The Hunt for Da Vinci's Descendants

Da Vinci's newly identified family tree might help in finding Leonardo's DNA.

The face of Leonardo Da Vinci has always been a mystery, with experts never totally certain what Leonardo looked like.

Now research into Da Vinci's family tree has revealed an amazing resemblance between one of the descendants of the Renaissance genius and the amiable old man depicted in the famous red chalk drawing kept in Turin's Royal Library, which is the only work largely agreed to be a self-portrait by da Vinci.

"It is certainly a surprising likeness, but we are not drawing any conclusion from it," Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Museo Ideale in the Tuscan town of Vinci, where the artist was born on April 15, 1452, told Discovery News.

Leonardo Da Vinci's Living Relatives Found

Last month, Vezzosi and historian Agnese Sabato presented the results of a decades-long genealogical study into Leonardo's family at a crowded conference in Vinci. Their findings will be published later this week in the journal Human Evolution.

At the conference, Vezzosi and Sabato announced the existence of 35 living relatives of Leonardo Da Vinci, with some of them attending the event. The descendants come from Leonardo's father, a Florentine legal notary named Ser Piero Da Vinci.

"They have grown into 41 by now," Sabato told Discovery News.

The Face of Da Vinci: An Enduring Mystery

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 dispersed before the 19th century. However, around 1863, a skeleton claimed to be Da Vinci's was buried in a chapel of the Amboise Castle.

To reconstruct Da Vinci's family tree, Sabato and Vezzosi had to rely on documents such as parish records, contracts, manuscripts, historical maps and other archival data.

We know from a document written by Antonio, Leonardo's grandfather, that Leonardo was born on April 15, 1452 "at 3 o'clock at night."

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In another document Antonio also stated that five-year old Leonardo was the illegitimate son of Ser Piero and "Chaterina, who at present is the wife of Achattabriga di Piero del Vaccha da Vinci."

Leonardo's illegitimate status and his complex family of four step-mothers and 21 or even 24 half-brothers and half sisters made it rather difficult to update the official Da Vinci family tree.

The Hunt for Da Vinci's Descendants: Page 2

Researchers stand with living descendants of Leonardo da Vinci. | Museo Ideale Leonardo Da Vinci/Leonardo Paglianti

Vezzosi and Sabato had to deal with repeating names and confusing surnames. Indeed, Da Vinci had become a surname while "da Vinci" simply meant "from Vinci."

"We know the surname Da Vinci was kept at least until 1803, since we have found it in the tomb of Ser Anton Giuseppe, an important descendant," Sabato said.

"The surname Da Vinci was then simplified to Vinci," she added.

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During their research Vezzosi and Sabato made some intriguing findings. They found more details on Lucia, Leonardo's paternal grandmother. Her family owned a kiln for artistic ceramic ware at Toia di Bacchereto, near Carmignano in the Vinci surroundings. The kiln was then owned by Ser Piero, Leonardo's father.

"It is more than likely that Leonardo began his artistic activity between the age of 8 and 10, not only in Florence, but also at the family kiln," Vezzosi said.

The researchers also shed some light on the mysterious figure of Caterina, Leonardo's mother.

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It was known that she lived with her husband Accattabriga in the village of San Pantaleo near Vinci. The most likely reconstruction identifies her as a female slave coming from the Middle East. It is believed she moved to Milan in 1493 to stay with Leonardo and that she died there.

Caterina and Accattabriga had five children. The only male, Francesco, died at 26 "killed by a springald in Pisa." Little is known of Piera, Maria, Lisabetta and Sandra, Leonardo's half-sisters.

"We know that Lisabetta had three daughters and now we are investigating her genealogy," Vezzosi said.

Finding Caterina's descendants would be crucial to possibly retrieving mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down through the maternal line.

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The most interesting branch of the Da Vinci's family tree turned out to be connected to one of Ser Piero's sons -- Domenico Matteo, who was born in 1483 from Ser Piero's third wife.

From there, Vezzosi and Sabato were able to trace a direct and uninterrupted line up to today's living descendants.

Dina, who appears to bear a striking resemblance to Leonardo's self-portrait, was indeed a descendant of Leonardo's half-brother Domenico Matteo.

"Her son Giovanni has helped us out finding important connections," Vezzosi said.

He noted that their research added more than 150 names to the Da Vinci's tree.

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"Overall, we have more than 270 names. We found descendants up to Majorca and Valencia, Spain," Vezzosi said.

The researchers also discovered a number of Da Vinci burials around Vinci.

"Finding such tombs and a direct and uninterrupted male line of descendants could be an important contribution to a serious scientific research aimed at reconstructing Leonardo's Y chromosome," Vezzosi said.

A scientific meeting was hosted this week in Florence under the patronage of the Tuscan Regional Council.

Leonardo da Vinci (left) and a living descendant (right).

Da Vinci's Hidden Face

This enigmatic silhouette of a man with a hat represents the controversy over what Leonardo da Vinci looked like. Drawn by Leonardo himself at age 40, it is widely accepted as a self-portrait, although most facial features are hidden. Experts have never been certain what Leonardo looked like. "Was he really handsome? Were his eyes blue? And what about his nose? I can't honestly provide any certain answer," said Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Museo Ideale in the Tuscan town of Vinci, where the artist was born on April 15, 1452.

The Five Types

According to Vezzosi, who has just published the book "The Portraits of Leonardo," there are five categories of da Vinci portraits. Most likely, said Vezzosi, the true face of the Renaissance genius lies hidden within those paintings.

Test your da Vinci knowledge in this quiz.

Type One: The Windsor Profile

The portrait thought most likely to be a true portrait of da Vinci is kept at the Royal Library at Windsor Castle in the United Kingdom. Drawn in red chalk by Francesco Melzi, da Vinci's faithful disciple, the portrait might date to 1510, thus depicting the Florentine genius when he was 58. But according to Vezzosi, the chalk drawing is idealized rather than a realistic portrait, suggesting that it was created later to preserve "Leonardo's happy memory."

Type Two: The So-Called Self-Portrait of Turin

Preserved in a library in Turin, Italy, this famous red chalk drawing is the only work largely agreed to be a self-portrait by da Vinci. It dates to around 1515, when Leonardo was 63. The amiable old man depicted in the drawing appears to be of a much older age, and indeed various sources report that the master looked 10 years older than his age.

Type Three: A Suffering Leonardo

This 16th-century category consists of three quarter-view portraits in which an elderly da Vinci is always represented with a hat, showing all the signs of age. As with this portrait by the Lombard painter Giovan Ambrogio Figino (1548-1608), da Vinci is often depicted with his right hand hanging in a stiff position. Various sources report that the left-handed Leonardo was afflicted with paralysis of his right hand during his last years. According to Vezzosi, the paralysis would explain da Vinci's inactivity for the last five years of his life.

Type Four: Profile With Pointed Cap

Published in Giorgio Vasari's "The Lives of the Artists" (1568), this portrait by Cristoforo Coriolano enjoyed a large popularity until the 18th century.Vasari added the pointed cap, which distinguished a man of science and letters. The 16th-century painter, architect and art historian Giorgio Vasari described Leonardo as "an artist of outstanding physical beauty, who displayed infinite grace in everything that he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved."

Type Five: The False Uffizi Self-Portrait

Starting in the first half of the 18th century, many Leonardo portraits took inspiration from a painting at the Uffizi gallery in Florence. Celebrated as a self-portrait by the Florentine master for more than two centuries, this portrait was dismissed as a fake in 1938, when X-rays revealed it was made at least a century after da Vinci's death in 1519.

New Portraits Surface

In recent years there have been several claims of the re-discovery of da Vinci portraits. "It happens quite often that any image of an old man with a beard and a hat is recognized as a portrait of Leonardo," Vezzosi said. Among the most recent is an oil painting on wood discovered in the private collection of an aristocratic family from Acerenza, a hill town near Potenza in southern Italy. The portrait fits the category of the false Uffizi self-portrait. "We need to find out the exact dating of this portrait. I have excluded the possibility that we are dealing with a self-portrait painted by Leonardo himself. Nevertheless, the Acerenza portrait is intriguing because it adds a new element to the Leonardo's puzzle. Here we have Leonardo depicted as a middle-aged, blue-eyed man," Vezzosi said.

Hidden in the Codex

In a discovery worthy of a Dan Brown novel, Italian science journalist Piero Angela recently claimed to have spotted what could be a Leonardo self-portrait underneath lines of ink handwriting in da Vinci's own "Codex on the Flight of Birds." Initially only a nose was visible. Digital techniques made it possible to resurrect the original sketch, and a drawing of a young man with long hair and a slight beard appeared. The research team used criminal investigation techniques to "age" the sketched portrait. The result was an impressive resemblance to the most authenticated da Vinci self-portrait, the red chalk drawing from Turin's Biblioteca Reale.

Da Vinci's Fingerprints

This fingerprint represents the only biological trace of Leonardo da Vinci, who died on May 2, 1519, in Amboise, France. Although some believe that his remains rest in the Chapelle St. Hubert in Amboise, most scholars agree that they were dispersed in the 16th century during religious wars. Forensic techniques have allowed Luigi Capasso, an anthropologist at Chieti University, to reconstruct an entire fingertip from the dozens of prints left by da Vinci on his notebooks, drawings and paintings.