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Exhumation at Sant'Orsola

Photographs of the former convent of Saint Ursula (Sant’Orsola) by Tanya Marcuse
  • By James Romm
  • Issue 7
  • On Beauty

On July 13, in Porto Ercole, on Italy’s western coast, an immense crowd watched a solemn ceremony. Four bones, said to have come from the long-lost corpse of Caravaggio, were interred in a bizarre funerary monument, an immense casket topped by a bowl of fruit resembling the one in his famous portrait of Bacchus. Silvano Vinceti, a former television host turned historical researcher, had found the bones in 2010. His fifteen-year forensic quest has seen the exhumations of Dante, Petrarch, Pico della Mirandola, and Poliziano.

Vinceti’s career is not without controversy: he’s a showman, Indiana Jones with a dash of Dan Brown. Vinceti left broadcasting for bone-hunting in 2000, after he was approached by an antiquarian seeking the remains of the fifteenth-century poet Boiardo. His 2007 discovery of high arsenic levels in the bones of Angelo Poliziano and Giovanni Pico, two Florentine philosophers who perished suddenly and mysteriously within a few weeks of one another in 1494 (the same year Boiardo died), appears to confirm the long-held suspicion that both men were murdered—Vinceti has theories as to why and by whom. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the investigation was that it happened at all; academic historians have neither the means nor, in most cases, the time to reopen such centuries-old cold cases. Like Heinrich Schliemann, the bull-headed German banker who found the sites of Troy and Mycenae in the late nineteenth century, Vinceti is an amateur drawn to relics like a dowser to water.

The skeleton of Lisa Gherardini, whom he believed to be the model for Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, was disinterred in 2013 at the former convent of Saint Ursula (Sant’Orsola) despite the early objections of Gherardini’s living descendants, who later came to favor the exhumation, and ongoing opposition from some skeptical Florentines. Previously, Vinceti had proposed that the model for the Mona Lisa was a man, Leonardo’s apprentice Gian Caprotti, on the basis of her “androgynous” features and a number—72—he discerned under the bridge in the far background of the painting. A positive identification of Gherardini’s bones might have made possible a facial reconstruction, forever linking that famous smile with the moldering skull and broken teeth once beneath it. No such luck—in late October, Vinceti announced that the recovered skeleton had not yielded enough valid DNA to identify the model. She remains a mystery; he’s off after the remains of another missing Renaissance artist, Antonello of Messina.

James Romm is the James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Classics at Bard College and author of several books, including Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero (Knopf).

Photos of the former convent of Saint Ursula (Sant’Orsola) by Tanya Marcuse