When Leonardo da Vinci died in 1519, the artist, inventor and all-around Renaissance man left behind 6,000 journal pages and dozens of personal questions that remain unanswered to this day. This week, however, a pair of historians in Florence shone some light on the enigmatic genius, revealing Leonardo’s genealogy, including newly discovered burial grounds for his family, and 35 living descendants.
Historians Alessandro Vezzosi and Agnese Sabato used documents and estate papers in Italy, France and Spain to reconstruct 15 generations of Leonardo’s family, as Stephanie Kirchgaessner reports at the Guardian. The team used Leonardo's father, a Florentine legal notary named Ser Piero da Vinci, as a starting point since the artist left no known children.
Most information on Leonardo’s family comes from the records of his paternal grandfather, Antonio, who notes his birth. A tax record mentions that the artist’s mother was Caterina, the wife of Achattabriga di Piero del Vaccha da Vinci—which makes Leonardo illegitimate—though some researchers believe his mother was an Arab slave living in Vinci.
The historians focused on Leonardo’s paternal line. “We checked documents and tombs as far as France and Spain in order to reconstruct the history of Leonardo’s family,” Vezzosi tells Rossella Lorenzi at Discovery News. “We even found [an] unknown tomb of Leonardo’s family in Vinci.”
The most exciting find, however, is that 35 people living around Florence and surrounding villages, including Vinci, are genealogically related to the Leonardo, including a policeman, a pastry chef, an accountant and a retired blacksmith. One of his descendants, Elena Calosi, an architect from Empoli reacted to the news in La Repubblica, saying, “Obviously I’m surprised, but happy, happy also for my grandmother who is no more, who was proud to have the name Vinci,” as Kirchgaessner reports.
Other descendants say that there were rumors or stories in their families that they were related to Leonardo, but they never had hard evidence. The BBC reports that one notable descendant, Oscar-nominated director and opera designer Franco Zeffirelli, whose original last name is Corsi, mentioned that he was related to da Vinci while accepting the Leonardo prize from the Italian president in 2007.
While the historical detective work is convincing, not everyone thinks the evidence is bullet proof.
“Regardless of the archival material, there is a strong probability of the male line especially being broken over such a large number of generations,” Kevin Schürer, pro-vice-chancellor for research at the University of Leicester tells Lorenzi.
The fate of Leonardo’s remains—and his potential DNA—have been disputed. After the artist died in 1519 near Amboise, France, his body was buried in a chapel that was later destroyed during the wars of the 16th century. Later, his remains were purportedly moved to the nearby Saint-Hubert Chapel, where he currently has a marked grave, but some doubt the authenticity of that burial site.
Vezzosi and Sabato are aware of the potential for DNA to add another layer to their work, and they are planning a two-day international conference for May to discuss how to work with the descendants to isolate Leonardo’s genetic material.