“Leonardo”, did Caterina da Cremona really exist? The answer is yes
Did Caterina da Cremona, the character played by Matilda De Angelis, really exist? Sure! But she was a courtesan, or to use the typical language of the Renaissance, a “coin woman”: this means that she got paid in hard cash. This was stated by the great scholar Carlo Pedretti, perhaps the greatest expert on Leonardo da Vinci of the last century. In the writings of the genius, but also in the testimonies of other important authors, the name of this beautiful woman appears together with the sum due to her, with the addition that Leonardo did not at all despise the pleasures of sex and from Cremona he obtained “great delights”.
Is Caterina da Cremona really the “Cremona” whose name we read in Leonardo’s writings? Probably yes. The revelation may seem disconcerting to the general public, especially looking at how refined and sweet the sensuality of Matilda De Angelis is. This happens because many people are used to considering prostitutes in a negative light, especially thinking about the past: in a very repressive society like that of the Renaissance, in which people had a phobia of sex because of the very rigid morality imposed by the Church, the prostitute certainly appears as one donnaccia, a “dirty” and despicable person.
But that wasn’t exactly the case. In a sense, the mentality of the time worked in reverse. The “virtuous” women, in short, those to be married, were considered as valuables because they had the task of perpetuating the lineage with legitimate children. The fundamental duty of those ancient societies: adultery is the worst fault for them, an unforgivable sin. But precisely because “honest” women must remain pure and untouchable, space is created for another category of women, freer and more emancipated. The Renaissance courtesans like our Cremona (or Caterina da Cremona, according to the fiction), were refined and often well educated people, they had received an education similar to that of men, a privilege from which the ladies destined to have children were excluded. their respective husbands. Like the etheras of ancient Greece or the geishas of Japan, the courtesans lived very differently from the poor women forced by misery to sell themselves on the street; their abodes were comfortable and tastefully furnished, because they represented oases of pleasure for rich men who went to seek within those walls not only sex, but also good company, a brilliant conversation, fun, music, great food, even an iota of culture.
They knew how to play, sing, dance in a bewitching way, recite poetry. They were artists, even before they were pleasure professionals, which in any case dispensed with generosity and even imagination: let’s not forget that the morality of the time was very strict in terms of physical love, every kind of erotic game (even what seems innocent to us today) was censored under the threat of eternal fire. They had nothing vulgar, the courtesans, and although many of them were models for painters, it is not at all obvious that they were as beautiful as our delightful Matilda.
We don’t know if Caterina was her real name; in fact, however, Leonardo da Vinci’s beautiful model was an established and self-possessed person, one of the few truly free women of her time.
* Barbara Frale is a historian of the Middle Ages, known throughout the world for her research on the Templars. Author of various monographs, she has participated in television broadcasts and historical documentaries. He edited the historical consultancy for the I Medici series. Masters of Florence aired on Rai and is the author, together with Franco Cardini, of the essay La Congiura. For Newton Compton he has successfully published The Undergrounds of Notre-Dame, In the name of the Medici, the Medici Conspiracy, The cursed tower of the Templars and the essay The great empires of the Middle Ages.