Archaeologists excavating an abandoned nunnery in Florence on Thursday unearthed a complete skeleton that might belong to Lisa Gherardini, the woman believed to have inspired Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa.

Found beneath the floor of an ancient church in the now derelict Convent of St. Ursula, the grave contained a whole and connected skeleton, which had partially collapsed under the weight of the earth.

"Preliminary analysis of fragments of the cranium and the pelvis suggest that this was an adult female," Giorgio Gruppioni, an anthropologist at the University of Bologna, told reporters.

"However, we need to excavate all the bone remains before we can definitively determine the skeleton's sex,” he said.

The project aims to find Lisa's bones and possibly reconstruct her face in order to see if her facial features match 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. Theories abound that the sitter was happily pregnant or affected by various diseases, ranging from facial paralysis to compulsive gnashing of teeth.

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Among the innumerable speculations about the lady’s identity, there were conjectures that she was the artist's mother, a noblewoman, a courtesan, a prostitute or even a man.

However, 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. She did exist and lived a rather ordinary life," 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 St. Ursula, a now ruined building in the heart of Florence.

According to Silvano Vinceti, president of the National Committee for the Promotion of Historic and Cultural Heritage, the private organization in charge of the bone hunt, the recent discovery is important as it is the first time that a virtually complete skeleton has been found in the convent.

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Indeed, since the beginning of the project in April, the researchers have only found bone fragments. Much excitement was generated last week, when archaeologists unearthed a "female-sized" skull in a crypt 5 feet under the convent's floor.

The skeleton and all the bones unearthed beneath the convent will undergo radiocarbon dating, hystological analysis and DNA testing.

Comparisons will be made with the DNA of Bartolomeo and Piero, Lisa's children who are buried in the church of Santissima Annunziata in Florence.

"The discovery of a complete skeleton is a very exciting development. The burial is consistent with the historical period in which Lisa Gherardini died, with her somber lifestyle, and with our records,” Vinceti said.

Known for controversial claims, like 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.

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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 (with the name of "Sister Ludovica"), thus she brought her mother to the nearby St. Ursula convent.

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.

Photo: The now derelict Convent of St. Ursula in Florence (Sailko/Wikimedia Commons).