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Mona Lisa tomb hunt starts

Experts hoping to reconstruct famous face

20 May, 18:11
Mona Lisa tomb hunt starts

(ANSA) - Florence - A hunt has started for the tomb and possible remains of the model for Leonardo's Mona Lisa in an ex-convent in her home town, Florence.

If enough is discovered, experts may be able to reconstruct the woman's face and find out more about that famous smile.

"I'm reasonably confident we're going to find something," said Silvano Vinceti, an art historian who has found the bones of Caravaggio and reconstructed the faces of other artists based on their skulls.

Vinceti and his team have started using a 'georadar' device to scan underneath an ex-chapel in the old convent of St Ursula, and will then move onto the cloisters.

"We're looking underneath the cement that was laid down when the convent was supposed to be turned into a barracks in the 1980s. Eventually we'll start digging," he said.

The aim is to find the DNA of Lisa Gherardini Del Giocondo and compare it with that of two her children buried in Florence's Santissima Annunziata church.

"Subsequently, we're hoping to reconstruct her physiognomy," Vinceti said.

Media from around the world converged on the ex-seat of the Ursuline nuns to cover the start of the search.

Crews from Russia, Japan, France, the UK and the Arab world were among those filming as Vinceti and his team began their scanning. Despite being in the heart of Florence, the ex-convent is now an extremely run-down, almost dilapidated building.

The sprawling three-story Sant'Orsola building dates back to 1309 but ceased to be used as a convent in 1810, when it was turned into a tobacco factory.

It was used to shelter WWII refugees in the 1940s and '50s before housing university classrooms in the following decades and then falling into disuse and becoming a dump.

The site has stood semi-derelict with its windows bricked-up since building work to re-develop it as offices for Italy's Guardia di Finanza tax police were abandoned in 1985.

Leonardo sleuth Giuseppe Pallanti has published a book arguing the former convent "must be" the last resting place of La Gioconda.

Pallanti, who unveiled his findings in 2007, said he was "sure she's down there".

The excavations were the "natural continuation of my archival work", he said.

"I've pored over thousands of archive pages and I'm convinced the remains of Lisa Gherardini were buried there".

Pallanti has said his research has wiped away all doubt about the identity of La Gioconda, as the Italians call the Mona Lisa because of the surname of her husband, Giocondo.

"It was her, Lisa, the wife of the merchant Francesco del Giocondo - and she lived right opposite Leonardo in Via Ghibellina," Pallanti said.

IDENTITY NOW AGREED ON.

Most modern scholars have now agreed with Pallanti that the Mona Lisa sitter was Lisa del Giocondo, who according to the Italian researcher became a nun after her husband's death and died in the convent on July 15, 1542, aged 63.

The couple were married in 1495 when the bride was 16 and the groom 35.

It has frequently been suggested that del Giocondo commissioned Leonardo to paint his Mona Lisa (mona is the standard Italian contraction for madonna, or "my lady,") to mark his wife's pregnancy or the recent birth of their second child in December 1502.

Although pregnancy or childbirth have frequently been put forward in the past as explanations for Mona Lisa's cryptic smile, other theories have not been lacking - some less plausible than others.

Some have argued that the painting is a self-portrait of the artist, or one of his favourite male lovers in disguise, citing the fact that Da Vinci never actually relinquished the painting and kept it with him up until his death in Amboise, France in 1519.

The most curious theories have been provided by medical experts-cum-art lovers.

One group of medical researchers has maintained that the sitter's mouth is so firmly shut because she was undergoing mercury treatment for syphilis which turned her teeth black.

An American dentist has claimed that the tight-lipped expression was typical of people who have lost their front teeth, while a Danish doctor was convinced she suffered from congenital palsy which affected the left side of her face and this is why her hands are overly large.

A French surgeon has also put forth his view that she was semi-paralysed, perhaps as the result of a stroke, and that this explained why one hand looks relaxed and the other tense.

Leading American feminist Camille Paglia simply concluded that the cool, appraising smile showed that "what Mona Lisa is ultimately saying is that males are unnecessary".