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Mona Lisa Researchers Work to Find Woman Behind Famous Painting

Image: DNA could confirm Mona Lisa identity

An Italian forensic anthropologist enters the Del Giocondo family tomb holding the remains of Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo and his children at the Santissima Annunziata church in Florence on April 29. Experts took DNA samples from the remains of family members of Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo to determine whether she was the sitter for Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. MAURIZIO DEGL' INNOCENTI / EPA

FLORENCE -- A team of researchers say they are one step closer to solving one of art history’s biggest mysteries: the real identity of the Mona Lisa, the woman portrayed in Leonardo da Vinci’s, and arguably the world’s, most famous painting.

A team of researchers took samples Tuesday from Renaissance-era remains in Florence, Italy, to see if they can match another set of bones to the woman suspected to have been Da Vinci's subject.

Art historians believe that the woman who sat for da Vinci was most likely Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a wealthy silk merchant who lived in Florence in the 16th century, at the same time as the great Renaissance artist. The clues in favor of this theory are difficult to contest: the painting is also known in Italy as “La Gioconda”, and Gherardini’s husband was called Francesco del Giocondo.

“I am sure Lisa Gherardini is the original Mona Lisa .... I am less sure I can find her”.

In a document discovered in 2005 at Heidelberg University in Germany, Renaissance art historian Giorgio Vasari wrote that "Leonardo undertook to paint, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife." But in the absence of a verified portrait of Lisa Gherardini, it was never possible to get the unequivocal proof she was the model behind the painting.

Until now.

Silvano Vinceti, the director of the privately funded National Committee for the Promotion of Historic and Cultural Heritage, is leading an ambitious research project that aims to perform a 3-D reconstruction of Mrs. Gherardini’s face starting from the features of her skull. “I am sure Lisa Gherardini is the original Mona Lisa,” he told NBC NEWS in Florence. “I am less sure I can find her”.

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Vinceti has embarked on a two-year long search of Gherardini’s remains. On Tuesday his team descended in her family’s tomb in the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata in Florence and took samples from the remains of her husband and son. Their DNA will be compared with the remains of eight people unearthed in 2012 from a crypt in a nearby convent, where Gherardini is thought to be buried with her daughter, who was a nun there.

If any of the skulls recovered from the convent match the DNA of the Del Giocondo family, a team of forensic anthropologists from the University of Bologna will create a computer-generated 3-D reconstruction of Gherardini’s face.

If successful, after more than 500 years art lovers will be able to put a name to the one of the most recognized faces in history.