Exploring the Jewish roots of Leonardo da Vinci

In spite of all these stories, recent scholarship offers no evidence to support the assertions that Leonardo was Jewish, Chinese, Russian, Azeri or Turkish.

John the Baptist (c. 1513–16), Louvre. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
John the Baptist (c. 1513–16), Louvre.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘Realize that everything connects to everything else.”– Leonardo
On the quincentennial anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, one thing is certain: His tale is a never-ending one!
Ever since the publication of Dan Brown’s enormously successful Vatican conspiracy thriller, The Da Vinci Code, about the identity of St. John the Evangelist in Leonardo’s mural The Last Supper, where the androgynous figure is supposed to be Jesus’s wife, Mary Magdalena, who together, allegedly, gifted their bloodline onto the Merovingian kings of France, an avalanche of interpretations of the wall painting descended upon us.
The same year that The Da Vinci Code was published, an article in the prestigious Italian daily Corriere Della Sera, titled “The Nobility of a Talented Bastard, Leonardo,” claimed that “the maestro of Vinci was born of a Jewess who stemmed from Russia.” Furthermore, it argued that whereas the theory that “Leonardo’s mother was a Tuscan countrywoman remains valid, new evidence opens the additional option that she was, in fact, a Jewish slave.
The article maintained that this was not “farfetched,” as both Venice and Genoa controlled the slave markets of Eastern Europe for centuries. Although the primary objective was to sell slaves for the marbled harems of sultans in the Orient, many wealthy Italians bought human chattels in local agoras. Professor Mario Bruschi of Pistoia, too, in his work Abitanti di Vinci (The Inhabitants of Vinci), wrote that Leonardo’s mother might have been a Jewish slave as many such serfs were toiling as domestics or rural laborers in Tuscany.
Moreover, what are to make of Francesco Cianchi’s article “Was the mother of Leonardo a slave?”; Angelo Pratico’s Leonardo Da Vinci: A Chinese Scholar Lost in Renaissance Italy; or, Anna Zamejc’s thesis “Was Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mother Azeri?” The plot thickened when Luigi Capasso, an anthropologist, and director of the Anthropology Research Institute at Chieti University in central Italy, claimed that Leonardo’s fingerprints indicated his Middle Eastern ethnicity.
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.
In spite of all these stories, recent scholarship offers no evidence to support the assertions that Leonardo was Jewish, Chinese, Russian, Azeri or Turkish. Indeed, Walter Isaacson in his recent biography, Leonardo Da Vinci, drawing on current research, makes no mention of Caterina’s ethnic origins.
Finally, after centuries of speculation, the veil of mystery was lifted by an Oxford Don.
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.
One thing, however, is beyond dispute: Leonardo, although deeply critical of the injunction of the Torah against idolatrous images for ignoring the transcendental relationship between painting and God (he considered painters to be the grandchildren of God) was, nonetheless, deeply influenced by Jewish mysticism. Given his quest for the original, his exposure to and participation in the world of Christian Kabbalists and Hebrew-speaking Renaissance philo-Semites in Florence and Milan, his universalism, esotericism, ecumenism, admiration for the Jewish concept of free will, his rejection of dogmas, contempt for the Inquisition and its raging friars like Savaronola (nothing appalled Leonardo more than the bonfires of the vanities), it could not have been otherwise.
The Louvre in Paris is organizing a retrospective on Leonardo on the 500th anniversary of his death. The museum wanted to borrow his Vitruvian Man drawing from Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, Italy. The request was declined, given its fragility. But the story powerfully brought to mind the profound symbiosis between his universal conception of man and Adam Kadmon, “Primordial Man,” whose divinely gifted human attributes are embedded in the Kabbalah tree of life.