The Da Vinci Code

There are, however, numerous other sources for da Vinci DNA. His father, Ser Piero, famously had 17 other children by several mothers; Leonardo was a by-blow with a servant girl named Caterina. “Piero and many of the half-brothers are in a beautiful church in central Florence, the Badia Fiorentina,” Ausubel told us. “Their tombs are there. Other people have been buried there, and there have been floods over the years, including the famous Florence flood of 1966, but there's a good chance that we could find the proper bones and get DNA from those. And of course, if DNA from the father and a half-brother in the Badia were to match DNA obtained in Amboise, that would be very encouraging.”  Another possible course Ausubel calls “exciting and revolutionary.” That would be getting DNA from the thousands of pages of Leonardo’s notebooks, his drawings, or even the paintings. “He wrote on pretty much every square inch of both sides of the sheets of paper, and so he really would have handled these a lot. Skin cells would have come off; possibly blood at some point or saliva. We're quite optimistic that we could find DNA on sheets of the notebooks.”

Sequencing da Vinci’s genome, Ausubel says, will not merely bring with it the satisfaction of solving the mystery of whether relics in the Amboise tomb are from Leonardo. It potentially holds real benefits for biomedical science and other spheres. Take, for example, the almost superhuman visual acuity da Vinci clearly possessed: he was capable of “seeing birds in flight”, as Ausubel says. Might this turn out to be, he wonders, an inheritance from our Neanderthal ancestors -- who also possessed tremendous visual acuity, responsible both for their hunting skills and for the legacy of cave paintings they left behind? Will we learn from da Vinci's genome more about the qualities of the base pairs that control our eyesight? He even muses about a future where instead of laser eye surgery, LASIK, people get a “da Vinci treatment” to deal with their myopia. Then there are the tools his project might add to the kits of artwork authenticators the world over. “There are big problems in the world of art history about attribution,” Ausubel says, “and advancing the state-of-the-art with respect to DNA as an additional means of attribution could be very valuable.”

This brings up a fascinating dilemma. With advances in forensic work of this kind, Ausubel points out, we often incur commensurate losses in privacy. Some of the anonymous or pseudonymous masters of painting, he adds, “may have wanted to be anonymous -- artists or monks who made medieval manuscripts may have thought they had a right to privacy. They didn't want to sign their name to a work. Even in a Pharaonic tomb. This power to identify, to connect a historic individual to an event or to a work of art: on the one hand, it's fantastic.  It's solving mysteries, and something that we love and associate with many very positive developments when you think of both innocence and conviction for rape and assault.  DNA has provided really important contributions to the judicial system in the last 25 years.

“But there is this other side of DNA forensics: anonymity may be a thing of the past. Solving fantastic, elusive, fascinating mysteries means there is loss of mystery, the loss of anonymity, the loss of privacy. I think Leonardo, with his love of knots and puzzles, would take delight in our success, should we achieve it. But there are other instances when ignorance might well be bliss.”

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