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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 April, 2004, 09:39 GMT 10:39 UK
Mystery over dead poet's head
By Mark Duff
BBC, northern Italy

Italian scientists have disappointed generations of love poets - and uncovered what could be a crime mystery dating back hundreds of years.

Tests have shown that the head of one of Italy's most-highly revered writers - the renaissance poet Francesco Petrarch - isn't his.

Petrarch's tomb
Petrarch's tomb was opened last year
The finding has put a damper on plans to mark the 700th anniversary of his birth this year.

Petrarch is the man who fine-tuned the poetic form known as the sonnet - for centuries since the poem of choice for love-sick poets everywhere.

His sonnets to the mysterious Laura, whom he first spotted at church on Good Friday in the year 1327, have encouraged generations of literary detectives keen to identify the woman who inspired them.

But now, it seems, another type of detective work may be needed.

Researchers have been studying the body found in Petrarch's tomb at the small town where he died outside Padua in northern Italy in 1374.


The body seems to match Petrarch's own description.

But the head doesn't.

In fact, it looks more like a woman's, according to anatomists from Padua University. Worse: the DNA of the head does not match that of the body.

All of which raises the distinct possibility that at some point grave robbers helped themselves to the skull. Quite when and how - given that the slab covering it weighs two tons - remains a mystery.

The scientists had hoped to use the skull to come up with a life-like portrait of the poet in time for the 700th anniversary of his birth, in July.

Instead, perhaps, they will be indulging in feelings of "what if" just as keenly as Petrarch did over his unrequited love for Laura.


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