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Science becomes soap opera in Italy

A  scientific mania has taken hold in Italy: the unearthing of the dead and famous.
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Workmen in yellow construction helmets lifted the shrunken cadaver from its stone tomb. Camera strobes from a clutch of paparazzi lit up the browned, gnarled face.

Gino Fornaciari, medical sleuth, gazed down at the remains of Cangrande della Scala, the most powerful man in the history of Verona. Was it possible that, as records say, a few drinks of foul water ended his life? Or was he poisoned, as the rumor went? It was high time to resolve the mystery. The man has been dead for 675 years.

It was a scene from a scientific mania in Italy: the unearthing of the dead and famous. Advances in forensics have unlocked new ways to explore the past through the inspection of skeletal remains. The opening of the crypt belonging to the warrior-prince eight days ago was a glimpse of things to come.

The exhumation was part of a dizzying round of investigations of royalty, saints, popes and other ancient notables. A researcher in northern Italy exhumed the body of the medieval poet Petrarch last year in order to study his physique, the cause of death and to make a model of his facial features. This summer, Fornaciari will begin exhuming 49 sets of remains belonging to the mighty Medici family in Florence.

"The body is a filing cabinet of daily life. We would be remiss not to see what's in there," Fornaciari said.

Such research makes big news in Italy, a place awash in bones, history and intrigue. For non-Italians, Italian history is largely a pageant of Roman conquests and Renaissance cultural achievements. For Italians, tales of provincial grandeur also arouse passions, a symptom of campanilismo, the traditional devotion to native towns.

'A taste for conspiracy'
The studies also fit well with Italian obsessions with food, fashion and betrayal. Chemical analyses of bones illuminate the subject's diet. Restorations of burial costumes reveal the styles of the time. And then there's the question of the manner of death. When murder is suspected, politics, money and marital infidelity are favorite motives. "We Italians have a taste for conspiracy," Fornaciari said. "There is a suspicion that anyone who dies suddenly is a murder victim. We can clear up these mysteries."

Cangrande, for instance, had enemies. He conquered the towns of Vicenza, Belluno, Feltre, Padua and, just before his death, Treviso, where some suspect he was slipped arsenic while he drank from a fountain.

His heirs took extraordinary steps to glorify his memory. They mummified him, a procedure usually reserved for saints and the occasional pope. His sarcophagus, adorned with an equestrian statue, was placed atop an arch leading into Santa Maria Antica Church so that anyone entering would have to pass beneath his remains. "He was transformed into the patron of Verona, a kind of human amulet," said Ettore Napione, a historian.

Verona is still nursing the trauma of Cangrande's death. "He made Verona great," said Mayor Paolo Zanotto, who was on hand for the exhumation. "For us, there is nothing to compare with him."

Cangrande, known as the Lord of Verona, was moved from his crypt on a blue Plexiglas slab. The workers wrapped him in plastic sheeting to keep dust off him. Verona museum officials tried feverishly to keep photographers away — they had contracted exclusive coverage of Cangrande's story to documentary filmmakers.

Physical examinations to be performed on Cangrande reflect an explosion of technologies, many developed to treat medical patients. DNA samples can pinpoint racial makeup. Chemical analysis of bones can detail diet and nutrition. Dental wear and tear hint at the kinds of food the subject ate. CAT scans show the conditions of organs. Bone deformities indicate certain kinds of physical activity — horseback riding, for instance — and even fashion: Renaissance women sometimes exhibit compressed ribs from wearing tight corsets. Heavy armor sometimes compressed the spines of knights.

'A detective of the distant past'
And, of course, wounds, broken bones and traces of poisons in fingernails and hair can point to a violent death or foul play. "I am in fact a detective of the distant past," Fornaciari said.

Fornaciari, a professor of medical history, teaches at Pisa University, Italy's center for study of the dead. In Italy, such activity began about 25 years ago when experts in Pisa inspected the skeleton of Saint Anthony of Padua.

A few mysteries needed elucidation. Did Saint Anthony eat only bread and water, as widely believed? Did he travel on foot for long distances spreading the Gospel? An analysis of his bone chemistry suggested he suffered from severe anemia, a possible indication of a meat-free diet. Well-developed tendons may indicate he did a lot of walking; his hardened knees suggest a lot of kneeling. "Biological examination matched tradition," said Francesco Mallegni, professor of paleontology at Pisa University.

The Italian media refer to Mallegni as the "professor of excellent cadavers" in recognition of the numerous studies he has made of defunct Italians. His identification of the remains of Giotto, an early Renaissance fresco painter, created a sensation a few years ago. Examinations of the body revealed concentrations of arsenic, lead and aluminum, probably from long exposure to paint. The toxic metals didn't seem to shorten his life. He died at about 70.

Last year, Mallegni published a book about his investigation into the death of Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, a medieval warrior who was the subject of a gruesome legend. Historians say he was jailed in Pisa along with his two sons and a pair of grandchildren on charges of treason and that they probably starved to death. Dante, Italy's supreme poet, expanded on the tale. In "The Inferno," he placed Ugolino in hell, condemning him to chew on the head of his tormentor, Archbishop Ruggieri, for eternity. In an ambiguous phrase, Dante suggested that Ugolino ate his offspring before he succumbed to hunger. "Fasting had more power than grief," Dante has him saying.

Mallegni said Dante's insinuations are false. Chemical examination of Ugolino's ribs — a portion of the body that stores information about diet from about five months before death — showed traces of magnesium, indicating a limited cereal diet, and no zinc, meaning he was deprived of meat and dairy products. In short, Ugolino did not seem to have eaten flesh before he died. "In any case, he was also an old man with hardly any teeth," Mallegni said. "Dante's poem is beautiful, but it does not match the facts."

The imminent Medici family examinations have aroused a buzz due the resurrection of Elvis, John Lennon and Buddy Holly combined — and surprisingly, very little controversy among church and other officials.

Juicy mysteries afoot
The Medici clan was the glitterati of its time and dominated the politics of Renaissance Florence. The 49 sets of remains to be inspected lie beneath a marble floor of the Medici chapels within the San Lorenzo Church. They are all descendants of Cosimo I, who ruled Florence in the mid-16th century and was the model for Machiavelli's "The Prince." Remains from an earlier ruling branch of the family lie in tombs decorated with Michelangelo sculptures and will not be exhumed.

The research aims at revealing the diets and illnesses of the deceased. Renaissance documents report that many died of gout. Historians think that, however, is a generic description, much the way that consumption was listed as cause of death of many Americans in the 19th century for lack of more precise designations.

There are plenty of juicy murder mysteries afoot. Was Francesco I poisoned in 1587 along with his second wife, Bianca Capello, by a rival Medici brother? She was a Venetian and not liked by the rest of the family.

Did the noble Paolo Giordano Orsini kill his wife and suspected adulteress, Isabella de Medici, in 1576 by strangling her with a silk ribbon? Official records said she died of malaria.

And how about Pietro de Medici and the sudden death of his wife, Leonora di Toledo, in 1604? Another suspected spousal strangulation for — what else? — infidelity. That's amore.