You've got to rattle dem ol' bones

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In a bewildering piece of synchronicity, there's a sudden rash of celebrity cadavers brought into the light for our inspection.

In a bewildering piece of synchronicity, there's a sudden rash of celebrity cadavers brought into the light for our inspection.

Last week they discovered Giotto under the Duomo in Florence. At least, it might have been Giotto. It was, at any rate, a skeleton unearthed 30 years ago from a grave in the church of Santa Reparata that preceded the building of the cathedral in the late 13th century. Reconstruction of the face has come up with a physiognomy that looks a bit like one of the figures in Giotto's Last Judgement frescos in Padua, that might just have been a self-portrait...

Professor Mallegni, who is studying the subterranean stiff, explains that its bones suggest their owner was "a short, squarely built man, with a huge head and a hooked nose", plus a Neanderthal forehead, sunken eyes, a huge jaw and bull-like neck. Evidence for it being Giotto, rather than being just some short, hideous, macrocephalic Florentine docker, derives from the trace elements of paint-associated minerals found on his remains; from the twisted bone in his neck that suggests he spent a lot of time looking upwards ("probably at frescos"), his injured left leg ("quite possibly he fell off his ladder while painting") and the state of his teeth (which indicate he "may have held a paintbrush in his mouth").

You don't have to be Chief Inspector Wexford to wonder if the professor is leaning on the evidence a bit, to ensure we dignify the skeleton with fame and construct a newsy paradox - that the father of Western art was a repulsive dwarf. "Connoisseur of Human Beauty was Ugly Sod Shock". You feel a pang of sympathy for the 700-year-old shade of Signore di Bondone (Giotto's surname) for being so cruelly anti-mythologised.

Next came news that the skull of Sir Richard Steele has been found in a lead casket in a Carmarthen church. Sir Richard, I need hardly remind Independent readers, was the Restoration playwright and journalist who, with Joseph Addison, started Tatler in 1709 and co-edited The Spectator, and epitomised the spirit of manners in the Enlightenment. Exactly how the John Morgan of his day should end up in a lead box in Wales, 270 years after his demise, is anyone's guess; but you can bet a periwig to a peanut that the finders of the skull refused to believe it was just some ordinary-Joe cranium, and have gone to extravagant lengths to convince us how important and Steele-like are its characteristics. (I expect someone will soon come forward to declare that Steele was, to their surprise, an uncivilised, left-wing hellraiser, who chewed gum, swore at ladies and felt awkward among the upper classes...)

Back in Italy, they're now preparing to thaw out the preserved corpse of a man, christened Otzi, frozen into a glacier 5,800 years ago, and study its internal organs for clues about how he lived. It was discovered in the South Tyrol nine years ago, but they've only just got round to turning up the heat on it. So far they've established that Otzi was "probably" an Alpine shepherd, that he wore hay-lined boots, goatskin leggings and a grass cape, and had a tattoo ("Born to raise Hades"?).

There's something of Hamlet-with-Yorick's-skull about the way we gaze at the most basic evidence of our common mortality (a skeleton, a mummy) and gleefully turn it into something else: this is not a dead man, we say, it's a dead celebrity, to whom we can ascribe interesting, indeed controversial, traits.

Look here, and here: how interesting, how grand, how enterprising. This bit reveals the Renaissance maestro; this cranial cavity shouts "civilised man"; this broken rib suggests a timelessly handsome Tyrolean mountainy hero. We use the debris of bones to call up a noble past. Can we fail to notice that we're looking at a quintessence of dust?