ROME (Reuters) - Italian researchers said on Thursday they might have found bone fragments belonging to the woman immortalized by Leonardo da Vinci in his acclaimed "Mona Lisa" portrait.
However, the limits of current technology made it impossible to say for certain whether they had discovered the remains of Lisa Gherardini, who is thought to have sat for Leonardo and who was the wife of Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo.
The "Mona Lisa", known in Italian as the "Gioconda", hangs in Paris's Louvre museum and is possibly the most famous painting in the world, depicting a young woman with an enigmatic smile, her hands gently folded on her lap.
Although the identity of the woman is not certain, many historians believe it was probably Gherardini and archaeologists started looking for her body three years ago in a convent where she spent her final days. Additionally they opened the Giocondo family tomb in a Florence church seeking to make a DNA match.
A number of bodies were uncovered, but carbon dating found that only a group of bone fragments came from the early 16th century when Gherardini lived and the Mona Lisa was painted.
Silvano Vinceti, who heads Italy's National Committee for the Promotion of Historic and Cultural Heritage, said documentation about the burial site and the scientific testing made him confident they had unearthed Gherardini.
"If you were to ask me what I personally, subjectively, think and feel, I'd say I believe that we have found her," he told reporters.
Other experts were much more cautious, saying that given the poor state of the fragments, it was impossible to be sure.
Giorgio Gruppioni, professor of anthropology at the University of Bologna, said that based purely on scientific evidence, the chances they had found Mona Lisa was "certainly not high".
"What we hope is sophisticated techniques will eventually allow us to extract and analyze and compare the DNA to be able to ascertain that genetically these are the remains of Lisa Gherardini," he told reporters.
Despite his upbeat tone, the findings revealed on Thursday were less dramatic than those Vinceti had hoped for when he set out on his quest.
Two years ago, he told reporters that he hoped he would find Gherardini's skull and use that to reconstruct her face to compare it with the Leonardo painting.
In the end, no skull was recovered.
However, he said he was happy with what had been achieved.
"I have done my best because I believe in this and the results for me are most satisfying," Vinceti said.
Reporting by Matteo Berlenga and Hanna Rantala; Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Mark Heinrich