Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Mona Lisa's Identity Confirmed by Document
Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News e-mail share bookmark print

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Jan. 16, 2008 -- The mystery over the identity of the woman behind Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" painting has been solved once and for all, German academics at Heidelberg University announced on Tuesday.

Mona Lisa is "undoubtedly" Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, according to Veit Probst, director of the Heidelberg University Library.

Conclusive evidence came from notes written in October 1503 in the margin of a book.

Discovered two years ago in the library's collection by manuscript expert Armin Schlechter, the notes were made by Florentine city official Agostino Vespucci, an acquaintance of Leonardo da Vinci, in an edition of letters by the Roman orator, Cicero.

In his annotations, Vespucci wrote that Leonardo was working on three paintings at the time, including a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo.

"All doubts about the identity of the 'Mona Lisa' have been eliminated," the university said in a statement.

Vespucci's notes also "establish more precisely the year the painting was done," the university said.

Until now, the only other source to have identified the sitter in Leonardo's masterpiece as Lisa Gherardini, was the 16th century painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari.

In his work "Lives of the Artists," Vasari named Lisa Gherardini, the wife of the wealthy Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo as the subject of the portrait and concluded that the portrait was painted between 1503 and 1506.

But doubts about Vasari's attribution have always abounded since he was known to rely on anecdotal evidence.

The work is unsigned, undated and bears nothing to indicate the sitter's name. Attempts to solve the mystery surrounding her famous smile as well as her identity have included theories that she was the artist's mother, a noblewoman, a courtesan, even a prostitute.
There have also been theories that the sitter was happily pregnant, or affected by various diseases ranging from facial paralysis to the compulsive gnashing of teeth.

"The German finding confirms that Vasari is indeed a reliable source," Giuseppe Pallanti, the author of two books on the "Mona Lisa," told Discovery News.

Pallanti was the first historian to identify the sitter in Leonardo's portrait as Lisa Gherardini, following 25 years of research.

"Indeed, I found documents showing that Leonardo's father -- a local notary, Ser Piero da Vinci -- and Lisa's family were neighbors, living about 10 feet away from each other in Via Ghibellina," Pallanti said. "Leonardo met a pregnant Lisa in 1500 in Florence. In December 1502 she gave birth again."

According to Pallanti’s research, Lisa Gherardini, a member of a minor noble family of rural origins, was born on June 15, 1479, in a rather ugly house in Via Sguazza in Florence.

In 1495, when she was 16 years old, she married the merchant Francesco del Giocondo. Ser Francesco was 14 years her senior and had lost his first wife, Camilla Rucellai, the previous year.

The girl moved to Del Giocondo's house, located in today's San Lorenzo market quarter. Though the house was big and beautiful, the surroundings were less than ideal. Prostitutes populated the area, which was a sort of Renaissance red light district.

In that house, Lisa gave birth to five children: Piero, Andrea, Giocondo, Camilla and Marietta.

Pallanti was also able to reconstruct Lisa's last years. She died four years after her husband's death on July 15, 1542, at age 63, and was buried in the convent Saint Orsola.


Napoleon Death: Arsenic Poisoning Ruled Out

Napoleon Death: Arsenic Poisoning Ruled Out
By LiveScience Staff

posted: 12 February 2008 11:33 am ET

A small nuclear reactor dedicated to research was used to analyze hairs samples from Napleon Bonaparte. The results suggest that arsenic poisoning did not kill the Emperor. Credit: Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics Arsenic poisoning did not kill Napoleon, a new analysis suggests, contrary to claims made in recent years.

The results of the study show high levels of arsenic in Napoleon Bonaparte's hair throughout his life, suggesting he was not poisoned at the end of his life while in exile on the island of Saint Helena. Rather he probably absorbed arsenic constantly throughout his life, the researchers say.

The cause of Napoleon's death has been in dispute for a long time, with some saying he died of stomach cancer and others suggesting arsenic poisoning during the Emperor's final years on Saint Helena, off Africa in the South Atlantic Ocean.

Hair samples

For the new study, physicists at the University of Milano-Bicocca and the University of Pavia compared the arsenic levels in hair samples taken from Napoleon Bonaparte at various stages in his life with levels in hairs from Napoleon's son (the King of Rome), Empress Josephine and 10 living persons.

The Napoleonic hairs studied by the Italian team came from when he was a boy in Corsica, during his exile on the Island of Elba, on the day of his death (May 5, 1821) on Saint Helena and on the day after his death.

Samples taken from Napoleon’s son in 1812, 1816, 1821 and 1826, as well as samples from the Empress Josephine, collected upon her death in 1814, also were analyzed.

The hair samples were provided by the Glauco-Lombardi Museum in Parma (Italy), the Malmaison Museum in Paris and the Napoleonic Museum in Rome.

The hairs were placed in capsules and inserted in the core of a small nuclear reactor at the University of Pavia. The technique used is known as “neutron activation," which has two advantages: it does not destroy the sample, and it provides extremely precise results even on samples with a small mass, such as human hair samples.

The researchers, including Ettore Fiorini of the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics and the University of Milano-Biccoca, found traces of arsenic in all the hair samples and were surprised by their findings.

Surprise levels

First, the level of arsenic in the hair samples from 200 years ago was found to be 100 times greater than the average level detected in samples from persons living today. In fact, the Emperor’s hair had an average arsenic level of around ten parts per one million, whereas the arsenic level in the hair samples from currently living persons was around one-tenth of a part per one million.

In other words, at the beginning of the 19th century, people evidently ingested arsenic that was present in the environment in quantities that are currently considered dangerous.

The other surprise was that there were no significant differences in arsenic levels between when Napoleon was a boy and during his final days in Saint Helena. According to the researchers, including toxicologists who participated in the study, it is evident that this was not a case of poisoning but instead the result of the constant absorption of arsenic.

The results will be published in the journal Il Nuovo Saggiatore.


Napoleon Bonaparte Feb. 11, 2008 -- Napoleon Bonaparte did not die from arsenic poisoning, a new examination of the French emperor's hair has established.

The man who dominated much of Europe in the early 19th century died at age 52 in British-imposed exile on St. Helena in the south Atlantic, where he had been banished after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

For decades, scholars have debated how Napoleon met his early death on May 5, 1821.

The autopsy and conclusion of his personal doctor, Francesco Antommarchi, indicated that Napoleon died of stomach cancer.

But the veracity of Antommarchi's report was questioned in 1961, and more recently in 2001, when high arsenic levels were found in Napoleon's hair. Various theories of conspiracy, treachery and poisoning followed.

According to those claims, the former French Emperor was poisoned to prevent a return to power if he escaped exile.

Now, Italian scientists have repeated the hair testing using a small nuclear reactor. The study will be published in the March issue of the Italian journal Il Saggiatore.

Researchers from the universities of Pavia and Milan analyzed several hair samples that had been taken during different periods of Napoleon Bonaparte's life -- from when he was a boy in Corsica, during his exile on the Island of Elba, on the day of his death on the Island of Saint Helena, and on the day after his death.

Samples taken from Napoleon II (Bonaparte's son) in the years 1812, 1816, 1821 and 1826, and samples from Napoleon's wife the Empress Josephine, collected upon her death in 1814, were also analyzed.

In addition to those historical samples, obtained from various French and Italian museums, the researchers tested ten hairs taken from randomly selected people alive today.
"It was very important to compare Napoleon's hair not only with samples from living persons, but also with samples taken from his close relatives," said Adalberto Piazzoli of the University of Pavia's Theoretical and Nuclear Physics Department.

The hairs were placed in capsules and inserted into the core of the nuclear reactor in Pavia. Known as "neutron activation," the technology provides precise results, even on tiny samples.

"Indeed we found that Napoleon's hair had high arsenic concentrations. But we found the same high concentration in samples belonging to his son and wife. Basically, the level of arsenic in all of the hair samples from 200 years ago is 100 times greater than the average level detected in samples from persons living today," Piazzoli said.

At the beginning of the 19th century, that finding suggests, arsenic was present in the environment in quantities that are currently considered very dangerous.

"Moreover, there were no significant differences in arsenic levels between when Napoleon was a boy and during his final days in Saint Helena. This shows clearly that the high arsenic concentration in Napoleon's hair wasn't due to poisoning. Instead, it is the result of a constant absorption of arsenic," Piazzoli said.

According to Ezio Previtali of the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics, "discovering that 200 years ago people were 100 times more exposed to arsenic than today is one of the most intriguing aspects of the research."

"I believe that this research has established new reference points, but I'm sure there will be more studies over Napoleon's death, because of the fascination this figure still exerts," Previtali told the daily La Repubblica.

The latest study into Napoleon's death, reported in 2007 in Nature Clinical Practice Gastroenterology & Hepatology, compared historical accounts with modern pathological and tumor-staging methods to point to advanced gastric cancer as the cause of death.

The gastric cancer diagnosis was also supported by a 2005 Swiss study which examined 12 pairs of trousers worn by Napoleon between 1800 and 1821. The trousers showed that Bonaparte dramatically slimmed down in the final six months of his life, losing almost 5 inches from his waist and more than 24 pounds, weight loss that would be consistent with a diagnosis of gastric cancer.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Ancient Irrigation System Withstands Earthquake

DUJIANGYAN, China (AFP) - Friday, May 23

- High above the world's oldest operating irrigation system, Zhang Shuanggun, a local villager, stands on an observation platform cracked by China's massive earthquake last week.

She has a simple answer for why the ancient, bamboo-based Dujiangyan irrigation system sustained only minor damage, while nearby modern dams and their vast amounts of concrete are now under 24-hour watch for signs of collapse.

"This ancient project is perfection," Zhang said.

From the hillside platform, the workings of the ingenious irrigation project that is now a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site are clearly visible.

Built from 256 BC, the system involved diverting the Minjiang River's flow using man-made islands built on bamboo frames that allowed water and fish to flow freely underneath.

UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organisation, says the system "controls the waters of the Minjiang River and distributes it to the fertile farmland" of the plains.

It is "a major landmark in the development of water management and technology and is still discharging its functions perfectly."

The irrigation system is at the foot of mountains on the edge of Dujiangyan, about 50 kilometres (32 miles) from the epicentre of the May 12 quake which measured 8.0 on the Richter scale and killed more than 40,000 people.

Yet despite its close proximity to the quake, the system suffered only minor damage and was not compromised, according to the government.

At the same time, several dams were damaged by the earthquake and are now under constant watch for signs of collapse amid concerns they may not be able to withstand strong aftershocks or flooding.

"The earthquake this time has caused damage at various levels to reservoirs and dams," Gu Junyaun, the chief engineer at the State Electricity Regulatory Commission said this week.

"Dam safety experts have been put in place to monitor the operation of the dams 24 hours a day."

Thousands of people have been evacuated in various areas of quake-hit Sichuan province due to fears of bursting dams.

Qushan, a major town that suffered major damage in the quake, is being relocated altogether partly because of the threat that a dam above it will collapse and send torrents of water through the area.

The contrasting fates of the ancient irrigation system and the modern dams offer a cautionary tale for China as it continues its love affair with trying to tame its vast rivers.

Hundreds of dams have been built, or are being constructed, across the country, and environmentalists have repeatedly warned of the folly of doing so in quake-prone areas such as Sichuan.

But no one has such fears about the Dujiangyan irrigation project.

"The irrigation system is reliable and solid," said He Quyun, 66, a woman who lives above the project in hills which are prone to rock falls since the quake.

"The skills of the ancient people, the architect, were so high," said another area resident, a former village Communist Party secretary who declined to give his name.

He was resting outside the now-closed ornamental gate through which tourists would normally visit the irrigation project.

From above, the project looks deceptively simple.

The river splits around a heavily forested and slightly curved island about one kilometre (0.62 miles) long.

At the top of the island, a protrusion which residents call the "fish mouth" pokes into the river and helps it divide. On one side is a modern dam with flood gates through which the river passes.

On the other is a narrower channel which flows towards the plain where it waters the fields of Xu Shifu and other farmers.

"Yes, it comes from there," Xu, 52, said, leaning on a hoe beside his brown fields of wheat almost ready for harvest. "It's a small tributary... it's originally from the fish mouth."

While his wife planted corn seedlings along the edge of the wheat field, Xu explained that if his paddy needs extra water, it could be directed into his fields through a system linked to the ancient water works.