Unmasking Mona Lisa: Will scientists discover her true identity through DNA and radiocarbon testing?
The identity of the woman who sat for Leonardo da Vinci’s world renowned painting, The Mona Lisa, is a mystery that researchers have long sought an answer to.
Most experts believe the woman depicted in the famous painting is Lisa Gherardini Del Giocondo, and that several remains found in a convent in Florence in 2011 could be her. They exhumed Del Giocondo family members who were buried in a separate family tomb that was opened in 2013 for the first time in centuries in an attempt to determine if it is really her through DNA matching. However, DNA tests on Gherardini’s sons reportedly failed.
The chair of Italy's National Committee for the valorization of historic, cultural and environmental heritage, Silvano Vinceti says that comparison of DNA from the remains found in the convent to that of Gherardini's children, who are buried in the family tomb, will not be possible, as previously thought, reports Arts Culture & Style (ANSA). Vinceti tells ANSA that “extracting DNA from Gherardini's family was impossible.”
Instead, carbon-14 dating tests are now hoped to confirm that the human remains found in the Florence convent date back to the 16 th century. If so, they may be connected to the death of Lisa Gherardini, who was recorded to have died in the convent July 15, 1542.
The skull and remains exhumed from beneath a convent in Florence thought to be Lisa Gherardini, who posed for Leonardo da Vinci. Credit: EPA
Lisa Gherardini Del Giocondo, known today as ‘La Gioconda’ was a silk merchant’s wife who lived across the street from da Vinci. It is believed Lisa's husband Francesco Del Giocondo commissioned the portrait to celebrate either Lisa's pregnancy or the purchase of a house around 1502 and 1503. However, da Vinci took the portrait with him to France rather than giving it to the Del Giocondo family, something that puzzles art historians to this day.
Here is one possible explanation: In 2016, Vinceti came forward with a claim that the Mona Lisa was not just based on Lisa Gherardini. Instead, Vinceti stated the painting was created as a combination of the wealthy merchant’s wife and someone much closer to da Vinci - Gian Giacomo Caprotti, more often recognized by his nickname, Salai. Salai was Leonardo’s apprentice and possibly his lover. Vinceti told The Telegraph , “You see it particularly in Mona Lisa’s nose, her forehead and her smile. We’ve come up with an answer to a question that has divided scholars for years – who was the Mona Lisa based on.”
The Mona Lisa may or may not represent some elements of Salai’s appearance, but regardless of that aspect, Vinceti says the radiocarbon dating on the human remains will make it possible to confirm “with a very high probability, that we have found the Gioconda,” writes ANSA.
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The idea that the remains of several human beings have been exhumed and tested due to a painting – albeit a famous one – instead of for perhaps more imperative reasons, has some experts confounded.
Doubts were voiced about the ethics or legitimacy behind the quest to unmask the Mona Lisa in the 2011 article “ Is buried skeleton what remains of real Mona Lisa?”
CBS News writes:
But some outside researchers are skeptical about the validity of the project. Writing for the archaeology website Past Horizons, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill anthropologist Kristina Killgrove pointed out that facial reconstruction is an unreliable art. 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.
In addition, other scientists acknowledge that genetic tests of the Del Giocondo family crypt would have undoubtedly found Del Giocondo DNA. However, “It's kind of a circular argument there. You've identified this individual, okay, that's terrific, but they're still grasping to make links between this individual and the Mona Lisa,” says Monty Dobson, an archaeologist at Drury University in Missouri, to Live Science .
Depending upon the results of the anticipated radiocarbon dating tests, the scientific and art communities may have confirmed the identity of da Vinci’s neighbor, Lisa Gherardini Del Giocondo.
Will those results, and an accompanying facial reconstruction based upon a skull, be enough to unmask the mysterious Mona Lisa?
Featured Image: Detail of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting, The Mona Lisa. It now hangs in the Louvre in Paris. Public Domain
By Liz Leafloor
To me, it is like identifying the remains in the tomb of the unknown, perhaps it is better to leave a little mystery unsolved. Without DNA, nearly anything else will be argued....
Leave the Mona Lisa alone. She gives us enhanced pleasure when she is surrounded by mystery.and she doesn’t need to be dug up just to spoil that. We really have no need to know who sat for the painting and her magical smile was much nicer looking then than it is now!