In 2011, news reports announced the fact that archaeologists had started digging at the location of the Convent of St Ursula in the centre of Florence, which was reported to be the final resting place of Lisa Gherardini. Art historians have long believed that Gherardini, the wife of a wealthy businessman, was the model for Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, finished in approximately 1506. However, in order to prove this once and for all, it is necessary to find the remains of Gherardini, reconstruct the skull and then attempt a facial reconstruction.
Despite this, finding the remains of Gherardini, which could be matched to the DNA of the bodies of her children, who are buried in a basilica in Florence, is not as straightforward as it sounds. For starters, finding the right remains is proving more difficult than hoped. Firstly, ground penetration technology was used to pinpoint the tombs within the crypt. Then there was a period of careful digging to ensure that the crypt was kept as well-preserved and undamaged as possible.
So far, archaeologists have found four bodies, the last of which was strongly hyped as the remains of Gherardini, but it has since been determined that it is the body of another rather wealthy Florentine woman who died some decades after Gherardini, who died in 1542. According to ledgers kept by nuns, the remains are probably those of Maria Del Riccio, whose death was in 1606.
Nevertheless, those involved in the dig are still convinced that Gherardini’s body could still be found. The bodies in the crypt under the convent are buried on top of one another, so there is still hope that, with careful digging, her body could be discovered underneath.
There are, however, plenty of people who are critical of the work that the research team at the convent, led by Silvano Vinceti, are doing. There are those who believe that the bodies should simply be left in peace. According to LiveScience, other researchers believe that the research methodology behind the dig is not scientific enough and, that in the hurry to find the body, not enough time is being given to study the context behind which the bodies were buried. In addition, facial reconstruction is not always as scientifically sound as it has been suggested and, even if a DNA link is found between a set of remains and Gherardini’s children, the remains could be that of a relative rather than Lisa Gherardini herself.
The belief that Gherardini was Da Vinci’s model stems from a claim made by 16th century art historian, Giorgio Vasari. That claim was later researched and substantiated by Giuseppe Pillanti who wrote a book called Mona Lisa Revealed, published in 2006. No doubt both Da Vinci and Gherardini herself would have been astonished to find that the painting was still so much in the public eye nearly 500 years after Gherardini’s death.