Think it’s hard living up to your family name? Try finding out you’re a distant relative of Leonardo da Vinci. According to The Guardian, Italian historians Alessandro Vezzosi and Agnese Sabato announced last Thursday that they had used historic records to identify 35 living descendants of the Italian artist, along with a previously unknown family grave. Eventually, the two plan to trace Leonardo’s DNA through his relatives.
Leonardo da Vinci was a prolific writer, inventor, artist, and intellectual. However, little was known about his extended family until now. He never married, and died in 1519 in Amboise, France, without leaving any known heirs. Adding to the mystery, Leonardo’s body is thought to have likely been lost during Europe’s religious wars in the 16th century, ending all possibility of tracking his direct descendants via genetics.
Vezzosi and Sabato began their research in 1973, using Leonardo’s father, a Florentine legal notary named Ser Piero da Vinci, as a jumping-off point, Smithsonian reports. They pored through estate papers and other historic records, including documents left by Leonardo’s grandfather, Antonio.
Complicating matters, there wasn’t any information on Leonardo’s mother. One record mentioned that her name was Caterina, the wife of Achattabriga di Piero del Vaccha da Vinci—making Leonardo an illegitimate child. Other historians think she may have been an Arab slave. This meant that Vezzosi and Sabato had to focus on Leonardo’s paternal branch.
“We checked documents and tombs as far as France and Spain in order to reconstruct the history of Leonardo’s family,” Vezzosi told Discovery News. “We even found [an] unknown tomb of Leonardo’s family in Vinci.”
Eventually, Vezzosi and Sabato located nearly three dozen presumed ancestors of Leonardo, all living in Florence and its neighboring villages. Among their ranks were an architect, a policeman, a pastry chef, an accountant, and a retired blacksmith.
One notable relation was Oscar-nominated director Franco Zeffirelli, who directed iconic film adaptations of Romeo and Juliet (1968) and The Taming of the Shrew (1967). He had previously claimed relation to Leonardo in an awards speech in 2007, the BBC reports.
Another relative: Giovanni Calosi, who said that his family had once owned Leonardo’s documents and letters. He claimed the correspondence was written in backwards handwriting and could only be read in a mirror. “We never gave any importance to those documents, which were lost and sold," Calosi told The Guardian. "What we thought was a legend passed down through generations turns out to be the truth.”
[h/t The Guardian]