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In Search of Leonardo’s Lost Painting

By Tom O’Neill, National Geographic Magazine

Florence, Italy — Around midnight, the narrow streets and broad squares of central Florence empty except for a few carousers, lights flicker in the windows of an upper floor windows of the Palazzo Vecchio, the imposing stone-fronted building that serves as City Hall. Inside some two dozen people, chiefly scientists and engineers from the University of California at San Diego, Italian art conservators, and members of a National Geographic Television crew, are moving up and down a four-story scaffolding erected in the grand Salone de Cinquecento, the Hall of Five Hundred.  The scaffolding faces a large mural of clashing soldiers painted in 1563 by Giorgio Vasari, a favorite son of Florence who redesigned the Palazzo and painted the huge patriotic frescoes that line its upper walls. However, it’s what might lie hidden behind the Vasari mural that is causing all the middle-of-the-night commotion.

It’s chilly inside the grand hall, but hardly anyone notices. Every night this week, a kind of slow-motion, yet fevered search unfolds, the culmination of a years-long effort to determine if Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Battle of Anghiari,” last seen some 450 years ago, is hidden behind the Vasari fresco.  Principal investigator Maurizio Seracini and his UCSD troops, a collection of mostly grad students clad in white lab coats and versed in high-tech imagery and material analysis, are huddled around a small hole drilled above the right kneecap of a soldier painted on the wall. Seracini has inserted an endoscope into the roughly six and a half inch long space and now an amazingly clear image appears on a small monitor. The fiber-optic probe seems to fly through space as it passes clouds of puffy mortar and comes to rest on a hard white space, as pocked as the moon. Dust particles fly about. Seracini keeps pointing out those floating wisps. TV director Max Salomon and his crew press close.  From the image Seracini, as excitable as the patrician, white-haired Florentine native seems to get, announces in a level voice that the image proves a gap truly exists between the Vasari wall and the building’s outer wall, in this case, only a fraction of an inch, but wide enough to accommodate the Leonardo mural. Radar and thermographic surveys done in previous years had shown a gap, the only one in the hall and one possibly constructed by Vasari to protect the Leonardo mural. Now a high-resolution fiber optic image appears to confirm it.

 

Dr. Maurizio Seracini, scientific director of the search for Leonardo da Vinci's "The Battle of Anghiari" project, is pictured in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio. The project is led by the National Geographic Society and University of California San Diego's Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), in cooperation with the City of Florence. Photo © David Yoder/National Geographic

 

Work on the search for Leonardo da Vinci's "The Battle of Anghiari" project, conducted in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio. The project is led by the National Geographic Society and University of California San Diego's Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), in cooperation with the City of Florence. © David Yoder/National Geographic

 

Close-up of Giorgio Vasari's painting in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio. "Cerca Trova"--seek and you shall find--is too small to be seen from the floor of the Hall of 500. Researchers believe this may be a clue to finding Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, "The Battle of Anghiari." The search for this painting is led by the National Geographic Society and University of California San Diego's Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), in cooperation with the City of Florence. © David Yoder/National Geographic

 

If everything goes to plan—no sure thing given the constant negotiations over where to insert the probes, the mounting fatigue of the participants who are working long hours, from morning to well past midnight, and the tensions and excitement of the investigation—the hope is that at least one new hole will be opened.  Conservators from the famed Opficio delle Pietre Dure, a public institute specializing in art restoration, are being very cautious in giving approval to entry points. Their duty, affirmed by Seracini and the National Geographic, is to protect the Vasari fresco, a historic artwork in its own right, and to this point they are allowing drilling only on previously damaged or pigment-free spots. Seracini and his team are also collecting samples from the entry points. Any sign of organic material, like wax or pitch or linseed oil, could indicate the prepared surface of the Leonardo mural. Of course, what everyone wants to see is a hint of pigment.

The analysis will be slow in coming, as Seracini’s engineers and scientists are as cautious and painstaking in their work as the conservators. In the meantime another night approaches and with it the prospect of another entry point and images that will attract yet again a hushed midnight crowd on the scaffolding.

The statues beneath the Vasari fresco are draped for protection as work begins in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. The search for Leonardo da Vinci's "The Battle of Anghiari" project is led by the National Geographic Society and University of California San Diego's Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), in cooperation with the City of Florence. ©Shannon Jensen/National Geographic

 

As work begins in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, a significant gap is set up between the scaffolding structure and the Vasari fresco in order to ensure safety of the Vasari. The search for Leonardo da Vinci's "The Battle of Anghiari" project is led by the National Geographic Society and University of California San Diego's Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), in cooperation with the City of Florence. ©Shannon Jensen/National Geographic

 

Scaffolding stands in front of the Vasari painting as work begins in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio on the search for Leonardo da Vinci's "The Battle of Anghiari" project. The project is led by the National Geographic Society and University of California San Diego's Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), in cooperation with the City of Florence. ©Shannon Jensen/National Geographic

 

This project is funded in part by the National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Council. The entire process is being documented for a National Geographic documentary premiering globally on National Geographic Channels worldwide beginning in mid-January. National Geographic magazine will also be reporting on the project.

Comments

  1. [...] out these articles in UCSD Magazine, The New York Times and National Geographic, which give more information about Seracini’s quest for The Battle of Anghiari. And head to the [...]

  2. Anna Hall
    USA
    March 23, 2012, 1:09 am

    My comments are for the TV documentary specifically. I was very disappointed by the method and direction of this documentary. Rather than moving like a genuine educational documentary, intended to enlighten and engage, this program presented little more than trumped up drama and suspense leading to a disappointing anti-climax. The melodramatic soundtrack, the frantic editing, and sudden, shocked expressions of the subjects reminded me of virtually every trashy reality TV drama. Was this a documentary or an episode of Mob Wives? How I long for the days when documentaries had little to no soundtrack and were narrated by sedate experts who actually sought to inform rather than entice. Shock and suspense belong in a James Bond film, not an art documentary.

  3. raven
    February 18, 2012, 2:45 pm

    that is sooooooooooooo cool

  4. Mario Valdes
    January 5, 2012, 4:53 pm

    Even if Maurizio Seracini does discover the ruined remains of the fresco depicting the Battle of Anghiari da Vinci attempted, the find simply cannot compete with the importance of Vasari’s artistic program concerning Alessandro de’ Medici, the First Duke of Florence. As ancestor to so many of Europe’s most titled families, the fact that his mother was a black slave has been “the” Dan Brown type secret of the Palazzo Vecchio – visible only to those who know where to look for it.

    Of course a “lost” da Vinci will make headlines; for a few more days at most since it has already been responsible for so many. But the ceiling paintings in the Sala Clemente VII which was only opened to the public a few years ago and is right there adjoining the Salone dei Cinquecento, would reverberate throughout the media and the hallowed halls of academia for months afterwards, indeed, years.

    Giorgio Vasari, the artist who executed them is, of course, the one to whom we owe the possible preservation of Da Vinci’s ruined fresco. Any press on the significance of his own work with regards the racial problems it was hoped Obama’s election could help solve, would, therefore, make a perfect addendum to the news being generated by the retrieval of this da Vinci fragment.

    It is all too obvious that, considering any sense of entitlement or legal precedence the revelation of Alessandro’s ethnicity would give the African population in Italy, the subject has become “verboten.” Because of how this genealogical information could affect the situation there on the ground, it is my hope that the media will be able to do something on the subject to help lift the embargo on this still suppressed chapter of Florentine history. With the mounting anxiety over the rise of African refugees / immigrants in Italy as a result of the present situation along the southern coast of the Mediterranean, cannot help but think a story on Alessandro de’ Medici could be more timely.

    I find it difficult to believe, for instance, that the murder of the Sengalese merchants in Florence earlier this month could have occurred had the public at least been aware of him – the first black head of state in modern Western history.

    Since the following PBS website is, for the time being, the most in depth on “Il Duca Moro,” I hope it helps.

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/secret/famous/medici.html

  5. Mario Valdes
    Cambridge MA, USA
    December 29, 2011, 3:48 pm

    The following is from an article written some thirty two years ago in which the scholar describes the various banners and flags in Vasari’s fresco of the Battle of Marciano, he explains the one on which Seracini has bet the house:

    “Numerous others are green, and as we have seen, were those of the Florentine anti-Medici exiles. These green flags also appear in the great fresco by Vasari, but instead of LIBERTAS SPQF which should be apparent, one of them (the very last towards the far left next to Strozzi’s) is inscribed with heavy irony, CHI CERCA TROVA, alluding to the false search of the exiles for freedom that has become strangely instrumental in finding their just punishment.”

    From “Un inedito dello Stradano: la “rotella” Odescalchi” by Lionello G. Boccia which was published in L’Arte, Vol 5, 1969, pp. 95-116.

    Hope this doesn’t bear true for Seracini – and those involved, as well.

  6. Debbie Webb
    North Somerset UK
    December 17, 2011, 12:23 pm

    Fascinating. I can’t wait for more news. I recommend the BBC documentary drama about Leonardo’s Life. Shown on TV last week it is still available on http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/

  7. Vladimir Tamari
    December 15, 2011, 7:19 am

    If there is a gap of 2 cm behind the wall, why not investigate not by vertical drilling through the existing painting, but edgewise, drilling down from the framed “windows” on top. A 45 degree mirror can be attached to the endoscope and it can be lowered straight down between the two walls without injuring the Vasari further.

  8. Joel
    Philadelphia, PA
    December 5, 2011, 3:43 pm

    Awesome! Feels like a real-life The Da Vinci Code. Will they uncover the secret map to the tomb of Mary Magdalene??

  9. [...] In Search of Leonardo’s Lost Painting Dec, 2, 2011 (10) News Watch » [...]

  10. Mercier
    France
    December 4, 2011, 4:51 am

    bonjour, j’aime beaucoup votre site mais une traduction automatique en français de votre page serait un plus… mon anglais étant ce qu’il est…. celle ci par exemple je suis certaine de ne pas avoir tout compris et pourtant elle m’intéresse réellement !!
    Bonne continuation
    PM

  11. [...] http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2011/12/02/in-search-of-leonardos-lost-painting/?source=link… Art, architecture, design & decoAnghiari, Art, Battle, Leonardo Da Vinci ← Kaiser Idell Luxus lamp – Republic of Fritz Hansen [...]

  12. Roy Cox
    Jeffersonville, Kentucky- USA
    December 3, 2011, 10:04 pm

    What will be done if Leonardo’s work is revealed?

  13. [...] Sometime around October 1503, Leonardo was commissioned to paint the mural of ‘The Battle of Anghiari’, for the Sala del Gran Consiglio, the recently rebuilt Great Council Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, during the first years of the city’s republican government. http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/… [...]

  14. doug l
    December 3, 2011, 1:05 pm

    Very excited about this project. I’ve been intrigued by the possibility throughout my lifelong fascination with DaVinci and his enigmatic life. During my brief stay in Florence years ago I spent several hours in that hall and dreamed of what it would have looked like. If Vasari, whose work I admire and whose writing I find so interesting, was as conscientious as I feel he was, perhaps this dream will come true. it’s worth noting that the technique called ‘encaustic’ which uses colored waxes to achieve remarkable brilliance and depth and which Leonardo used instead of the traditional plaster based fresco, has lately entered the mainstream with the making of materials and techniques widely available at art supply stores. I’m inspired to give it a try. Thanks for this informative article. Cheers.

  15. Davide
    malmö
    December 3, 2011, 12:59 pm

    Nice Discovery! Unfortunately seems like Leonardo painted the Anghiari’s Battle with the tecnique of ENCAUSTO,which lead to believe that not much to see was left after the experiment failed. ;(. But good luck anyway..hope to see a Discovery

  16. [...] Source:http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2011/12/02/in-search-of-leonardos-lost-painting/ GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_bg", "ffffff"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_text", "666666"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_link", "4779AC"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_border", "F8F8F2"); GA_googleAddAttr("theme_url", "BBD1D8"); GA_googleAddAttr("LangId", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Autotag", "entertainment"); GA_googleAddAttr("Autotag", "science"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "lifestyle"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "city-hall"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "culmination"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "florence-italy"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "leonardo-da-vinci"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "palazzo-vecchio"); GA_googleAddAttr("Tag", "slow-motion"); GA_googleFillSlot("wpcom_sharethrough"); Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Tags: city hall, culmination, florence italy, leonardo da vinci, palazzo vecchio, slow motion [...]

  17. paramavgurupillai venkatachalapathy
    india
    December 3, 2011, 8:51 am

    wonderful

  18. Paul Stanton
    California
    December 3, 2011, 2:50 am

    I for one would much rather see remnants of the Leonardo’s “Battle” fresco than Vasari’s second rate work!

  19. Bulent Atalay
    December 2, 2011, 11:06 pm

    Hello David,
    Complemented by National Geographic Society’s unrivaled photos, this is a highly informative account of Maurizio Seracini’s quest to uncover Leonardo’s lost mural, “The Battle of Anghiari.” The original commission from the City Fathers, the Signoria, had pitted Leonardo against Michelangelo in a head-to-head contest of the two titans of the Italian High Renaissance. (The latter was to paint the Battle of Cascina, and had not progressed as far as Leonardo’s when he had to abandon it, in order to work on the Pope’s Tomb.)

    I am personally optimistic that the remnants of Leonardo’s efforts are still there, behind a false wall erected by Vasari. Bulent