Article posted Tuesday, February 25, 2014 12:15pm

‘Mona Lisa” by Leonardo Da Vinci

Anthropologists and archaeologists recently discovered dozens of skeletons from people buried in a “thousand-year-old graveyard” located around an abandoned medieval church in Altopascio, Italy. The researchers are learning a great deal about the people and culture of Italy from 1039 to about 1600 AD. They hope examination of the coffins, skeletons, and human remains will reveal when and where the people were born, what they ate, what diseases they suffered and died from, and how their health varied by social class over time.

Two early findings in Naples pique the imagination. The mummy of an upper class woman named Maria d’Aragona had a rotted bandage on one arm. When the bandage was removed, a large ulcer was found, and tests with labeled antibodies showed the presence of the syphilis bacterium. Maria also harbored papillomavirus in a venereal wart. Sexually transmitted diseases were widespread in Renaissance Italy, even within the aristocracy.

Also, in Naples the researchers found Maria’s distant relative, Duchess Isabella d’Aragona, who is purported to have been the model for Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Examination of Isabella’s skeleton by the lead anthropologist showed that Isabella’s teeth were missing much of their enamel, and what was left was black. No wonder she avoided smiling when Da Vinci painted her portrait. Discoloration of her teeth was a sign she had been taking mercury, a common but ineffective means of treating syphilis. Lab tests showed that the black patina on her teeth did indeed contain a lot of mercury. Isabella may live on as the Mona Lisa, but she probably died a victim of her own “medicine” at age 54. (Science, Dec. 13, 2013)