BRUCE JOHNSTON THE bodies of 50 members of Florence's Medici dynasty - some of whom are believed to have been poisoned - are to be exhumed for forensic tests to determine how they lived and died.
The first members of the family, who ruled Florence from the 15th century to 1737, will be removed from the Medici Chapels in Michelangelo's church of San Lorenzo in June. Experts say DNA testing could yield some "sensational surprises" and also provide a true family tree, showing who was related - and who not - and who their natural fathers were.
The bodies, including eight grand dukes, will be submitted to medical and scientific tests for biological and genetic data under a programme run by the Universities of Florence and Pisa and Florence's museum authorities.
The declared purpose is to tap into the secrets and reconstruct the lifestyle of the colourful family.
Through the enormous wealth they reaped from commerce and banking, the Medicis rose to power and influence first in the city, then through the whole of Italy and finally Europe, producing three popes and two queens of France. They also became patrons of the arts, with a huge influence on Renaissance Florence.
Licia Bertani, in charge of the Medici Chapels in Florence, said: "It is an operation that will be carried out far away from indiscreet eyes, in the intimacy of the Laurentian Crypt.
"We will need at least a couple of years to complete the project, which calls for the exhumation of no fewer than 50 people, each kept in separate coffins."
A laboratory will be set up in the crypt, where the first tests will be carried out. Samples taken from the remains will then be transferred to the University of Pisa for more in-depth tests.
"By exhuming these illustrious corpses we will discover what illnesses they had, how they lived and how they died," Mrs Bertani said. "For example, there is supposed to have been gout in the family. But it might have been deforming arthritis instead."
Mrs Bertani said the Medicis had come to Florence from the Mugello area in northern Tuscany. "But their more distant origins may have been in the East. Some believe they may have been Jewish.
"We hope to find some in good condition. Cosimo the Elder's body, which is buried elsewhere, was exhumed not long ago, and it was still wearing a blue garment that was in quite good condition."
One likely outcome of the exhumations is that three-dimensional reconstructions of the faces of some of the family will be made.
"The Medicis were a rather ugly lot, especially after they became inter-related with the Habsburgs," Mrs Bertani said.
The dynasty was dominated by the figures of Cosimo the Elder, who was a patron to Brunelleschi, Donatello and Ghiberti, and his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent, who supported Michelangelo and Botticelli.
Lorenzo's son Giuliano, who became Pope Leo X, was patron to Raphael. Under his papacy, the Protestant Reformation began.
Alessandro de' Medici, who was made head of the Republic of Florence with the help of Pope Clement VII (also a Medici and then head of the family), is thought to have been Lorenzo's illegitimate son.