The Da Vinci Debate

Often, people who don’t have an in-depth knowledge of renaissance art use the short hand “Da Vinci” instead of “Leonardo”. Sometimes you will come across some cognoscenti admitting to “squirming” when they come across people referring to Da Vinci instead of Leonardo – see here or here for example.

Although they are certainly correct that the art historical convention is to use first names or nicknames for renaissance artists, the emphasis on the wrongs and rights of naming irks me. In fact, any sense of superiority about knowing the “proper” artist’s name, or the “correct” pronunciation/application of Italian terms (“chiaroscuro”, “pentimento”, “contrapposto”) irks me.  Why? Partly because I imbibed Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction  as a graduate student – and have spent much research time investigating  the ways people seek to delineate and shore up social difference. Partly because I think this kind of pettiness can make renaissance art seem scary, unapproachable and snobbish. Anything that might put people off coming to these often spectacular objects with a fresh appreciative eye is to a real shame.

Also – and this is the key bit –renaissance artists’ names are just conventions. They are not “correct” or “incorrect”; they are generally just what has been deemed the “correct” name by art historians, curators and collectors in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

What’s in a name? Conventions and names for renaissance artists.

Leonardo da Vinci

Agostino Vespucci on "Leonardus Vincius", 1503

This really does just mean Leonard from Vinci, and so da Vinci might not be thought of as a “proper” surname, just a way of distinguishing him from Leonard from Prato, or Leonard from Poggibonsi etc. But then what are surnames for if not to distinguish people? How to people gain their surnames in the first place? Da Vinci does seem to be established as some kind of family name during Leonardo’s lifetime. His father, after all, is called Ser Piero da Vinci. Contemporary documents use “Vinci” pretty much as a surname. He’s referred to in Latin as “Leonardus Vincius” at least a couple of times in 1503;  “Magistro Leonardo de Vinci”; “maestro Leonardo vinci, pittore del Christiamissimo Re” in 1507; in the same year he signs himself “Leonardus vincius pictor”. People don’t ever call him just “da Vinci” in the documents. But they don’t call Lorenzo de’ Medici just “Medici” either. It’s not a convention to use surnames in this way in the fifteenth century.


This means little barrels. It’s a nickname for a painter actually called Alessandro Filipepi. As far as I know, no-one “squirms” when people don’t say Filipepi or Alessandro.

Rosso Fiorentino

This means the red-headed Florentine. It’s normally shortened to Rosso. His real name is Giovanni Battista di Jacopo, but no-one calls him that.


This is the Latin/French/English version of Raffaello Sanzio, which has been in common usage since the sixteenth century.  He’s called Raffaello, of course, in Italian texts, often referred to as il Sanzio. His dad, though, is referred to as Giovanni Santi, a different form of the same surname.

Sebastiano del Piombo

Means Sebastian of the lead, reflecting his position of keeper of the papal seal, which he received from the pope in 1531. He shouldn’t really be referred to as Sebastiano del Piombo when referring to the earlier part of his life, if we are going to be strictly “correct”, but this has become the conventional way to refer to him in English-language sources.  His real name was Sebastiano Luciani, and he is referred to as Luciani in French sources.

There are many other Italian renaissance artists’ names that I could mention that are mainly derived from nicknames. In most cases, there’s a variety of potential names that, in theory, could be used.

In the end, if we all know who we mean, isn’t that what really matters?

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