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Is Research Exhumation Going Too Far?

David Nishimura at Cronaca (in a post on December 21, Medici Exhumations) drew my attention to the latest research exhumation, reported in the Telegraph. The bodies of 50 members of the Medici family, including eight grand dukes, will be removed from their family tomb in San Lorenzo in Florence by researchers from the University of Florence and University of Pisa, in order to conduct medical and scientific tests, including DNA mapping. The possible finds are tantalizing: causes of death (some of the Medici are believed to have been poisoned) and the true family tree (who was or was not actually related to whom). I admit that I am very interested to learn what they find, but I also worry that this sort of action is taking historical research one step too far.

Forensic researchers are able to do good work with identifying unidentified remains, such as those of Ugolino della Gherardesca, the 'Cannibal Count' made famous in Dante's Inferno (see this article from Zoomata). The same researcher, Francesco Mallegni, also supposedly identified the remains of Saint Ranieri, patron of Pisa, and the painter Giotto (see this article from September 2000, but also this criticism of the exhumation in November 2000). However, should we really be digging up Petrarch's bones again? Researchers from the University of Padua were the latest to do just that, on November 19. There are pictures from the exhumation in this article from Discovery News. They plan to use scanning technology to reconstruct the poet's face from his skull.

As far as I know, there is no ethical watchdog to govern these sorts of exhumations. Maybe it's time for historians and scientists to discuss this.

I should not have forgotten to mention the exhumation of Federico García Lorca, which will soon take place in Spain. Elizabeth Kolbert wrote an interesting article about this ("Looking for Lorca," not available online) in the December 22/29 issue of The New Yorker.

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