Leonardo and The Last Supper: Interview with Ross King and excerpt

From the book:

Leonardo was born in 1452, in a square-built stone farmhouse near Vinci, an "insignificant hamlet" (as one of his earliest biographers called it) sixteen miles west of Florence. His eighty-year-old grandfather proudly recorded the arrival in a leather-bound family album: "A grandson was born to me, the son of Ser Piero my son, on the 15th day of April, a Saturday, in the third hour of the night. He bears the name Lionardo." He would bear, in fact, the name Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci, which was how, twenty years later, he registered himself in the Compagnia di San Luca, the painters' confraternity in Florence. At the Sforza court he would sometimes be known as "Leonardo Fiorentino" or--grandly Latinized--as "Leonardus de Florentia." That, at least, was how Lodovico referred to him in documents. The ducal artist and engineer was therefore identified not with an obscure Tuscan village but with the glories of Florence.

Leonardo's twenty-six-year-old father, Ser Piero, was (as his honorary title implied) a notary: someone who wrote wills, contracts, and other commercial and legal correspondence. The family had produced notaries for at least five generations, but with Leonardo the chain was to snap. He was, as his grandfather's tax return stated a few years later, "non legittimo"--born out of wedlock--and as such he (along with criminals and priests) was barred from membership in the Guild of Judges and Notaries. Leonardo's mother was a sixteen-year-old girl named Caterina, and an apparent difference in their social status meant she and Piero, a bright and ambitious young man, did not marry.

Almost nothing is known about Caterina. She may have been the family's domestic servant. A case has recently been made for her having been, like many domestic servants in Tuscany, a slave from another country. A century earlier, Florence's city fathers had issued a decree permitting the importation of slaves, provided they were infidels rather than Christians, though they were promptly baptized and given Christian names (and Caterina was a popular choice) on arrival in Florence. Well-to-do Florentines could purchase slaves--usually young women who were to be used as domestics--from lands along the Black Sea (Turks, Tatars, Circassians) as well as from North Africa. Although they cost from thirty to fifty florins, half the yearly wages of a skilled artisan, they became so plentiful in the fifteenth century that a popular song described the sight of "charming little slave girls" hanging out of windows "shaking out clothes in the morning / fresh and joyous as hawthorn buds.

last-supper-cover-200.jpgIntriguingly, a wealthy friend of Ser Piero, a Florentine banker named Vanni di Niccolò, owned a slave named Caterina, and following Vanni's death in 1451, Ser Piero inherited his house in Florence and served as executor of his estate. His friendship with Vanni and position as executor would have given him--so the theory goes--sexual access to Caterina. This hypothesis potentially sheds new light on another theory, that of a professor of anthropology whose team found that fingerprints identified as Leonardo's reveal the same dermatoglyphic structure--that is, the same pattern of loops and whorls--as people of Middle Eastern origin. The announcement generated headlines that Leonardo was an Arab, though skeptics claim it is difficult both to determine someone's ethnicity from his fingerprints and to be certain that the fingerprints taken from Leonardo's notebooks are, in fact, those of Leonardo.

Given the dearth of information about Caterina, the theories that Leonardo's mother was a slave, or that Leonardo had a Middle Eastern heritage, must remain speculative. What is known is that Leonardo was raised in the house of his father and grandfather, and Caterina largely disappeared from his life. Children of slaves were always born free, and the church allowed them to be adopted and legitimized by their fathers. The mothers themselves were often given a small dowry and married off to someone else. In Caterina's case, a short while after Leonardo's birth she married a local kiln worker nicknamed Accattabriga. This sobriquet, meaning Troublemaker, suggests that he was not a particularly good catch. She went on to have five children after Leonardo--four daughters and a son--and lived in humble circumstances in Campo Zeppi, near Vinci. Little is known of the Accattabriga clan except that sometime in the 1480s the son, Leonardo's half brother, perhaps a troublemaker like his father, was killed by a crossbow in Pisa.

Excerpted from Leonardo and the Last Supper. Copyright © 2012 Ross King.  Published by Bond Street Books, an imprint of the Doubleday Canada Publishing Group, which is a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved

Back to the Charles Taylor Prize 2013