The Italian Almanac

Dr Bob Brier flanked by his Italian counterparts, Dr Gino Fornaciari and Dr Donatella Lippi, studying the remains of the Medici

Italian History - March 20

Florence was the cultural center of Europe, home to the Renaissance. Responsible for the cultural development in Florence was the Medici, one of history’s most powerful families. It ruled Florence through the Renaissance and well into the 18th century. Bankers, merchants, popes and princes, they were also benefactors and protectors to artists, architects and scientists. The family funded Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel and Da Vinci’s portrait of Mona Lisa. It gave protection to Galileo when his scientific theories came under attack by religious figures.

It is thus perhaps not surprising that the Medici is the subject of a documentary that will be aired over the Discovery Channel on Astro this week. For despite the fact that it was one of history’s most illustrious clans, little is known about the way it lived or died. What killed the sons of the dominant Medici Cosimo I? Was it malaria as claimed or was it a double murder, as many believe?

Nearly half a millennium later these questions are to be answered. A team of Italian specialists has undertaken a scientific investigation that will reveal much of Italy’s first family - from its secrets and its diet to what diseases plagued them. To answer these questions, bodies of some of the clan’s most prominent members were exhumed.

And it was all caught on tape in "Crypt of the Medici", one of three documentaries in Discovery Channel’s Mummy Detective series. American Dr Bob Brier, who hosts the series, assists Italy’s leading forensic expert Dr Gino Fornaciari in the Medici undertaking.

Dr Brier, who is also an archaeologist and senior research fellow at Long Island University, New York, believes that a lot of information can actually be found in the bones, provided scientists are able to read it. Among those whose bodies have been exhumed are Cosimo I, his wife Eleonora and their two sons, Don Giovanni and Garcia.

The research may be scientifically significant but there’s also a human aspect that many can relate to, hence the decision to turn it into a television documentary. “It cannot be just science,” said Peter Spry-Leverton, the documentary producer, “because they are fascinating people who made a magnificent contribution. It’s about two-thirds science and one-third history.”