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Digging Up Genius

Digging Up Genius

Scientists try to uncover the brilliance of Leonardo da Vinci.

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Leonardo da Vinci engineering drawings from 1503 on textured background.

Image credits:

 Janaka Dharmasena via Shutterstock

Tuesday, May 17, 2016 - 17:45

Joel Shurkin, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Artist, inventor, scientist, engineer, mathematician, Leonardo da Vinci almost singlehandedly spurred the Renaissance and moved western civilization out of the Dark Ages. He invented the helicopter almost half a millennia before anyone actually flew one. He painted the Mona Lisa, perhaps the most famous painting in the world, and the Last Supper.

A trans-Atlantic team of scientists hope to dig up his body in France, find living descendants, examine some of the things he handled, and extract DNA. The hope is to come to know more about da Vinci: What he looked like, how he lived his life, and perhaps understand how and why he was so gifted.

It is a project Leonardo probably would have loved.

Whether the scientists can pull it off is another matter. In three years it will be 500 years since Leonardo died and a lot of things can happen over the centuries that could thwart their efforts.

"We have no great discoveries to announce," said Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at the Rockefeller University in New York. "What we are doing now is announcing the project."

The Leonardo Project was born in Florence, Italy, is sponsored by the Tuscan Regional Council and is the subject of a special issue of the journal Human Evolution. The team joins researchers from all over Europe with counterparts from Rockefeller University in New York, and the J. Craig Venter Institute, of La Jolla, California and Rockville, Maryland. Their specialties span from biology to anthropology, genealogy to art history.

The project is similar to the one in England last year that identified the bones of King Richard III, which were found under a parking lot. Similar work is being done on Christopher Columbus and Miguel de Cervantes.

Leonardo was born out of wedlock in a Tuscan farmhouse in Italy in 1452, his mother possibly a slave from a region of Eastern Europe called Circassia. He did most of his work in Italy, sponsored for years by the de Medici family, fabled patrons of Renaissance art.

In 1515 he was offered the job of "Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect to the King" for Francis I of France. He died in Amboise in 1519 at the age of 67, a relatively old age for the time. He is believed to be buried in the local church, Saint-Hubert at the Château d'Amboise. Most of what we know of him comes from thousands of pages of journals, notes, and drawings.

The first problem the project will face is identifying his remains. In 1863, a skeleton was dug up from the church floor in Amboise by a disreputable art critic and impresario, who reported it was Leonardo's, and then reburied it. Determining whether that was true or wishful thinking is one of the tasks of the scientists.

They will try to identify the remains using bones from the tomb of da Vinci's father and paternal relatives known to be buried in Tuscany by comparing the DNA from those tombs and other family burial sites to the skeleton at the church. Genealogists have begun illuminating the da Vinci family tree using baptismal and death records, all of which could be full of errors after 20 or 25 generations, Ausubel admitted. They hope to find living relatives.

If they succeed they could be able to use the skull to recreate what he looked like, beyond what can be seen in his self-portrait, what he ate, where he lived, whether he was right or left-handed, his skin color, eye color, and any diseases or disorders. It might even be possible to explain historians' belief that he had extraordinary eyesight.

The French government, which controls the site, has rejected an application to dig up the remains up, but Ausubel said he hoped they can change the government's mind.

But, if the French government cannot be moved, other sources of DNA include things Leonardo may have handled, like the paintings and journals.

But, could the researchers extract enough information from just fingerprints on paintings and paper nearly 500 years old?

The answer, according to Lawrence Kobilinsky, professor and chairman of the Department of Science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, is probably not in this case.

"In theory you can do it, but boy this is a tough nut," he said.

Generally, it is possible to obtain sufficient genetic material from fingerprints, Kobilinisky said. Every time someone touches something, they leave behind epithelial cells that could contain enough genetic material to identify a person and tell a great deal about them. Law enforcement officers frequently makes use of this ability.

"Normally, the number of cells shed in a fingerprint is minimal," he said, but very sensitive testing often can find enough material. But all sorts of variables can get in the way, including whether the person has washed their hands before touching the object, who else touched it, or even the time of day the object was touched.

The notion that DNA can be obtained from a painting someone has touched is not that farfetched, he said. He has a colleague at Jay doing exactly that with a Jackson Pollack painting but Pollack did all kinds of things in creating his paintings, including dipping liquid paint, and squirting from basting syringes, and they are less than 100 years old.

Any genetic material used in this project will be at least 500 years old, he said. The possibility of contamination is great and genetic information fades with time. He doesn't think the project will succeed.

"I wouldn't bet a nickel on it," Kobilinsky said.

The problem is daunting, admitted Rhonda Roby, a professor of genetics at the Venter Institute, who helped identify the victims of 9/11.

"Age will be something of a challenge, yes," she said. But pushing the state-of-the art in forensic genetics is one of the goals of the project.

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Author Bio & Story Archive

Joel Shurkin, photo by Abigail Dunlap

Joel Shurkin is a freelance writer in Baltimore who has also taught journalism and science writing.