University of São Paulo: Forensic science puts the visual representation of the emperors of Brazil to the test

Forensic science is generally used to analyze deaths that have undergone processes of physical violence. In 2013, however, a study carried out by USP researcher Valdirene Ambiel showed that the area can also be applied in historical and archaeological studies.

Using forensic archeology, Valdirene analyzed the human remains of the first emperor of Brazil, D. Pedro (1798-1834), and his wives Maria Leopoldina (1797-1826), the country’s first empress, and Amélia de Leuchtenberg (1812). -1873), who lived in Brazil between 1926 and 1931.

The research was carried out for the development of the master’s thesis Studies in Forensic Archeology applied to the human remains of the first emperors of Brazil deposited in the Independence monument within the scope of the graduate program of the Museum of Archeology and Ethnology (MAE) at USP, in Sao Paulo.

The results found by the researcher continue to have repercussions, even after almost ten years since the delivery of the dissertation, in 2013, as Valdirene reported to Ciclo22 USP . So much so that the researcher continues to study the remains of the emperors in her doctoral dissertation, which should be completed this year and will bring new curiosities about the historical characters.

What the remains show
The analysis served to show physical aspects and curiosities of the emperors, both in common and in disagreement with historical documents.

The study indicated that the average height of historical characters, for example, corresponded to official historiography. In life, D. Pedro I had a height between 1.66 and 1.73 meters, while the empress d. Leopoldina was between 1.54 and 1.60 meters tall. already d. Amelia, according to the study, measured from 1.60 to 1.66 meters.

The possible “chubby” appearance of d. Leopoldina, as historiography has highlighted over the years, however, has not been proven. The empress’s bone structure, like her nasal spine, showed traits of a thin person. It is possible, then, that the puffy appearance, always indicated in paintings, for example, was more associated with the fact that Leopoldina was pregnant nine times during the nine years of her marriage to the emperor.

Also the historical statement that the death of the empress, in 1826, would have been caused by a possible aggression of D. Pedro has not been scientifically proven. “I cannot claim that he [D. Pedro I] did not practice physical violence. But what I can say is that this possible physical violence did not cause the death of the empress, because there was no trace of a bone fracture”, said Valdirene.


Valdirene Ambiel performs a tomography of the remains of Empress Leopoldina – Photo: Archive of the researcher


Analysis confirmed the height of D. Pedro I between 1.66 and 1.73 meters, reported in the historiography – Painting by Henrique José da Silva, 1824

Former Emperors at the Independence Monument
The mortal remains analyzed by the researcher are deposited inside the Monument to Independence , located at the Museu Paulista at USP, known as the Ipiranga Museum.

At the time of the research, although not so sure, Valdirene had the information that the human remains of the former emperors were deposited there, and so he went to investigate.

“I lived near the region and was with my father when the remains of d. Amelia, around 1982, and I commented to him: ‘I hope that in the future someone will do something to see how these remains are,’” he said.

After obtaining the necessary permissions from the descendants of the royal family and health authorities, the researcher discovered that the monument actually houses the bodies.

The graves of D. Pedro and d. Maria Leopoldina are in granite sarcophagi, created especially to house them, while that of d. Amelia was deposited in an “improvised” way.

“Her body is close to the walls of the monument, which is why it is the most vulnerable,” said the researcher. The vulnerability occurs, among other reasons, due to the humidity and infiltration suffered by the place.

The risks to Brazil’s history
The humidity and other aspects of carelessness presented by the Monument , according to the researcher, can jeopardize part of the history of Brazil. “After seeing the situation of the remnants, especially the body of d. Amélia, I talked to Professor Carlos Augusto Pasqualucci, who is now my doctoral advisor, and we set up a whole technique so that a follow-up could be carried out”, she said.

The researcher supervised the remnants on a voluntary basis, from 2012 until February 2018, when the Museum of the City of São Paulo, the body responsible for managing the Monument , decided to terminate the agreement with the University. “The last time I was there, in November 2021, unfortunately the situation was not very good. There was a lot of graffiti, the floors of the external walls were loose and the infiltration should also continue”, said Valdirene.

For the researcher, and as shown in a report that was delivered to the City of São Paulo in 2014, the structure of the Monument is compromised, and so that the body of the ex-wife of D. Pedro I, d. Amelia, can then be preserved, it is necessary to build a sarcophagus.

“Her body was preserved during the research, including her internal organs. Bodies like this should be monitored more closely, in the same way as was done with the mummies that were in the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ),” she said.

“I as a researcher, and USP as an institution, maybe we won’t miss anything, but maybe we’ll miss the history of Brazil”, said Valdirene.

Research and the researcher

Valdirene Ambiel is a historian and archaeologist. His master’s thesis received a scholarship from Capes (Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel), in addition to a partnership with researchers in areas such as museology, archeology and medicine.

“In archeology, it is usually difficult for you to develop research alone because you need other professionals to answer your questions”, he said.

At the time of publication, the study had great repercussion, not only in Brazil but in hundreds of countries. The research results also helped in the development of techniques for the so-called virtual autopsy, used especially during the covid-19 pandemic.

“For me it’s gratifying because people don’t know, but researchers often don’t have a schedule. It’s hours and hours of work, studying and researching, so it’s rewarding.”

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