ROME (AP) - The legend of Leonardo da Vinci is shrouded in mystery: How did he die? Are the remains buried in a French chateau really those of the Renaissance master? Was the "Mona Lisa" a self-portrait in disguise?
A group of Italian scientists believes the key to solving those puzzles lies with the remains - and they say they are seeking permission from French authorities to dig up the body to conduct carbon and DNA testing.
If the skull is intact, the scientists can go to the heart of a question that has fascinated scholars and the public for centuries: the identity of the "Mona Lisa." Recreating a virtual and then physical reconstruction of Leonardo's face, they can compare it with the smiling face in the painting, experts involved in the project told The Associated Press.
"We don't know what we'll find if the tomb is opened, we could even just find grains and dust," says Giorgio Gruppioni, an anthropologist who is participating in the project. "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."
The leader of the group, Silvano Vinceti, told the AP that he plans to press his case with the French officials in charge of the purported burial site at Amboise Castle early next week.
But the Italian enthusiasm may be premature.
In France, exhumation requires a long legal procedure, and
precedent suggests it's likely to take even longer when it involves
a person of great note such as Leonardo.
Jean-Louis Sureau, director of the medieval-era castle located
in France's Loire Valley, said that once a formal request is made,
a commission of experts would be set up. Any such request would
then be discussed with the French Ministry of Culture, Sureau said.
Leonardo moved to France at the invitation of King Francis I,
who named him "first painter to the king." He spent the last
three years of his life there, and died in Cloux, near the
monarch's summer retreat of Amboise, in 1519 at age 67.
The artist's original burial place, the palace church of Saint
Florentine, was destroyed during the French Revolution and remains
that are believed to be his were eventually reburied in the
Saint-Hubert Chapel near the castle.
The tombstone says simply, "Leonardo da Vinci;" a notice at
the site informs visitors they are the presumed remains of the
artist, as do guidebooks.
"The Amboise tomb is a symbolic tomb; it's a big question
mark," said Alessandro Vezzosi, the director of a museum dedicated
to Leonardo in his Tuscan hometown of Vinci.
Vezzosi, who is not involved in the project, said that
investigating the tomb could help identify the artist's bones with
certainty and solve other questions, such as the cause of his
death. He said he asked to open the tomb in 2004 to study the
remains, but the Amboise Castle turned him down.
As for the latest Italian proposal, Vinceti says preliminary
conversations took place several years ago and he plans to follow
up with a request next week to set up a meeting to explain the
project in detail. This would pave the way for a formal request, he
The group of 100 experts involved in the project, called the
National Committee for Historical and Artistic Heritage, was
created in 2003 with the aim of "solving the great enigmas of the
past," said Vinceti, who has written books on art and literature.
Arguably the world's most famous painting, the "Mona Lisa"
hangs in the Louvre in Paris, where it drew some 8.5 million
visitors last year. Mystery has surrounded the identity of the
painting's subject for centuries, with speculation ranging from the
wife of a Florentine merchant to Leonardo's own mother.
That Leonardo intended the "Mona Lisa" as a self-portrait in
disguise is a possibility that has intrigued and divided scholars.
Theories have abounded: Some think that Leonardo's taste for pranks
and riddles might have led him to conceal his own identity behind
that baffling smile; others have speculated that, given Leonardo's
presumed homosexuality, the painting hid an androgynous lover.
Some have used digital analysis to superimpose Leonardo's
bearded self-portrait over the "Mona Lisa" to show how the facial
features perfectly aligned.
If granted access to the grave site, the Italian experts plan to
use a miniature camera and ground-penetrating radar - which
produces images of an underground space using radar waves- to
confirm the presence of bones. The scientists would then exhume the
remains and attempt to date the bones with carbon testing.
At the heart of the proposed study is the effort to ascertain
whether the remains are actually Leonardo's, including with DNA
Vezzosi questions the feasibility of a DNA comparison, saying he
is unaware of any direct descendants of Leonardo or of tombs that
could be attributed with certainty to the artist's close relatives.
Gruppioni said DNA extracted from the bones could also
eventually be compared to DNA found elsewhere. For example,
Leonardo is thought to have smudged colors on the canvas with his
thumb, possibly using saliva, meaning DNA might be found on his
paintings, though Gruppioni conceded this was a long shot.
Even in the absence of DNA testing, other tests could provide
useful information, including whether the bones belonged to a man
or woman, and whether the person died young or old.
"We can have various levels of probability in the attribution
of the bones," Gruppioni said. "To have a very high probability,
DNA testing is necessary."
The experts would also look for any pathology or other evidence
of the cause of death. Tuberculosis or syphilis, for example, would
leave significant traces in the bone structure, said Vinceti.
In the best-case scenario - that of a well-preserved skull - the
group would take a CAT scan and reconstruct the face, said
Francesco Mallegni, an anthropology professor who specializes in
reconstructions and has recreated the faces of famous Italians,
Even within the committee, experts are divided over the identity
of the "Mona Lisa."
Vinceti believes that a tradition of considering the
self-portrait to be not just a faithful imitation of one's features
but a representation of one's spiritual identity may have resonated
Vezzosi, the museum director, dismissed as "baseless and
senseless" the idea that the "Mona Lisa" could be a
self-portrait of Leonardo.
The painting is "like a mirror: Everybody starts from his own
hypothesis or obsession and tries to find it there," Vezzosi said
in a telephone interview.
He said most researchers believe the woman may have been either
a concubine of the artist's sponsor, the Florentine nobleman
Giuliano de Medici, or Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a rich silk
merchant, Francesco del Giocondo. The traditional view is that the
name "Mona Lisa" comes from the silk merchant's wife, as well as
its Italian name: "La Gioconda."
Copyright 2015 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.