Scientists seeking permission to exhume the remains of Leonardo da Vinci plan to reconstruct his face to discover whether his masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, is a disguised self-portrait.
A team from Italy's National Committee for Cultural Heritage, a leading association of scientists and art historians, has asked to open the tomb in which the Renaissance painter and polymath is believed to lie at Amboise castle, in the Loire valley, where he died in 1519, aged 67.
Giorgio Gruppioni, an anthropologist, said the project could throw new light on Leonardo's most famous work. "If we manage to find his skull, we could rebuild Leonardo's face and compare it with the Mona Lisa," he said.
The identity of the Mona Lisa has been debated for centuries, with speculation ranging from Leonardo's mother to Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine merchant.
Some scholars have suggested that Leonardo's presumed homosexuality and love of riddles led him to paint himself as a woman.
Recreating Leonardo's face could test the theory of Lillian Schwartz, an American expert who drew on computer studies to highlight apparent similarities between the features of the Mona Lisa and those of a self-portrait by the artist.
Talks about the exhumation with French cultural officials and the owners of the chateau have resulted in an agreement in principle, according to the Italian team, and the project could receive formal permission this summer.
The church in which Leonardo was buried was destroyed after the French revolution of 1789. The remains were reburied in the castle's smaller chapel of Saint-Hubert in 1874, beneath an inscription that describes them as "presumed" to be the master's.
Silvano Vincenti, head of the Italian team, said its first step would be to verify that the remains are Leonardo's. They will use carbon dating and compare DNA samples from the bones and teeth to those of several male descendants buried in Bologna, central Italy.