Skeleton Key? Leonardo Fanatics Dig Up Graves, Harvest DNA to Crack the Mona Lisa Code

Skeleton Key? Leonardo Fanatics Dig Up Graves, Harvest DNA to Crack the Mona Lisa Code
The alleged remains of Lisa Gherardini (the model who inspired "The Mona Lisa")
(Photo: Claudio Giovannini/AFP/Getty Images)

Archeologists working in Florence reported to AFP the discovery of the final resting place of Lisa Gherardini this week, potentially confirming a crucial fragment in the biography of one of the most recognizable personages in Western culture and art history. As the purported model for Leonardo da Vinci's "Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo," more popularly known as "La Gioconda" or the "Mona Lisa," Signora Gherardini has been a object of incessant speculation and wonder for five centuries; as with any international celebrity, even the most minor detail that might explain her poise, her countenance, or her uniquely cryptic and subtle simper has posed an unquestionable draw on the world's attention over the years.

And the discovery of the model's bones is far from minor. Historians renewed their focus on the life of Lisa Gherardini in 2008 when experts from the Hedelberg University Library announced they had found a description from the notebook of city official Agostino Vespucci of three works-in-progress by Leonardo, including a portrait of the fair wife of the Florentine textile merchant Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo. "All doubts about the identity of the 'Mona Lisa' have been eliminated," the university said at the time in a statement to Discovery News.

Researchers lead by Silvano Vinceti were further confident that they had found the tomb of Leonardo's model after finding a 15th-century base in the the Convent of St. Orsola. "After 1500, only two women were buried here: Mona Lisa Gherardini, in 1542, and another noblewoman, Maria del Riccio," the team told ANSA, later announcing that the other skeleton that had been exhumed did not belong to Lisa Gherardini.

When they announced plans to disinter the remains of Lisa Gherardini in April of last year, the proceedings were met by a wave of international attention — not all of it approvingNatalia Guicciardini Strozzi, an actress and bona fide descendant of Leonardo's muse, called the excavation "a sacrilegious act." "My ancestor's remains should be left to rest in peace," she told the Telegraph. "What difference would finding her remains make to the allure of Leonardo's painting?" 

Natalia's sense of propriety is to be expected for an heir to both the Gherardini and Strozzi titles, both of which were prominent art patrons in Renaissance Tuscany. But her objections ultimately failed to prevent Vinceti and his colleagues from reconstructing fragments of Gherardini's skull for comparison with the face in the iconic painting. The skeleton will also be the subject of delicate extraction of genetic, Vinceti told ABC News, which he plans to test "at the University of Bologna for DNA matches to the bones of Mona Lisa’s two sons."