When it comes to graves, Americans are reverential. We let our sleeping cadavers lie.
In Italy, it's quite the opposite. The bones of saints and heroes are routinely disinterred, in the hope that science might reveal more about their lives.
But this past summer, a mass exhumation began that dwarfs any previous excursions into Italy's past: the exhumation of the Medici, one of the most powerful families ever. Their rule began in the 15th Century.
This summer, the first of 49 crypts were opened. The purpose? To learn more about the diseases they may have suffered from, to sort out just which Medici were murdered, and also to satisfy curiosity about the lives of the rich and famous and dead.
60 Minutes was there for the Medici Project, along with TLC, which will broadcast a documentary later this month. It was kind enough to share its footage with us. Correspondent Morley Safer has true tales from the crypt.
The first to be unearthed were four members of the family of Cosimo the First: Cosimo, his wife, Eleonora di Toledo, and his sons, Garcia and Giovanni, who both died or were murdered when they were teenagers. The exhumation team hopes to prove the case one way or another by examining their bones.
What may seem grisly to us is almost a national pastime in Italy, especially when it comes to the Medici. After all, they gave the world Florence, probably the most beautiful city on earth.
The Medici were the bankers, the popes and princes. They were connivers and murderers, and patrons and protectors of architects and artists whose work resounds to this day: Botticelli, Fillipo Lippi, Leonardo da Vinci. When Galileo's scientific theories were deemed heresy, the Medici gave him refuge.
Their mark, their shield, and their images echo throughout Florence. Italians and scholars everywhere have been obsessed with what made this family tick.
Donatella Lippi, a professor of the history of medicine and a member of the exhumation team, says there is a great sense of anticipation.
"I think that I am touching people who have been ruling Florence for many centuries," says Lippi. "And I think that this is the last gift to their town. Because they give themselves."
All the exhumations are taking place in Florence's Medici chapel, which simply bellows the family's importance. The tombs of Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici are graced by tributes by Michelangelo.
"These people are gods for the Italians. And to find out any new information about them is, I think, crucial," says Bob Brier, another member of the team. He's an archaeologist and senior research fellow at Long Island University, who believes that bones tell their own story.
"If you know how to read them, there's an incredible amount of information in them. So, I think we can find out a lot about the Medici," says Brier. "We want to see what did they eat, what kind of diseases they had. Did they suffer? I mean, you think of people as wealthy. But maybe they weren't having such good lives. So, we're trying to make 'em come alive again."
They discovered the bones of Garcia, son of Cosimo the First – so they have the right guy. Garcia, who like his older brother, Giovanni, either died or was murdered.
Lippi gives one version of the two boys' fate that autumn of 1562: "Don Giovanni and Don Garcia were playing together. Don Garcia had a very sharp knife in his hand. And without an intention, he wounded Don Giovanni, who died in a few days with an infection. And Cosimo got angry, and killed his son."
Brier says this is a story that had been circulating for centuries. "But then in the archive, we found a letter talking about one of the son's ran a high fever. And his brother died a few weeks later of a high fever. It sounds like malaria," says Brier. "So, when you ask, 'What are we looking for,' we're gonna take samples of the bone, very small samples, and look for the organism that causes malaria."
While they are trying to determine exactly what killed the two brothers, they're giving equal scrutiny to their parents: Cosimo the First, grand duke of Tuscany, and his wife, Eleonora di Toledo.
Dr. Gino Fornaciari has spent decades deciphering ancient bones, relics of saints and sinners, and princes and paupers. He is a pathologist at the University of Pisa.
In the case of Eleonora, he also examines portraits looking for clues. He has a very young portrait of Eleonora in her 20s, apparently healthy. He also has a portrait of her in her 30s, and judging from her looks and descriptions in archives, Fornaciari suspects that she was suffering from tuberculosis.
"This is a portrait of a woman with a severe disease," says Fornaciari.
Her teeth, however, confirmed the historical record. "She dies at around the age of 40. But she had 11 childbirths. She was pregnant all the time," says Brier. "And if you look at her teeth, her teeth were horrible. She must have been in pain almost her entire adult life. Because when you're pregnant, the baby is leeching calcium. And this woman gave birth 11 times. She may have been Eleanora of Toledo, wife of the grand duke. But she didn't have an easy life."
Cosimo's bones told a different story. "He was very strong, like they said," says Brier. "The interesting thing is in the records. It talks about Cosimo being a weight lifter. And they said he was also a horseman. Certainly possible."
Brier says that Cosimo's bones were thick and his femur was like a weapon: "You could have killed somebody with it. It was the most robust skeleton you could imagine. So he really was a weight-lifter."
He notes, however, that there are things from the discovery that aren't in the record. "For example, three of his vertebrae were fused," says Brier. "You know, no surgical fusions then. This guy couldn't bend. So he may have been a weight lifter for a good part of his life. But I think the end of his life was very difficult."
But beyond the speculation, there is science. X-rays and CAT scans were performed, and bone samples taken from the two boys and their mother and sent to American and Italian labs, looking for traces of malaria and tuberculosis.
The Medici had the best available medicine of the time, but Lippi says it was a great pity for them. The cures may have been more dangerous than the diseases.
"We are sure that poor people who couldn't afford to pay physicians, they could survive," says Lippi. "Very rich, very wealthy people who could pay physicians had no way to escape death."
Lippi says that before dying, Lorenzo the Magnificent received a medicine that was prepared with ground emeralds and precious stones – because of astrological reasons. "It was very, very dangerous," says Lippi.
The Medici, apart from all of their great contributions to the arts and science, also have a reputation as being absolutely horrible.
Has any of this research changed that view? "The Medici do have a bad press," says Brier. "There's no question. They are the rogues of Italy, you know, killing each other. We have the story of two brothers, Don Giovanni and Garcia, who one supposedly murders the other. And then Cosimo, the father, in a fit of rage, kills the murderer."
But he says research suggests that it's just a story. "I think they died of natural causes. It looks as if there are no marks of violence on the skeletons of the two brothers. No sword marks, cut marks, anything of the nature," says Brier. "And I think our research will probably take away some of the bad press for the Medici. And they'll come out looking better. I mean, more like people."
There's a wealth of bad press for the Medici.
Did Pietro strangle his wife? "I think that's probably true," says Brier. "That's right."
Was Francesco poisoned by his brother, Ferdinando? "Could well be. Not proven," says Brier. "Could be."
Was Isabella strangled at the dinner table by her husband? "Yes," says Brier. "I don't mean to defend them all. I mean, you know, they weren't perfect people."
But it was a time when murder was simply another political tool. "I think these were people who were beyond the law," says Brier. "Who's gonna go in and arrest a Medici?"
They may not have been arrested, but Brier says that there was one Medici who was killed in church.
As for what killed other family members like Eleonora and her sons, so far there has been no verdict. Meanwhile, there are dozens more Medici to be unearthed, more relics to be examined and lessons to be learned.
Seeing so many noble skulls and bones in the course of doing this story has become an object lesson in mortality. It's proof, if needed, of the great wisdom of Thomas Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" -- that the paths of glory lead but to the grave.
It's what the ancient Romans called a memento mori -- a skull placed on the table at feasts, a reminder that amidst all this pleasure, we share a common destination. And that may be the greatest and simplest truth the Medici leave to all of us.