Lisa. The people and the Painting.
In its essence, this book is an excursus around the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa. The thesis presented by the authors is the canonical one: the painting known as Mona Lisa, hanging at the Louvre of Paris, indeed represents Monna Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo and it was begun in 1503, during the second stay of Leonardo in Florence.
There is nothing new in it but Kemp and Pallanti present and discuss what has been already published on this intriguing subject over the years, with an exposition which is shining with precision and clarity and where even the tiniest details are exposed with characteristic academic rigor
The chapter which is really adding something new, making exciting reading, is the last, where the latest scientific results concerning the Mona Lisa are presented. There we find a detailed explanation on all high resolution optical findings made over the years by Pascal Cotte.
About a month ago, all over the world they were talking about this soon to be published book. The two authors enjoy a well-deserved reputation and two revelations made by Martin Kemp to the press – he is Emeritus Professor of Art at Trinity College, Oxford University and one of the top world experts on Leonardo da Vinci – caught the headlines.
Here are the two points.
The first is due to new discoveries made by Giuseppe Pallanti – a Florentine professor of economics and a keen explorer of ancient archives – about new documents supposedly revealing the identity of Catherine, the mysterious mother of Leonardo.
The second point concerns the house of Anchiano, near Vinci, where tourists go to visit the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci. Kemp claims that, in fact, Leonardo was not born there.
About this second point there is nothing new. Italian specialists of Leonardo know perfectly well that he was not born there but rather inside the village of Vinci. Well, do you remember the famous joke made by stringers? Never let the truth cross the path of a good story.
The first point raised by Martin Kemp was the one that stimulated my curiosity to the point of spending 40 USD to order the book on line, since it is going in the contrary direction of what I have claimed – together with some better qualified experts than me, like Francesco Cianchi – in my recent book on Leonardo da Vinci.
Kemp and Pallanti claim that Catherine was a poor farmer girl of Vinci and not a slave, and they dismiss the possibility that she was a slave claiming that “there was ot a trace of slaves in Vinci at that time”. This may well be but she could have been a slave removed from Florence to Vinci, after being freed and given away in marriage.
The archival documents presented in this book concern an orphan girl from Vinci named Catherine di Meo Lippi who, in July 1451 (when Leonardo was conceived) was 15 years old.
The solution to this century-old riddle lays in linking this Catherine di Meo Lippi to Catherine, wife of Antonio Buti (nicknamed Accattabriga) and a laborer close to Ser Piero da Vinci, the biological father of Leonardo.
If they could establish such connection, then it will be game over.
After Leonardo da Vinci’s birth by Catherine out of wedlock with Ser Piero da Vinci, she was given in marriage to the Accattabriga and went on to have 4 daughters and 1 son with him.
The first problem in establishing such a link between the two Catherines is the age.
We are in possession of a legal document signed by the Accattabriga, dated 1484 in which his wife Catherine is said to be 60, therefore her birthdate should be set at 1424, thus in 1451 she was 25 years old.
Another legal document where her age is mentioned is the registration of her death, in Milan, dated 1494, where again she is said to be 60, but here the only source of her age is from her son, Leonardo and possibly he was not very well aware of it… thus, it follows Catherine’s birth date was 1434 and in 1451 she was 17 years old, not 15.
In the baptism record written by Leonardo’s grandfather, Antonio da Vinci, found in 1932 by a German historian, there is the proof that Leonardo was born in Vinci and the names of several witnesses are indicated, but it is missing the name of his mother Catherine, a rather odd thing.
A similar oddity is detected for the request of tax exemption presented by Antonio da Vinci, dated 1457, where Leonardo is mentioned as a 5-year old and said to be the illegitimate son of Catherine, by then married to the Accattabriga. There is no patronymic of this Catherine,but if she was Catherine di Meo Lippi then why not say it?
Kemp and Pallanti explain this by saying that: “The tone of his record was more colloquial than formal: he spoke of ‘Catherine’ as if it were obvious locally to whom he was referring, without needing to say more”.
This seems something said to explain the inexplicable, since the document was filed in Florence and was the Florentine taxman supposed to know Catherine of Vinci?
There is no point where we find a connection between Catherine, wife of Accattabriga and Catherine di Meo Lippi. The only vague hint is the fact that the youngest daughter of Catherine and Accattabriga was named Sandra. Sandra was an uncommon name in those years but was also the name of Orso Lippi, a cousin of Catherine di Meo Lippi, living at Mattoni, a hamlet close to Vinci. But this seems a rather weak argument, in a village so scarcely populated like Vinci. Certainly Catherine, the mother of Leonardo, living at Campo Zeppi, very close to Mattoni, she had certainly met and known the wife of Orso Lippi, and perhaps they were friends, so much friends that Catherine decided to name her last daughter after her.
My wife’s second name is Stefania and she received that name because of a well-off family of a neighbor in Verona: they had a daughter with that name and it did catch the fancy of my mother in law but they were not related, just neighbors.
As Carl Sagan said: “Extraordinary claims call for extraordinary proofs”.
I know something about it myself, after having written a book trying to prove that this Catherine was an Oriental slave, perhaps Chinese and I must admit that here, like in my book, the ‘smoking gun’ is missing.
Martin Kemp & Giuseppe Pallanti Mona Lisa. The people and the Painting Oxford University Press, 2017. USD34.95
For an Italian version of this article look on a blog on the Corriere della Sera: