WAS THE MOTHER of the great Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci Chinese and is she the model for Leonardo’s Mona Lisa with her famously inscrutable smile? Hong Kong-based Italian writer and historian Angelo Paratico says yes on both counts.
In a forthcoming book Paratico lays out a case that Leonardo’s mother, Caterina, was a slave brought from China to the household of one of the Florentine patrons of Leonardo’s father, a notary, and that the artist was the issue of their union.
Paratico’s contention rests on some tenuous joining of circumstantial dots. He has not uncovered new documentary evidence, at least not on the basis of the report in the South China Morning Post.
The Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud suggested more than a century ago that the Mona Lisa was a portrait of Leonardo’s mother and more recent scholarship has cast doubt on the long-standing story that she was a peasant woman from the town of Vinci near Florence, suggesting instead that she was a household slave, but from the Arabian not the Oriental world.
The Renaissance city-states of what is the modern day Italy were at the end of the overland and maritime trade routes from Cathay and the Spice Islands via Arabia, Central Asia, and India. They were polyglot places and awash with all sorts.
That Leonardo’s mother was a slave brought from the east is not implausible. However, the Mona Lisa is widely believed to be a depiction of Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a Florentine merchant. Perhaps the particular truth will always remain as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa’s smile.