A recently assembled Leonardo da Vinci family tree, spanning 21 generations from 1331 to the present, could pave the way for DNA testing that might confirm whether the bones interred in da Vinci’s grave are actually his. Two art historians’ hopes of uncovering a genetic explanation for the Renaissance artist’s brilliance, however, will probably be doomed by scientific reality.
Da Vinci’s modern family
To construct the family tree, art historians Alessandro Vezzosi and Agnese Sabato dug through birth, death, and property records spanning the last 690 years. They also interviewed surviving relatives to learn more about the famous artist, scientist, and inventor’s modern extended family. In the end, they traced da Vinci’s family from his grandfather, born in 1331, to the 14 relatives living today. Leonardo da Vinci himself had no children, and his modern relatives all descend from his 22 (!) half-siblings.
The present family played an essential role in the new study. “Many of them have collaborated, together with their relatives, to the collection and verification of information,” wrote Vezzosi and Sabato, “helping enthusiastically to contact other family members and retrieve new documents and images.” Those many-times-great nieces and nephews include several office workers (one of whom served as a naval gunner in the 1960s), a retired upholsterer, a surveyor, and a state employee who is “passionate about motorcycling and music.” The oldest is now 85 years old, and the youngest is just one year old.
For some interesting historical perspective, the artist’s grandfather, Michele da Vinci, would have been a teenager when the Black Death arrived in Italy; his latest 20-times-great niece or nephew was born during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Who is buried in da Vinci’s grave?
Vezzosi and Sabato were especially interested in the male line of descent from da Vinci’s father, a notary named Ser Piero da Vinci, to today’s generations. That’s partly because the male line is easier to trace in historical documents from a time where women’s lives—and sometimes their whole existence—seldom got written down in official records. But it’s mostly because of the Y chromosome, the only part of the human genome that gets passed down directly from father to son. Aside from some small changes that happen over time, the Y-chromosomes of da Vinci’s modern nephews should be extremely similar to those of Michele, Ser Piero, and Leonardo himself.
That means that by comparing the Y chromosome DNA of modern relatives to ancient DNA from the skeleton buried in da Vinci’s grave, it may be possible to solve a 158-year-old mystery: who is buried in da Vinci’s grave in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert?
Leonardo da Vinci spent the last four years of his life in France, working as a scientist and engineer in the court of King Francis I. He lived and worked in the town of Amboise, a stone’s throw from the king’s summer palace, and when he died in 1519, he was buried in the nearby church of St. Florentine, about 1,200 km (750 miles) from the rest of his family. (By all accounts, Leonardo had little contact with his half-brothers; several were more than a decade younger, and historical documents suggest some conflicts over inheritance.)
And there the great Renaissance scholar lay for the next 275 years or so, until revolution came to his adopted country. During the French Revolution, the church of St. Florentine was mostly demolished; Napoleon Bonaparte finished the job a few years later. In the process, da Vinci’s tomb, and his bones, disappeared.
Workers at the site found a skeleton in 1863, buried along with some fragments of stone carved with letters: “EO,” “AR,” “DUS,” and “VINC,” which the finders read as broken pieces of an inscription that once said “Leonardus da Vinci.” The skeleton’s teeth looked worn enough to fit da Vinci’s age when he died, and a silver shield etched with an image of King Francis I suggested the right time period. Today, the skeleton resides in a tomb at the nearby Chapel of Saint-Hubert, but DNA testing could help confirm whether it’s really Leonardo.
Of course, such testing would require permission—possibly from the church, from surviving relatives, from cultural heritage officials, or some combination of those. It’s unclear whether anyone would be keen on destructive sampling from what is widely believed to be the skeleton of Leonardo da Vinci. However, it’s interesting that ownership of the skeleton is a testable hypothesis now, even if only technically.
Da Vinci’s missing family
Most of Leonardo’s late medieval and Renaissance-era family members were buried in the church of Santa Croce in Vinci, a town about 20 miles from Florence, Italy, from which the family gets its name. Later generations changed the family name from “da Vinci” to just “Vinci.” But the family tomb, in which at least six of the artist’s male relatives are buried, has been lost to time and several renovations of the church building. That means the bodies of Leonardo’s grandfather Antonio, his uncle Francesco, and his half-brother Domenico di Matteo, among others, are technically missing, although they’re almost certainly still somewhere under the modern church floor.
Vezzosi and Sabato and their colleagues at the International Leonardo da Vinci DNA Project are interested in finding those graves because they hope to sample DNA from several generations of da Vinci’s male family line. That, they claim, would help confirm that the family tree recorded in nearly 700 years of documents matches the actual genetic relationships between people.
A recent ground-penetrating radar survey looked for traces of forgotten tombs under the church floor. Historical records say the old da Vinci tomb lay near the center of the building, opposite its main door; by comparing historical floor plans to modern ones, Vezzosi and Sabato managed to find the area of the church that would once have been the center, opposite the main door. And in about the right spot, their radar survey detected two anomalies—places where the radio waves reflect differently than in the surrounding soil.
It’s unlikely that church officials would grant permission to dig up the floor in front of the altar to look for Leonardo da Vinci’s relatives. Exhuming several sets of remains to get DNA samples would likely require significant resources and raise serious ethical concerns. Researchers typically have to show that they’re asking very compelling scientific questions in order to get permission and funding to undertake that kind of project, and ground-truthing a historical figure’s family tree probably falls short of the standard.
No such thing as a Da Vinci Code
Many of Vezzosi and Sabato’s plans for da Vinci’s DNA—if it’s ever sequenced—don’t actually make scientific sense. They’re largely based on some outdated ideas about heredity, intelligence, and even race.
Sequencing Leonardo da Vinci’s DNA, Vezzosi and Sabato wrote, “will make available useful elements to scientifically explore the roots of his genius, to find information on his physical prowess and on his possibly precocious aging, on his being left-handed and his health and possible hereditary sicknesses, and to explain certain peculiar sensory perceptions, like his extraordinary visual quality and synesthesia.”
A few specific traits, like left-handedness and some hereditary health problems, might be at least partially written in da Vinci’s genes. Others, like synesthesia, may have a genetic basis since it tends to run in families, but geneticists haven’t yet pinpointed one. But there’s no known genetic marker for intelligence or creativity. The deeply harmful eugenics movement of the early 20th century was based on the idea that intelligence and morality were traits that people simply inherited from their parents, an idea that persists today. But science tells a very different story, with environmental influences mixing with the input of hundreds of genes, each having a tiny effect.
“We further deem significant and fascinating the hypothesis that Leonardo was born from a genetic interaction of two different haplotypes, that is, from the characteristics of two different populations,” Vezzosi and Sabato wrote. Some historians have suggested that da Vinci’s mother Caterina may have been an enslaved woman from Caffa or Constantinople, but Vezzosi and Sabato speculate by asking, “Could this be the origin of Leonardo’s genius?”
The idea sounds like something out of the 19th century.
All in all, the idea of studying Leonardo’s DNA to learn what made him tick offers a great example of why researchers shouldn’t just blindly charge off to work outside their own fields. Multidisciplinary research is important, but it works best when experts in different fields work together.