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Leonardo da Vinci may be known as an Italian Renaissance master, but research into Leonardo's genealogy traces his family’s roots to Spain and Morocco and reveals how an eccentric grandfather, Antonio da Vinci, may have influenced the early education of the Tuscan genius.

Da Vinci's grandfather regularly did business in Spain and Morocco and his contacts with the Arab culture and Islam, his tales about documents written in exotic-looking writing, pigments, spices and fantastic landscapes, all likely influenced young Leonardo.

“We discovered that Leonardo’s family roots go beyond the narrow boundaries of the Tuscan village of Vinci,” says Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Museo Ideale in Vinci. Vezzosi collaborated with Agnese Sabato to publish Leonardo DNA: The Origins, as part of a broader the Renaissance genius’ Y chromosome, which is passed from father to son.

Documents found by the scholars in the state archives of the Tuscan town of Prato, as well as in the Archivo Histórico de Protocolos in Barcelona further revealed that Antonio wasn’t Leonardo’s only ancestor who lived abroad. A notary and brother of Leonardo’s great-great-grandfather, Giovanni, died in Barcelona in 1406, and Giovanni’s son, Frosino, lived in Spain for some time, says Leonardo da Vinci historian, Agnese Sabato.

Da Vinci's grandfather acted as his guardian

A letter written in 1402 by Leonardo da Vinci's grandfather, Antonio, from Morocco.

A letter written in 1402 by Leonard da Vinci's grandfather, Antonio, from Morocco

But it was Antonio who played a central role in Leonardo’s early life. He recorded da Vinci's birth on April 15, 1452, and a 1457 tax return shows that the young da Vinci was raised in Antonio’s home in Vinci. According to the document, five-year-old da Vinci was listed as the illegitimate child of Ser Piero and "Chaterina, who at present is the wife of Achattabriga di Piero del Vaccha from Vinci."

While Antonio may have been a responsible guardian, documents suggest he wasn’t always an honest broker. In a 1427 tax census, Antonio claimed he was 56 years old, did not own a house and never had a job. Previously, he had declared that the land he owned around Vinci was non-cultivable and his properties “in ruin.” But it was all untrue. As Vezzosi says. “He made false statements to avoid taxes.”

Antonio wasn’t just hanging out jobless in Vinci, Vezzosi says, rather he had worked as a merchant in Barcelona, Spain, and in Ghassasa, an ancient city in what is now Morocco, not far from the Strait of Gibraltar. In a 1402 letter, Antonio describes his successful trades in Fès, Morocco, where he dealt with precious goods such as Guinea pepper, dyes and fixatives for fabrics and leather. Two years later, in 1404, Antonio was in Spain, collecting taxes from Italian merchants on behalf of his cousin, Frosino, who was granted that duty by King Martin of Aragon.

The new findings might explain da Vinci’s keen interest in Spain. Later in his career, da Vinci describes details from the country in several manuscripts, including the Codex Atlanticus to the Codex Leicester and Arundel. He also mentions a naval machine which was “invented by the people of Majolica [Mallorca]” and notes that in “the Strait of Spain the sea currents are stronger than elsewhere.”

His grandfather's tall tales had an influence on da Vinci's works

"Annunciation" by Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonard da Vinci's "Annunciation"

Renaissance scholar Carlo Vecce, professor of Italian literature at the University of Naples, argues that da Vinci’s early landscapes, such as the desert background in the “Baptism of Christ” or the coastal city set against high mountains in the “Annunciation,” might even have been inspired by his grandfather’s exotic tales.

“Antonio’s life was rich in experience and knowledge,” Vezzosi says. “We can just imagine Leonardo listening to his grandfather’s captivating tales of distant seas and lands. Not to mention the fascinating objects Antonio might have brought from his travels.” These experiences, he adds, “might help understand his open-mindedness, his universal vision, and ultimately the origin of genius.”