Leonardo Da Vinci has 35 living relatives in Tuscany, two Italian researchers announced on Thursday.
Historian Agnese Sabato and art historian Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Museo Ideale in the Tuscan town of Vinci, said they tracked down, one by one, the direct living descendants from Leonardo's father, a Florentine legal notary named Ser Piero Da Vinci.
"Leonardo's descendants are all living around Florence and nearby villages such as Empoli and Vinci," Vezzosi told Discovery News.
It was believed that no traces were left of the painter, engineer, mathematician, philosopher and naturalist. The remains of Leonardo, who died in 1519 in Amboise, France, were believed to have been dispersed in the 16th century during religious wars.
With no Da Vinci's remains to work on, Sabato and Vezzosi' starting point were documents left by Da Vinci's grandfather, Antonio.
Antonio recorded Leonardo's birth, indicating his son Ser Piero as Leonardo's father. There was no mention of the mother's name.
She is however recorded in one of Antonio's notes dated 1457, and referred to as Caterina, the wife of Achattabriga di Piero del Vaccha da Vinci.
Leonardo's illegitimate status made it even more difficult to reconstruct his family tree.
"We checked documents and tombs as far as France and Spain in order to reconstruct the history of Leonardo's family," Vezzosi said.
"We even found a unknown tomb of Leonardo's family in Vinci," he added.
Among the Renaissance genius's relatives are an architect, a policeman, a pastry chef, an accountant and a retired blacksmith.
"I heard this story about our Da Vinci's blood from my mother, but our family believed it was a legend," Giovanni Calosi, one of the descendants, said.
Da Vinci's relatives also include Italian director and opera producer Franco Zeffirelli, famous for his 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet.
Zeffirelli, whose real name is Gianfranco Corsi, comes from one of the most famous families in Vinci.
"The Corsis related with the Da Vincis in 1794 thanks to the marriage between Michelangelo di Tommaso Corsi and Teresa Alessandra Giovanna di Ser Antonio Giuseppe Da Vinci, direct descendant of Leonardo's father Ser Piero," Vezzosi said.
As much as it sounds fascinating, the research presents some weak points. Indeed, the results from archival research could be patchy if one, if not more, false paternities -- where the biological father is not the recorded father -- have occurred somewhere along the 500-year-old male line.
"Regardless of the archival material, there is a strong probability of the male line especially being broken over such a large number of generations. Leonardo was himself illegitimate after all," historian Kevin Schürer, pro-vice-chancellor for research at the University of Leicester, told Discovery News.
Schürer found non-paternity, or breaks, when he worked on the genealogy of King Richard III. In that case, genetic research proved that it wasn't possible to trace a living relative on the male line through the Y chromosome, which is passed on from father to son.
In other words, a king may have been cuckolded, his wife giving birth to another man's child.
"If they have been able to reliably trace male-line relatives with solid genealogical evidence then Y chromosome analysis would definitely be the way to go with the caveat that there could have been a false paternity, or paternities, along the way," Turi King, a geneticist at the University of Leicester who carried out the DNA analysis on King Richard III, told Discovery News.
"If I was going to do the DNA for this, I'd want to test a number of distantly related men from the tree and see if their Y chromosomes match such that we'd expect," King said.
"If they do, the higher up the tree they all connect (have a common ancestor) the better. In this way you can feel a bit safer, but not completely, that this is Da Vinci's Y chromosome type," she added.
Vezzosi and Sabato agreed that reconstructing Da Vinci's family tree is the first step of a broader scientific study.
"After our findings, scientists may be able to isolate Da Vinci's DNA, 15 generations later," Vezzosi said.
The researchers announced that a two-day international conference will take place in May to discuss the possibility of isolating Da Vinci's DNA.