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Drawing: Battle of Anghiari
A copy of a detailed sketch by Leonardo

Drawing from the painting by Leonardo, artist unknown

"Finding the Lost da Vinci" airs Sunday, March 18, 2012 at 9 PM ET on National Geographic Channel

Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps one of the most famous—and mysterious—figures of the Renaissance. Extraordinarily gifted by all accounts, only 16 of his works have survived the test of time. But armed with new information, a team of scientists is poised to add a new painting to that short list and solve the 500-year-old mystery of the legendary "The Battle of Anghiari"—and National Geographic is along for the journey.

In the public eye for a scant half-century, "The Battle of Anghiari" drew admirers who scarcely noticed the Mona Lisa and came to Florence to copy it. An epic tangle of horses and men, it represented something totally new in art. The battle is captured at a critical moment, the action at its peak—muscles are taut, eyes wild, weapons seconds from smashing down. But only 50 years later, another Renaissance master, Giorgio Vasari, was brought in to remodel the town hall housing the painting and replace the Leonardo. Legend has it that he simply entombed the painting within the walls of the Palazzo Vecchio, as it was. The problem? No one knows where that was.

Armed with thermal scans, LIDAR imaging, architectural diagrams, and 36 years of accumulated research, Maurizio Seracini is spearheading a new effort to pinpoint the lost masterpiece. He'll have a tight deadline of only seven days, so his team will work around the clock to make sure everything is in place.

Joining his team to document this groundbreaking investigation is National Geographic photographer Dave Yoder, who has been following this story for four years. As Seracini and his team work their instruments, Yoder takes us from Florence to Milan, Munich, and Oxford on the trail of coveted copies-including one that is linked to Leonardo's original draft, and one whose whereabouts are unknown, lost to the public eye since 1938.

Arriving back in Florence, the team is in place and the scaffold rises. The media onslaught begins, and the bureaucrats aren't following the party line. A battle of wills plays out in the Italian press. Will we, won't we, how will we, where will we, and when? Two days after the project is set to commence, we're still locked at a standstill. But finally the permits are in place and the team is deployed, with only five days left.

But there's another surprise for the team—they won't be working in their carefully preselected locations. To look for the lost painting, Seracini's team needs to go through the existing Vasari masterpiece, which presents huge challenges. After weeks of careful planning, Seracini's team has to adapt to a new plan on the fly.

The scaffold is up. The teams are in place. The equipment is primed. A restorer carefully works away a piece of paint and plaster—a previous restoration patch that does no damage to anything by Vasari. And with the whining crescendo of the drill, the investigation is under way. Five days. Six holes. We're looking for a needle in a haystack—and we just might find it.

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Protecting the Vasari

  • Photo: Vasari mural

    Behind the Vasari

    Restorers find existing gaps in the Vasari mural that can be used to search for "The Battle of Anghiari."

Behind the Science

  • Photo: HIPerSpace wall

    Visualizing Data

    The team gathers visible, LIDAR, and radar data and now must place them in a virtual environment.

  • Photo: Endoscope

    Extraction Operation

    Incision instruments, sampling tools, and methods for the sample extraction were designed for this project.

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Il Leonardo Perduto