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The skull with the Mona Lisa smile

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Author Topic: The skull with the Mona Lisa smile  (Read 300 times)
Mia Knight
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« on: May 28, 2011, 03:15:41 pm »

In a recent attention-seeking gambit, Silvano Vinceti – Italy’s self-proclaimed art history super-sleuth – decided to dig up the remains of Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo[11], the woman who likely posed for or inspired Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa[12].  Gherardini’s death certificate, discovered in 2007[13], suggests she was buried in a crypt under the floor at St. Ursula’s convent in Florence[14].  In April of this year, Vinceti announced his intention to find the long-forgotten tombs under the convent, excavate them, isolate any bones that match the age and sex of Gherardini, confirm this through DNA analysis, piece together the skull fragments, complete a facial reconstruction, and determine once and for all that Lisa Gherardini was indeed the Mona Lisa[15].  Seemingly a tall order and a convoluted process, but on May 11, the archaeological team started digging[16].  A day or two later, the team announced they had found a staircase leading to the crypt[17] as well as two tombs and a brick vault[18].  And on May 20, they announced the finding of a female-sized skull[19].  The recently published photographs of the bones that may be Gherardini’s show that the skull was quite damaged and the other skeletal elements are quite fragmentary.

Assuming the archaeologists have found Gherardini’s skull (that is, assuming it can be DNA typed to her relatives), facial reconstruction from these remains cannot be anywhere near precise.  Tutankhamen[20], Kennewick Man[21],[22],[23], and Moora[24] were all subject to multiple facial reconstructions performed by independent forensic artists.  In spite of what the researchers who commissioned the reconstructions say, 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.  Superimposition of a partially-transparent Mona Lisa image over an x-ray of Gherardini’s broken skull may very well show that some anatomical features of the face are aligned, but it is not possible to conclusively identify Gherardini as the Mona Lisa from facial reconstruction.

The rapid, staccato pace at which Silvano Vinceti and his team are releasing information to the media shows his ability to harness public interest in his theory about the woman behind the famous Mona Lisa painting. Vinceti himself, though, is quite a controversial figure.  In June 2010, he claimed to have found the remains of Caravaggio[25], a claim that was quickly disputed[26]. He claimed in January to have found the symbols S, L, and 72 in Mona Lisa’s eyes[27], but art historians called his evidence unsubstantial.  In February, Vinceti claimed a male model may have posed for the Mona Lisa[28], a theory that a Da Vinci expert called “groundless.”  On the other hand, some news media portray Vinceti as “a modern-day Indiana Jones investigator”[29] and “art’s self-styled super-sleuth.”[30] These reports tend to characterize him as a researcher on a tenacious quest for the truth.  The Wall Street Journal, however, has noted that Vinceti is neither a trained historian nor a scientist – he is a TV host and producer – and that his “colleagues” in Italian art history note his “wicked use of the mass media” to distract the public from serious historical inquiry.[31]

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