A team from Padua University has opened the marble sarcophagus containing the remains of Renaissance poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) and plans to recreate his face and body.
But when a 1-tonne marble slab was lifted from the writer's tomb in northeast Italy last month, scientists discovered that the wooden inner casket, dating from 1946, was rotten. The slab was replaced while alternative ways of moving the body without damaging it were considered.
When scientists have solved this problem, samples will be sent to the University of Tucson, Arizona, for carbon dating.
The Padua team, which includes orthopaedists, anthropologists, orthodontists and biologists, is headed by Vito Terribile Wiel Marin, a pathologist who has dedicated his career to examining historic tombs for evidence of all kinds.
Since 1981, Professor Terribile Wiel Marin has explored 65 tombs of saints, artists, scientists and statesmen dating from the 1st to the 18th century.
He said: "Once in the laboratory we will rebuild the skull, which is now in pieces, and send the data to Germany or the US for a computerised reconstruction of the face. From the bones we will establish Petrarch's height to within 1cm. Then we will take measures to preserve the remains before replacing them in the tomb.
"We will also examine documents that are inside the tomb, and which were left each time the tomb was officially opened. There are even papers dating from when Petrarch was first placed there, in 1380."
Petrarch died in 1374. His tomb was broken open in 1630 by a deranged monk who stole some arm bones. In 1843 and again in 1873 it was officially opened and the body examined. During the second world war the body was taken to Venice for safekeeping and was replaced in 1946.