ROME — A team of Italian and American scientists is about to dig up the Medicis, taking a new look at how the glitterati lived centuries ago.
Entire books, films and museums have been devoted to the lives of the Medicis, the powerful merchant family that ruled Tuscany during the Renaissance and sponsored much of its finest art.
The team of pathologists, archaeologists and historians is planning to exhume the bodies of 49 Medicis to study what they ate, what illnesses they suffered and a host of other information that was buried along with them in great marble crypts underneath the Medici Chapel in Florence.
It's one of the largest studies of its kind on European mummies of the 16th-18th centuries. And it is particularly unusual because it concerns such an elite group of people for whom there is already a vast amount of documentation with which new scientific findings can be compared, researchers say.
Rich and famous of the renaissance
"Studies have been done on crypts of monks, hundreds of Capuchin friars in southern Italy ... but nobody has ever worked on a royal population," said renowned mummy expert and one of the study's lead researchers, Professor Bob Brier of the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University. "In a sense, we're looking at the lifestyle of the rich and famous."
The goal of the two-year project, which is to be filmed for a documentary by The Learning Channel, is twofold: It will provide researchers with a better historic look at the Medici lives — their diet and how they were buried, for example. But perhaps more importantly, it will offer researchers a thorough medical history of one of the most renowned families in European history, said the project's chief, Dr. Gino Fornaciari, a University of Pisa professor specializing in the history of medicine.
"We can do a complete archive of their illnesses" by studying the germs, viruses, cancers and other ailments that afflicted them, he said in a recent telephone interview.
For example, the Medicis were known to have suffered from the painful arthritic disease gout, apparently because of a genetic predisposition that was compounded by a heavily meat-based diet, Fornaciari wrote in the study proposal. The condition even made it into a Medici name: Pietro il Gottoso, or Peter the Gout, was known to have suffered from it.
But because the documentation on the subject is incomplete, the researchers say they will be able to "write the medical history of the family again," using technology that has only become available in recent years to paleopathologists, who study diseases of ancient times.
"This area of activity is so new and there are so few of us involved in it in a serious way that almost anything we do, any information we can generate, is new information," said Dr. Arthur Aufderheide, a leading expert in the field and a professor of pathology at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine, who is also taking part.
DNA tests and CAT scans
Starting in July, the scientists will exhume 49 bodies buried in the Medici Chapel and conduct a series of tests on them, taking DNA samples from hair and bones, CAT scans and X-rays of intact mummies, and samples from whatever soft tissues remain.
The most well-known Medicis, including Lorenzo the Magnificent, Lorenzo, duke of Urbino, and Giuliano, duke of Nemours, will not be unearthed. Their remains lie in the chapel's New Sacristy, beneath lovely Michelangelo tombstones that were considered too fragile to move, Brier said.
The most prominent Medicis to be unearthed are Giovanni delle Bande Nere, who lived from 1498-1526; Duchess Eleonora di Toledo (1522-1562); Grand Duke Cosimo I (1519-1574); and Grand Duke Francesco I (1541-1587), among others.
Tests on their remains might help resolve some of the enduring mysteries about the clan, such as whether members thought to be murdered in fact died of natural causes, said Brier, an Egyptologist known for his theory about King Tut's violent death. The researchers will also assess what conservation is needed to preserve the remains for the future.
"It's not necessarily true that to leave them alone is the best possible answer," Brier said. "We don't know the humidity (inside the crypts), and humidity is the enemy of soft tissue."
The crypts have remained undisturbed for centuries, except for one known excavation in 1948 in which the tombs of Cosimo I and Eleonora di Toledo were opened, Fornaciari said. Their resplendent burial vestments are on display at Florence's Pitti Palace.
The great unknown is what conditions the other remains will be in. Cosimo and Eleonora were relatively well-preserved: Soft tissue remained, apparently because of a natural mummification process that dried out their tissues quickly.
Aufderheide said many of the Medicis were believed to have been naturally, or "spontaneously mummified" in this way without any embalming process — thanks in part to the high temperatures inside the crypts.
There was, however, a great flood in Florence in 1966 that could have damaged the crypts and remains. "We have to wait to see," Fornaciari said.
As with any project of its kind, the team had to receive authorization to unearth the bodies, since such studies have run into opposition from native populations, among others, who have objected to removing remains from their final resting places.
However, Italian authorities have signed off on the project, and during a recent Florence presentation by the scientists involved, a Medici descendant was on hand.
Brier said he assured the prince that his ancestors would be treated with respect.
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