Posted by: Linda Proud | July 29, 2007

29th July 2007

Breaking news! Geoffrey Parkes has sent me a startling report from the BBC website about the exhumation of Pico and Poliziano, but I’ve found something longer and slightly more accurate on

Scientists from the University of Bologna are going to do a DNA test to try and establish the cause of death (one cannot trust news reports, but if the scientist in charge really said that, in respect of the cause of Poliziano’s death ‘we’re going to find it was either poison or syphilis’, his work seems somewhat predetermined and not scientific at all). They are also going to try and reconstruct the faces so that we can see what they looked like. Given the excellent portraits of Poliziano by Ghirlandaio and Bertoldo, they have quite a lot to go on already (less so with Pico).

Naturally my feelings are mixed. The mind is twitching with curiosity: how did Pico and Poliziano die? Will it affect my plot? Must I delay publication until the scientists have finished their work? What will the facial reconstructions show? Meanwhile the soul curls up and weeps. This is desecration. One can tolerate scientific curiosity about unnamed characters of the Bronze Age, but known men of only five hundred years ago? Or is known-unknown a silly distinction? Perhaps no bones should be disturbed except for very good reason. I suppose, however, that the scientists could claim that there may be a murder to solve. In recent exhumations of possible murder victims, however, the deed was done at night out of respect for the dead. When does such fine feeling evaporate? After how many years? Now we have to witness these poor fifteenth century bones being made a public TV spectacle.

But, of course, I can’t wait to see the programme!

The bodies were exhumed before, in the 1940s, but it was a discreet affair within the monastery. One American present – H. C. Bodman – wrote a short note of what he found. The body of Poliziano was reduced to a few fragments of bone, but Pico’s was well preserved ‘in as perfect condition as an Egyptian mummy’, dressed in gold and scarlet brocade. See the account in Juliana Hill Cotton, ‘Death and Politian’, Durham University Journal, vol. xlvi no. 3, 1954, appendix iii.

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