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The painting, Eleonora of Toledo and Her Son, c. 1545/1550 by Agnolo Bronzino (artist)

Eleonora of Toledo and Her Son, c. 1545/1550 by Agnolo Bronzino (artist)

Unearthing the Medici mystery

By Cass Erickson

Published on May 16, 2005

The Medicis were the most powerful family in Tuscany for 400 years, and along with their splendor and influence came notorious violence and intrigue. But with the help of a professor from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, the Italians may rewrite the history of the infamous family. For centuries, Florentine society has turned the murderous deaths of Cosimo de Medici's teenage sons, Don Garzia and Giovanni, into legend. In 1562, after an argument during a hunting trip in Tuscany, Don Garzia allegedly stabbed his younger brother Giovanni, and then after learning of the crime, their father Cosimo supposedly ran Don Garzia through with his sword. But last year, after scientists exhumed bodies found in a crypt beneath the Medici Chapel in Florence, archaeologist Bob Brier of Long Island University found no evidence of violence in the bones of the two young men. Moreover, letters found in an Italian archive included a warning from Cosimo's doctor of malaria at the Tuscan hunting site and a description of Giovanni's high fever before he died, which could point to malaria. Bone tissue of the two bodies--along with that of their mother, Eleonora of Toledo (pictured above with Giovanni)--was sent to Arthur Aufderheide, UMD pathology professor, so he could test for Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes the deadliest form of malaria, using a specialized formula for ancient DNA "The tests were all negative, but this doesn't mean that they didn't have malaria," says Aufderheide. "[In 1966,] the Arno River flooded and immersed the caskets in water, and they leaked. The malaria would not have survived it." This summer he will continue his high-profiled work, which has caught the imagination of National Geographic and The New Yorker (May 16, 2005), to see what other clues the DNA might hold on the Medici deaths. Stay tuned.