After years of research into historical documents, a new family tree for Renaissance master Leonardo Da Vinci has been completed, which revealed the artist to have at least 14 living male descendants. These new findings are likely the final hurdle in beginning the process to sequence the artist’s DNA.
The new paper—titled “The New Genealogical Tree of the Da Vinci Family for Leonardo’s DNA. Ancestors and descendants in direct male line down to the present XXI generation”—was published in Human Evolution this week and is the result of an historical investigation, begun in 2016, by leading Leonardo expert and art historian Alessandro Vezzosi and historian Agnese Sabato.
While the research for this paper formally began five years ago, Vezzosi, who grew up in the Italian town of Vinci, started tracing Leonardo’s descendants in 1973. He began collaborating with Sabato in 1993. Over the past several decades, the two have combed through 690 years of private and public historical documents to create a family history.
The team was careful to make sure they had the best possible documentation before contacting those they believe to be the living descendants, with whom they are now in contact.
In an email, Sabato said, “[I felt] happy, both for the fruit of so much work and for having made known to these descendants the origin of their family. It was like discovering, piece by piece, the design of a lost ancient mosaic. It was the joy of giving these people back a story that had always been theirs but which they did not know.”
These possible descendants have themselves become collaborators with the research team, collecting and verifying information and reaching out to other family members. As of now, the research team has collected data on 225 individuals from the family spanning 21 generations, beginning with Michele Leonardo of the 14th century.
The family tree project constitutes the first phase in “The Leonardo Da Vinci DNA Project,” an international effort headed by physical anthropologists Brunetto Chiarelli and Henry de Lumley to discover and sequence Leonardo’s DNA. That project kicked off in 2014 after Chiarelli realized, in conversation with some colleagues, that improvements in DNA sequencing and the skills of fellow researchers had advanced enough to make genome sequencing for Leonardo’s DNA possible.
Jesse Ausubel, an environmental scientist, director of the Program for the Human Environment at New York’s Rockefeller University and team member of the Da Vinci DNA Project told ARTnews that there is a lot to learn from Leonardo’s genetics. “In particular I’m interested in his visual acuity,” Ausubel said. “Most humans can see 40 to 50 frames a second, but if you look at [Leonardo’s] drawing of flying dragonflies and moving water it appears he had exceptional temporal resolution, perhaps seeing at 70 to 80 frames a second.”
By sequencing his genome, scientists would be able to confirm if this was the case. “But of course,” Ausubel adds, “If we want to sequence the genome we first need to be sure about the genetic material we’re using.”
To accomplish the sequencing, researchers will need to gather genetic material from the artist’s family line. Though the artist never had any children, he did have 22 half brothers on his paternal side. The Da Vinci DNA Project will build on the research effort by Vezzosi and Sabato. By tracing the line of male descendants from the past to the present, researchers hope to isolate the Y chromosome in living descendants today. (The Y chromosome can go basically unchanged across 25 generations.)
Over the next 6 to 12 month, Y chromosomes identified from living descendants will be checked against existing biological materials of Leonardo himself, which will be collected from his notebooks and his tomb. (There are doubts as to whether or not the bones buried there are Leonardo’s.) Genetic materials will also be collected from Leonardo’s father’s tomb in Florence. At this point genetic testing may be possible, allowing us to peer into the mysteries and legends of Leonardo.