Researchers from the universities of Florence, Pisa, Long Island and Minnesota have finally opened the first three of 49 tombs of members of the Medici dynasty, who ruled Florence and much of Tuscany during the Renaissance.
Operation Medici began on May 25 with the opening of the tomb of Giovanni de' Medici in the Medici Chapels in Florence. The original plan was to open all 49 tombs over two years. But after the first exhumation the general opinion is that the timetable will be rescheduled.
An international team of paleopathologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, molecular biologists and medical historians is investigating illnesses, diet, causes of death - anything that can shed light on how the Medici lived and died. The project, co-ordinated by Gino Fornaciari of Pisa University, is being financed by the Discovery Channel, which in exchange has exclusive film rights for one year.
The remains of Giovanni are being preserved by Florence University, while samples are being studied in Pisa's laboratories. Giovanni and his brother Garzia, also buried in the Medici chapels, were sons of Cosimo de' Medici and were 19 and 15 respectively when they died of malaria. Attention will then turn to the Medici tombs in the chapels of the Basilica of San Lorenzo. The project will cover members of the family from Giovanni delle Bande Nere (1498-1526) to Giovan Gastone de' Medici (1671-1737), including some who died in infancy.
"We found the bones in excellent condition," said Rosalba Ciranni, biologist and anatomopathologist at Pisa. "They were undamaged by the 1966 flood that filled the chapels with mud."
The consensus of those involved in the project is that the tombs will be opened one by one, probably over a period of several years, so that practical experience will be carried on from one to the next. Pisa medical historian Donatella Lippi added that the more cautious approach was decided on, "so we do not have too many tombs open at the same time".
Among the mysteries to be investigated are the October 1587 deaths of Francesco I de' Medici and his wife Bianca Cappello. The official history claims they were both struck down by malaria, but over 400 years later a strong suspicion of arsenic poisoning has never been dispelled.