Researchers document DNA of 14 living relatives of Leonardo da Vinci

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Self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1510-1515. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Imagine someone reaching out to tell you that you are related to one of the most famous artists in the world. For 14 people, this strange event actually happened. Leonardo da Vinci scholars and researchers Alessandro Vezzosi and Agnese Sabato have spent years hunting down descendants of the da Vinci male line. By carefully studying the family’s genealogy spanning more than 600 years, they found and contacted the living relatives of today. Their research, recently published in Human evolution, aims to reconstruct the DNA sequence of the artistic legend.

Vezzosi and Sabato started their research in 2016 as part of the The Leonardo Da Vinci DNA project. Led by physical anthropologists Brunetto Chiarelli and Henry de Lumley, the goal of the project is to reconstruct da Vinci’s DNA and better understand his genius by examining his genetics for special abilities and traits. For Vezzosi, following the relatives of the legendary late Renaissance polymath has been a passion that has lasted for decades. Vezzosi is from Vinci, Italy, near Leonardo’s birthplace. He has been following the da Vinci family tree since the 1970s and has collaborated with Sabato since the 1990s.

These decades of efforts have been facilitated by modern technology. The family tree begins with Michele da Vinci, who was born in 1331 and takes its name from the city of Vinci. Leonardo is a direct descendant of Michele. While born out of wedlock in 1452, Leonardo’s father Ser Piero had as many as 22 children who inherited his genetic material. As Leonardo himself never had children, it is his father’s male descendants who still carry the relevant Y chromosome DNA.

Researchers followed this Y chromosome over 25 generations to find the 14 living parents of Leonardo’s male line. Using historical documents, they were able to uncover these old family ties. Only one of the 14 family members previously knew they were related to da Vinci, although some still use the last name or live near Vinci himself. A descendant, Geovanni Vinci, is an artist. He seemed amused by the connection, recounting Smithsonian magazine, “Maybe for some of my work Leonardo has turned in his grave … but for the rest, I hope he is proud.”

Now that the male line parents of the Mona Lisathe author of have been found, their DNA will be collected and sequenced. The researchers hope to use advanced tools to retroactively construct the Leonardo sequence. While DNA may shed light on his extraordinary artistic and scientific prowess, it could also confirm once and for all the true identity of the body believed to be Leonardo’s. These exciting developments, made possible by hard work and modern science, offer new methods for learning more about the luminaries of the past.

Researchers have identified 14 living male relatives of Leonardo da Vinci.

Sketch of the Virgin Mary by Da Vincic

“The head of the Virgin in a three-quarter view oriented to the right”, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1510-13. (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain)

Most of the family had no idea their connection, but some still live near Vinci, Italy.

Vinci, Italy, where da Vinci's parents still live

Vinci, Italy, where some members of the da Vinci family still live. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

h / t: [Smithsonian, ART News]

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