Featured Slavery

Was Leonardo da Vinci’s mother a slave?

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David Abulafia
Written by David Abulafia

There is great excitement in Italy, which has spilled over into the British press: Carlo Vecce, a professor from Naples, has discovered documents in the archives of Florence that appear to indicate that Caterina, the mother of Leonardo da Vinci, was a baptised slave who had been brought all the way to Tuscany from the Black Sea. She was not, as has often been assumed, a local woman of modest origins.

Leonardo was born in April 1452, and a few months later a domestic slave of Leonardo’s father, also named Caterina, was given her freedom. The documents do not take up a great amount of space, so he has filled out the story with an imaginative romance about the life of Leonardo’s mother, only revealing the facts right at the end of a vigorous and imaginative 500 page novel cleverly entitled Caterina’s Smile (Mona Lisa’s husband also makes an appearance as a slave trader). This is not the usual way historians publish their discoveries; but the book, published this week, is already a runaway bestseller in Italy.

Vecce has uncovered a document showing that she was a Circassian, from the lands on the eastern side of the Black Sea. The question still arises whether it is a detail of any significance. This was a time when quite a few Italian princes were of illegitimate birth, though their mothers were generally not slaves. If this book raises awareness that the history of slavery is not, as proponents of Critical Race Theory insist, primarily about the horrific trade in African slaves carried across the Atlantic on slave ships and condemned to a short, over-worked life in sugar plantations, then it will have achieved something very valuable. Moreover, Caterina and her Circassian contemporaries were not black slaves but white ones. Skin colour was often mentioned in the medieval documents that record the sale of slaves: olive-skinned slaves were not as desirable as white. But, irrespective of skin colour, it is an unpleasant story.

Italian merchants from Venice and Genoa were already exporting thousands of slaves from the Black Sea two centuries before Columbus reached America. They were male and female, adults and children, Russians, Tartars, Bulgarians, Georgians. But the most prized slaves were fair-skinned Circassians who were carried to Egypt and Syria aboard Genoese ships and recruited into the Mamluk guard, if strong and male; and sometimes recruited into the bed of the sultan and his courtiers, if beautiful and female.

Many of these captives had been caught up willy-nilly in the civil wars and other conflicts that wracked the lands bordering the Black Sea. They were carried off into slavery before being sold to Italian merchants based in Crimea. A fifteenth-century writer named Pero Tafur describes how the slave traders would strip their captives naked, whether they were male or female, announce a price and make the slaves parade in front of potential clients, who would have the chance to inspect their body for defects.

Child sale by parents was frequent. In the fourteenth century, the great Italian poet Petrarch thought that the famous grain trade from Ukraine, active even then, had been supplanted by the slave trade: ‘from where until recently huge quantities of grain would be brought every year into this city, today ships come laden with slaves, sold by their parents under pressure of hunger.’

The age of the children was often stated in the sale contracts – sometimes eleven or twelve, but sometimes less than that. Yet parents might be strangely ambitious for their children when they sold them, especially if they were strong and healthy boys who stood a chance of recruitment into the elite Mamluk guard in Egypt, composed of Black Sea slaves. Newly arrived, we are told, some of these children dreamed of becoming sultans of Egypt, and that actually happened. This meant that Genoese merchants were supplying elite troops to the Muslim enemies of the Christian crusaders. For the merchants, as with all slave traders, profit came first.

Caterina was lucky to be freed and then to be married off to a local craftsman in the Tuscan countryside. Italian towns like Florence and Genoa contained hundreds of domestic slaves, condemned to a life of drudgery in their master’s house, or sexually misused. Even the fact that they were baptised by their masters did not automatically release them from slavery. Church law forbade non-Christians from owning Christian slaves, but did not forbid Christians from doing so. A very different set of values obtained five hundred years ago, and the idea that one person could legally possess another was generally accepted – something we wholeheartedly reject today. To say that is not to say that current generations carry responsibility for the moral outlook of our distant precursors, as modern activists loudly insist.


David Abulafia is emeritus professor of Mediterranean history at the University of Cambridge.

This article first appeared in The Spectator


‘Document in the State Archives, Florence, describing Caterina as a slave from Circassia’

About the author

David Abulafia

David Abulafia

David Samuel Harvard Abulafia CBE FSA FRHistS FBA (born 12 December 1949) is an English historian with a particular interest in Italy, Spain and the rest of the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. He spent most of his career at the University of Cambridge, rising to become a professor at the age of 50. He retired in 2017 as Professor Emeritus of Mediterranean History. He is a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.[2] He was Chairman of the History Faculty at Cambridge University, 2003-5, and was elected a member of the governing Council of Cambridge University in 2008. He is visiting Beacon Professor at the new University of Gibraltar, where he also serves on the Academic Board. He is a visiting professor at the College of Europe (Natolin branch, Poland).

He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a member of the Academia Europaea. In 2013 he was awarded one of three inaugural British Academy Medals for his work on Mediterranean history. In 2020, he was awarded the Wolfson History Prize for The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans