January 30, 2010

Experts Hope Project Will Identify Mona Lisa

Italian scientists are seeking permission from French authorities to exhume the body of Leonardo da Vinci in order to conduct carbon and DNA testing they hope will solve many of the mysteries about the famous artist, the Associated Press reported Friday.

Should da Vinci's skull be found intact, the scientists believe they can answer a question that has long fascinated scholars and the public alike: the identity of the "Mona Lisa", and whether or not it was a self-portrait in disguise.

The researchers aim to recreate a virtual and then physical version of Leonardo's face, and compare it with the face in the painting, said those involved in the project.

"We don't know what we'll find if the tomb is opened, we could even just find grains and dust," said Giorgio Gruppioni, an anthropologist who is participating in the project, during an interview with the AP.

"But if the remains are well kept, they are a biological archive that registers events in a person's life, and sometimes in their death."

Silvano Vinceti, the project's leader, told the AP that he plans to push the matter next week with French officials in charge of the purported burial site at Amboise Castle.

But any optimism about the prospects of French approval may be premature.

Exhumation is a lengthy legal procedure in France, and would likely take even longer when it involves someone such as Leonardo.

Jean-Louis Sureau, director of the castle located in France's Loire Valley, said that a commission of experts is established upon receiving a formal request.  The matter would then be reviewed with the French Ministry of Culture, he told the AP.

Leonardo moved to France at the behest of King Francis I, who dubbed him "first painter to the king."  He spent the final three years of his life there, before dying in Cloux in 1519 at the age of 67.

Leonardo was originally buried at the palace church of Saint Florentine, which was later destroyed during the French Revolution.  

Some believe his remains were ultimately reburied in the Saint-Hubert Chapel, where a tombstone reading "Leonardo da Vinci" is accompanied by a notice informing visitors they are viewing the presumed remains of the artist.

"The Amboise tomb is a symbolic tomb; it's a big question mark," Alessandro Vezzosi, director of a museum dedicated to Leonardo in Vinci, told the AP.

Vezzosi, who is not involved in the current project, said examining the tomb could also help identify the artist's bones with certainty, and answer other questions such as the cause of his death.

He said he had asked to open the tomb in 2004 to study the remains, but Amboise Castle denied the request.

As for the current attempt by Italian scientists, Vinceti says introductory discussions took place several years ago and that he plans to request a meeting with French authorities to review the project in detail.

This would set the foundation for a formal request, he said.

A group of 100 experts known as the National Committee for Historical and Artistic Heritage are involved in the project.  The group came together in 2003 with the goal of "solving the great enigmas of the past," said Vinceti, an author of several books on art and literature.

The "Mona Lisa" currently hangs in the Louvre in Paris, attracting 8.5 million visitors last year. 

Arguably the world's most famous painting, mystery has surrounded the identity of the painting's subject for centuries.  Many have speculated it was the wife of a Florentine merchant, while others believe it was Leonardo's mother.

A theory that Leonardo intended the "Mona Lisa" as a self-portrait in disguise has been the subject of much debate over the years. 

Some believe Leonardo's penchant for pranks and puzzles might have led him to conceal his own identity behind the mysterious smile.  Indeed, some have used digital analysis to superimpose Leonardo's bearded self-portrait over the "Mona Lisa" to demonstrate how the facial features perfectly align.

Yet, given Leonardo's presumed homosexuality, others believe the painting hid an androgynous lover.

If authorities grant access to Leonardo's gravesite, the Italian researchers plan to use a tiny camera and ground-penetrating radar to confirm the presence of bones.

The experts would then exhume the remains and work to date the bones using carbon testing.

They also plan to use DNA testing to verify whether the remains are actually Leonardo's -- the central focus of the project.

However, Vezzosi questions whether or not a DNA comparison is possible, saying he is unaware of any direct descendants of Leonardo or of any remains that can conclusively be attributed to close relatives.

But Gruppioni said DNA from Leonardo's bones could be compared to DNA found elsewhere. For instance, Leonardo is believed to have smudged colors on the canvas with his thumb, possibly using saliva.  This would mean DNA might be found on his paintings.  However, Gruppioni acknowledges the odds are short.

In the absence of DNA testing, there are other tests could yield useful information, including whether the bones belonged to a man or woman, and whether the person was young or old when they died.

"We can have various levels of probability in the attribution of the bones," Gruppioni told the AP.

"To have a very high probability, DNA testing is necessary."

The experts would also attempt to identify evidence to shed light on Leonardo's cause of death. 

For instance, some diseases such as tuberculosis or syphilis leave significant traces in the bone structure, Vinceti said.

Under the best-case scenario of a well-preserved skull, the experts could use a CT scan to reconstruct the face, said anthropology professor Francesco Mallegni, who specializes in reconstructions.

Mallegni has recreated the faces of other famous Italians, including Dante.

Even members participating in the current project argue over the identity of the "Mona Lisa".

Vinceti said he believes a tradition of considering the self-portrait to be not just an imitation of one's features, but also a representation of one's spiritual identity, may have reverberated with Leonardo.

But Vezzosi dismissed the notion that the "Mona Lisa" could be a self-portrait of Leonardo, calling the idea "baseless and senseless".

The painting is "like a mirror: Everybody starts from his own hypothesis or obsession and tries to find it there," he told the AP.

Most scientists, he said, believe the woman may have been either a concubine of Leonardo's sponsor, the Florentine nobleman Giuliano de Medici, or Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a wealthy silk merchant named Francesco del Giocondo.

The traditional view is that the name "Mona Lisa" derives from the silk merchant's wife and its Italian name: "La Gioconda."