Historians Identify 14 Living Relatives of Leonardo da Vinci

An ongoing effort to trace the artist’s male lineage may help researchers sequence his genome

A portrait of an elderly man's face and long hair and beard, rendered in fine red chalk lines on a paper spotted with age
Presumed self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1512, red chalk on paper Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Fourteen people alive today can now boast a direct genetic link to the famed Italian Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci, reports Italian wire service Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata (ANSA).

Writing in the journal Human Evolution earlier this month, researchers Alessandro Vezzosi and Agnese Sabato revealed a reconstructed da Vinci family tree that spans 690 years and 21 generations, from 1331 to the present day, as George Dvorsky reports for Gizmodo.

Eventually, the team hopes to use its expanding genealogical map of da Vinci’s relatives to reconstruct his genome. If they succeed, write Vezzosi and Sabato in the study, the scholars hope to “explore the roots of [Leonardo’s] genius” and see if some of the inventor’s physical quirks, such as his left-handedness and synesthesia, have a basis in his genetic code. (Genetic evidence could also help scientists determine if remains buried in Amboise, France, really belong to Leonardo.)

Narrowing down the list of Leonardo’s blood relatives is time-consuming, complicated work. The scientist and artist was born out of wedlock to Ser Piero, a Florentine notary, and Caterina, a young peasant woman, in 1452. All told, Leonardo had an estimated 22 half-siblings, including 17 from his father’s multiple relationships, reports Duncan McCue for CBC Radio.

Leonardo never married or had children, and he therefore has no direct descendants. The inventor may have been gay and was perhaps even thrown into jail for “sodomy” in 1476, though the case against him was later dismissed.

The newly identified relatives range in age from 1 to 85 years old. Some still bear the family name, which originated with Leonardo’s direct male ancestor Michele da Vinci (born in 1331) and was originally meant to describe where family members were born, near Vinci, a city in Tuscany.

Historians Identify 14 Living Relatives of Leonardo da Vinci
Da Vinci's studies of a fetus in utero, circa 1510-13 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Of the 14 descendants referenced in the study, just one had previously known about their links to the Renaissance icon. Some still live in the towns neighboring Vinci and “have ordinary jobs like a clerk, a surveyor, an artisan,” Vezzosi tells ANSA.

In 2016, the researchers identified 35 living relatives of Leonardo’s, including the film director and opera designer Franco Zeffirelli.

But as Vezzosi tells ANSA, per a translation by the Guardian’s Angela Giuffrida, these descendants were mostly indirect from the female line: “[T]hey were not people who could give us useful information on Leonardo’s DNA and in particular on the Y-chromosome,” which is transmitted to male descendants and remains almost unchanged for 25 generations.

For the more recent study, the researchers used historical documents to construct a patrilineal map of five branches traced from Leonardo’s father, Ser Piero, and half-brother Domenico.

Much like Leonardo himself, one of the newly identified relatives is an artist. But the 62-year-old man, Geovanni Vinci, tells the Evening Standard’s Barney Davis that he does not think he has “anything in common with Leonardo,” who painted such renowned works as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.

“Maybe for some of my work Leonardo turned in his grave,” Vinci joked, “but for the rest I hope he is proud.”