Was the Mona Lisa Leonardo’s Mother and a Chinese Slave?

Has one of art history's greatest mysteries been solved?

Does she look Chinese? Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503–06). Photo via: Wikimedia Commons.
Does she look Chinese? Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503–06).
Photo via: Wikimedia Commons.

The elusive identity of the Mona Lisa, one of art history’s most enduring and well-loved mysteries, might have just been solved. Well, sort of. According to art historian Angelo Paratico, the woman portrayed in Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece might be, simultaneously, a Chinese slave and the painter’s mother, the South China Morning Post reports.

However, Paratico is not yet exactly positive about the details of his potentially groundbreaking theory. “I’m sure to a point that Leonardo’s mother was from the Orient, but to make her an oriental Chinese, we need to use deductive method,” he told SCMP.

Related: Authenticity of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks Under Scrutiny

The Hong-Kong-based historian is giving the final touches to a book entitled Leonardo da Vinci: A Chinese Scholar Lost in Renaissance Italy. “One wealthy client of Leonardo’s father had a slave called Caterina,” Paratico told SCMP. “After 1452, Leonardo’s date of birth, she disappeared from the documents. She was no longer working there.”

Apparently, Caterina (Leonardo’s mother, too, is widely thought to have been named Caterina) was taken to the town of Vinci, outside Florence, to give birth. Paratico’s angle is that she had to be removed from the household due to her improper relationship with her master.

A Long Shot Theory?

Does the theory sound like a bit of a long shot? Perhaps. But Paratico argues that, already a hundred years ago, the venerable Sigmund Freud claimed that the iconic painting was inspired by Leonardo’s mother, in his 1910 essay, “A Childhood Reminiscence of Leonardo da Vinci.”

Paratico substantiates his thesis further by insisting some aspects of Leonardo’s life suggest an oriental connection. For example, he was left-handed as well as a vegetarian, both of which were uncommon at the time. The art historian also says that Italy was full of oriental slaves during the Renaissance.

Mona Lisa meme with the face of the Chinese comedian Zhao Benshan<br>Photo via: The Telegraph

Mona Lisa meme with the face of the Chinese comedian Zhao Benshan
Photo via: The Telegraph

He believes that the painting’s background depicts a Chinese landscape, and that the Mona Lisa’s face looks Chinese.

Does it all still sound a little tenuous? Francisco Vizeu Pinheiro, an architect and assistant professor at the University of St Joseph, thinks so, telling SCMP that Paratico is “jumping quickly to conclusions since there’s no concrete evidence.”

Meanwhile, according to the Telegraph, users of the Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo have launched a Chinese-Mona Lisa meme parade, replacing her features with hilarious alternatives, for example the face of the Chinese comedian Zhao Benshan.

“I now understand why her smile looks so mysterious and concealed,” joked a Sina Weibo user. “It’s typically Chinese.”

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