Lifestyle & Belief

Could this skeleton be what remains of the lady behind the "Mona Lisa"?

Archaeologists excavating beneath an ancient nunnery in Florence on Thursday may have found the skeleton of Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, the 16th century woman who is believed to have been the model for the world's most famous painting, Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa."

A grave found beneath the floor of the convent of St. Ursula contained a complete and connected skeleton that had partially collapsed. The skeleton is believed to be female, but more tests are required to be certain, Discovery News reported on Friday.

If the skeleton is female, it would be an important step in finally establishing the identity of the mysterious "Mona Lisa."  Many ideas about the lady have been put forth, including conjectures that she was the artist's mother, a noblewoman, a courtesan, a prostitute or even a man.

However, most scholars now believe that the "Mona Lisa" is a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, a member of a minor noble family of rural origins.

Gherardini is believed to have married a merchant named Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo, the Los Angeles Times said. Some say that he commissioned Da Vinci to paint the portrait of his wife to celebrate the birth of a child. The painting's Italian title, "La Gioconda," refers to her married name.

The researchers were led to the skeletal remains in the convent by historical records, including her death certificate, discovered a few years ago, CBS News said. After her husband's death, Gherardini reportedly spent the last two years before she died in 1542 at St. Ursula in Florence.

Only a battery of scientific tests will prove whether the skeleton was that of a woman who lived during the correct time period, said art historian Silvano Vinceti, who is overseeing the project for the National Committee for the Enhancement of Historic, Cultural and Environmental Assets, according to Ansa. The tests will include a carbon-14 test to date the skeleton, other exams to determine its age, and a test to compare its DNA with that of two of Mona Lisa's children, buried in Florence's Santissima Annunziata church.

The project aims to find Mona Lisa's bones and possibly reconstruct her face to see if her facial features match those of the painting hanging at the Louvre museum in Paris, Discovery News said. The comparison might solve the enigma around Mona Lisa's famous smile as well as establish definitively her identity. Different theories say that she was happily pregnant, or affected by one of many possible disorders, ranging from facial paralysis to compulsive gnashing of teeth.

Some researchers are skeptical about the project. Writing for the archaeology website Past Horizons, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill anthropologist Kristina Killgrove contended that facial reconstruction is an unreliable undertaking, according to CBS News.

Many attempts at facial reconstruction have been done on famous specimens, from King Tut to the paleo-Indian Kennewick Man to a bog woman named Moora, Killgrove wrote. "In spite of what the researchers who commissioned the reconstructions say," Killgrove wrote, "the alternate faces of each of these three long-dead people bear only a passing similarity to one another, even though they were based on the same relatively complete skull."