> ANSA English > News

Mona Lisa tomb hunt set to start

Experts optimistic they'll find DNA at ex-convent in Florence

14 April, 14:42
Mona Lisa tomb hunt set to start

(ANSA) - Florence - The hunt is set to start for the tomb and possible remains of the model for Leonardo's Mona Lisa in an ex-convent in her home town, Florence.

"I'm sure her tomb is in there," said Leonardo scholar Giuseppe Pallanti, who in 2007 said he had traced the burial place of merchant's wife Lisa Gherardini to the former Convent of St Ursula, in the heart of Florence.

Radar scans have located a crypt under one of the ex-convent's two churches and the search will begin in earnest on April 27, experts said.

Once the DNA of the woman thought to be Gherardini is found, they said, it will be compared with that of two of her children buried in Florence's Santissima Annunziata church.

Despite its central location, the ex-seat of the Ursulines 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.

Despite Pallanti's confidence, the chances of finding the tomb of merchant Francesco del Giocondo's wife are slim, according to British experts cited on the Internet.

"Hopes of tracing her tomb have been dashed after it emerged that building works at the site in the 1980s saw its crypts wantonly excavated and their contents destroyed," the experts said in October.

But Italian experts who are set to start combing the site think there is reason to believe the tomb might have survived "in natural rock cavities that may have housed a small graveyard on the margins of what were once the cloisters".

"This will be the prime focus of our search," they said.

Pallanti said the excavations were the "natural prosecution of my archival work".

"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 when he unveiled his findings in 2007.

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".