Who was the Mona Lisa?

Commissioned around 1503, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa is perhaps the most famous portrait in the world. But who was the woman who sat for Mona Lisa? Historian Emily Brand investigates…

Da Vinci's Mona Lisa portrait

With the artist himself making no mention of the work, a string of possible sitters for the Mona Lisa have since been identified – including, bizarrely, da Vinci himself in drag – but it seems likely to immortalise Lisa del Giocondo (nee Gherardini), the wife of a Florentine cloth merchant.

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Although by no means conclusive, details about the family and the painting itself offer some clues. A middle-class couple with aspirations to wealth and status, at around the time it was commissioned they celebrated both the purchase of their own house and the arrival of a son – both events worth commemorating.

The painting’s alternative title, ‘La Gioconda’, may even allude to both to the model and her famous expression, being not only the feminine form of Lisa’s married name but translated roughly as ‘the happy one’.

Answered by one of our Q&A experts, historian and author Emily Brand

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This article was taken from the May 2015 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine