updated 4/7/2011 11:49:14 AM ET 2011-04-07T15:49:14

The woman believed to have inspired Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa may be exhumed in a bid to recreate her face, Italian researchers announced this week.

Most scholars believe that the Mona Lisa, known as La Gioconda in Italian or La Joconde in French, is the portrait of Lisa Gherardini, a member of a minor noble family of rural origins who married the wealthy merchant Francesco del Giocondo.

"Her life is no longer a mystery," said Giuseppe Pallanti, who carried out extensive research on the Renaissance woman.

Pallanti, who is not involved in the project, traced back Lisa's life from her birth on June 15, 1479 to her death at the age of 63. He discovered that Lisa died in the convent of Sant'Orsola, a now derelict building in the heart of Florence.

The hunt for her bones will start there later this month.

"Ground-penetration radar used in an initial survey revealed the likely presence of a crypt in the grounds below the convent's church. We believe Lisa Gherardini is buried there," Silvano Vinceti, the president of an organization called the National Committee for the Promotion of Historic and Cultural Heritage, announced at a news conference in Florence this week.

The project aims to find Lisa's bones and possibly reconstruct her face using carbon dating, DNA analysis and forensic techniques.

"We could compare the DNA that we find in the bones to that of Bartolomeo and Piero, Lisa's children who are buried in the church of Santissima Annunziata in Florence," Francesco Mallegni, an anthropologist at Pisa's university, said.

If enough skull fragments are found, Mallegni will try to reconstruct Lisa's facial features, in order to see if her face matches that of the iconic painting hanging at the Louvre museum in Paris.

The comparison might solve the enigma around Mona Lisa's famous smile as well as her identity. Among the innumerable speculations, there were conjectures that she was the artist's mother, a noblewoman, a courtesan, a prostitute or even a man.

Theories also abound that the sitter was happily pregnant, or affected by various diseases ranging from facial paralysis to compulsive gnashing of teeth.

Known for controversial claims such that letters and numbers are hidden inside the Mona Lisa painting, Vinceti has based his search in the convent on documents found by Pallanti some years ago.

One document is Francesco del Giocondo's will in which the merchant asks his younger daughter, Marietta, to take care of his "beloved wife," Lisa.

At that time, Marietta, one of Lisa and Francesco's five children, had become a nun, thus she brought her mother to the nearby convent of Sant'Orsola.

Lisa died four years after her husband's death, at the age of 63, according to a document known as a "Book of the Dead," found by Pallanti in a church archive.

"Lisa di Francesco Del Giocondo died on July 15, 1542 and was buried in Sant'Orsola," the document states.

The record notes that the whole parish turned out for her funeral, showing that she was rather famous among Florentine society.

"The project is indeed based on important documents," Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Museo Ideale in the Tuscan town of Vinci, where the the master was born in 1452, told Discovery News.

"If successful, the research might help in answering several questions about Lisa Gherardini. For example, we don't know why she wasn't buried with her husband in the family tomb," Vezzosi said.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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