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Photo: Watching footage

Photograph by Dave Yoder

By Marco Ferri

This article was originally published in the February 2012 issue of National Geographic Italy magazine and has been translated from Italian.

A dream ... an obsession lasting more than thirty years, for a mystery worthy of a detective novel, of a mural painting, a masterpiece lost centuries ago. And of another fresco painted on top of the first, complete with a clue: a small flag with the inscription "Cerca Trova" ("Seek and you shall find"). It was in the mid-1970s that Carlo Pedretti, one of the world's leading experts on Leonardo da Vinci, first communicated to Maurizio Seracini, a Florentine engineer, the idea of using scientific methods to look for traces of the mural painted in 1503 by the genius da Vinci: the Battaglia di Anghiari. It all started with a book, Leonardo inedito (The Unpublished Leonardo), that Pedretti published in 1968, in which he theorized "the necessity of research on the lost Battaglia di Anghiari," which could be found, according to Seracini, behind the right panel of the east wall in the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, on top of which Giorgio Vasari painted the Battaglia di Marciano.

The frescoed wall and the older one behind it, on which one might find Leonardo's work, prove to be separated by a gap of 10-15 millimeters, the existence of which was confirmed by ground-penetrating radar investigations from last August and recently, by the use of an endoscopic probe.

In the book, Pedretti referred to other cases in which Vasari could have "hidden" works of art in order to not destroy them: the Trinity of Masaccio, "[was] discovered in the mid-1800s in Santa Maria Novella after tearing down the planks of a large altar built by Vasari, which did not touch the fresco. The same occurred in Santa Croce with Giotto, in the Cappella Peruzzi." Not to mention that in the former Courtroom of the Arte dei Pellicciai e Vaiai, today part of the monumental complex of the Uffizi, the late-fourteenth century Annunciation, which was visible but not yet allocated, was only discovered in 1885, found by chance behind a wall put up in subsequent eras, probably by the hand of Vasari himself. According to Pedretti, the architect from Arezzo "would intervene but would not destroy." So why would he have ever needed to eliminate that great fragment of the Battle of Anghiari? He even praised it privately to a Venetian traveler when he said: "Stop and take a look at Leonardo's horses."

And so it is then, that Pedretti's book and the recent start of the final phase of the investigation in the Palazzo Vecchio conducted by Seracini, financed in part by the National Geographic Society and supported vehemently by the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, represent the two extremes of the research, between which there are more than 35 years of document studies, acquired data, discoveries, advances and obstacles, misunderstandings and interests, all leading up to the fact that, for Seracini, the Battle of Anghiari is more than just research, it is an obsession.

This research, which is the first application in Italy of non-invasive technology in the field of cultural heritage, began in the mid-1970s and continued for several years. In 2000, it was reinvigorated, thanks to Loel Guinness, a millionaire philanthropist who decided to provide part of the financing from his company, The Kalpa Group. This new phase did not bring extraordinary results and was ended, to be later resumed in 2005. It was then that Seracini, announcing the results of his thirty years of studies, stating that he had not found objective evidence to prove that the Battle of Anghiari had been destroyed: "The samples taken in the Salone dei Cinquecento," he sustained, "demonstrate instead that Giorgio Vasari must have had Leonardo's painting in front of him when he began the reconstruction of the Palazzo Vecchio." In fact, Vasari himself may have left an important clue in the painting; a small green flag with the inscription, "Seek and you shall find."

The Florentine engineer, today at the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology of the University of California at San Diego, announced then that cutting edge instruments, such as laser scanners, thermography and radar, had "allowed for the discovery of a subtle gap behind the wall of the Salone dei Cinquecento, on which Vasari had frescoed the Battle of Marciano, which could have been constructed by Vasari himself to protect Leonardo's masterpiece."

In 2007 a scientific committee was formed and a series of analyses were to be carried out on all of the walls of the Salone dei Cinquecento, along with the involvement of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence: the restoration institute was responsible for completing field research on the materials utilized by Leonardo to paint the scene of the Battaglia, all with the objective of using a newly designed "neutron activation" scanner within 18 months. The scanner emits streams of gamma rays and records how many are reflected back (that is, the reflections at different depths and the variation of their intensity) which could verify the presence or absence of the colored pigments Leonardo used in 1503.

Soon, however, the first concerns emerged, regarding both the use of the atomic scanner - despite laboratory proof showing that it does not emit dangerous radiation - and the cost of the machine: about two million Euros. In the middle of last October an announcement was made about a change in the methodology: the non-invasive method planned by Seracini was set aside in favor of a different, invasive method. "The research on Leonardo's Battaglia di Anghiari, which I undertook for 36 years, has always used non-invasive methods," commented Seracini. "Now that we are one step away from our goal, evidently everything will change."

The engineer, however, accepted the "Copernican revolution" of the newly planned methodology, so that, again under his guidance, an analysis with a special endoscopic probe began this past November 29. The protocol involved making only seven "holes" (out of 14 requested) in Vasari's fresco in keeping with any existing fractures, abrasions and raisings of the painting's coat of paint.

In fact, under the surveillance of the technicians of the Opificio (the public restoration institute which is part of the Italian Ministry of Culture), six "passages" (as they were defined by Cristina Acidini, superintendent of the Florentine Museum Center and legally responsible for the protection of the city's historic and artistic heritage) were made, four of which did not enable reaching the gap. Of the last two, only one offered a concrete result: "For now I saw that beyond Vasari's wall there is a rough, coarse surface, that would seem to have blotches of material that we have not yet been able to collect, identify and define," says Seracini. "I do not rule out that this is a colored, but not pigmented, surface. Rather a stained background, as is done with the preparation layer. It appears brick red, earthenware, but it is still early. We are trying to understand, which means to collect, analyze, and channel. I neither want to be optimistic nor pessimistic: I want to believe in what is really there and what I can demonstrate."

But this final phase of research triggered a sort of crusade against the invasive method. Italia Nostra (an Italian advocacy group dedicated to protecting Italy's historical, artistic and environmental patrimony) presented a petition to the Florentine proxy signed by about 400 scholars, teachers, employees and everyday people. Moreover, none of them asked to climb the scaffolding and verify what was happening before placing their signatures at the bottom of the petition.

Some maintain that it is improbable that Vasari would have sealed something still legible under a wall. "Everyone knows that the painting was a technical catastrophe," maintains the critic Philippe Daverio. "Leonardo was an experimentalist; he tried to achieve a fresco without the right materials: the result was a painting that evaporated right before the eyes of the [Salone dei] Cinquecento." Paola Salvi, vice director of the Accademia di Brera, rebuts: "There is something under there. It could even be illegible, but this is not the point. Here we need to understand the story and how Vasari worked. The relationship between later masters in the sixteenth century and Leonardo has yet to be studied. Leonardo was almost put aside. Vasari, for example, though recognizing his greatness and his genius, describes him as a heretic..."

Despite the obstacles that have halted research on the Battaglia di Anghiari for over 36 years, one continues to hope for the results that will solve the centuries-old enigma that surrounds the work of Leonardo, whose appeal seems indestructible. When one in the art world (or in that of science) speaks of the genius of da Vinci, the interest becomes general: for five centuries his name has been the most mentioned in the world.

Another investigation, concerning one of his paintings on wood, testifies to this. Since last November, the restoration laboratory of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, at the Basso Fortress of Florence, has had a distinguished guest: the Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci.

The incomplete masterpiece of the great Renaissance master requires particular attention because, as the director of the restoration institute confirms, "it presents a much altered surface due to the accumulation of numerous layers of oxidized paint. From this not only a reduced legibility of the work descends, but also a concrete risk for its good preservation; the very paint could with time begin to produce micro-tears on the pictorial surface." For the superintendent Acidini, "the passage of this masterpiece from the Uffizi Gallery to the laboratories of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure is the first step in a program that avails itself of the most advanced scientific research that guarantees a non-invasive diagnostic."

It is not the first time the Adoration is placed under analysis: in the past 20 years the painting has undergone two sessions of diagnostic investigations that have seen Maurizio Seracini and his team as the protagonists. The first time was at the beginning of the 1990s, when the painting underwent radiography and reflectography that revealed, under the dark mantle of paint applied after the drafted sketch, the existence of about 75 figures practically invisible to the naked eye.

The discovery was epochal in many ways. The second session of diagnostic examinations occurred in 2002: it was the most complete investigation carried out on a work of art. Seracini summarized the results: "Any restoration work could cause detachment of the drawing from the wood, while if the work remains intact, no risk will be run."

Today, after at least ten years, the illustration painted around 1481 by Leonardo is still at the center of a new phase of studies that will last at least four months. The Opificio is prepared to host it for at least two years for any further restorative interventions. Skeptics point out that Leonardo's masterpiece is at the center of a scientific investigation for the third time in 20 years: an operation which, if the necessity to proceed with the restoration is not demonstrated, could appear instrumental, since, because of the previous two, everything else is already known about the painting. The risk is that you end up trying to pass off as new, what in reality is not. The fact is that at this time two of Leonardo's works - one "certain" and the other mysteriously "lost" - are at the center of much scientific research, but also at the center of the obsession of a researcher who, if he has already confronted the first, with the second is still looking for closure for a long, perhaps too long, time.

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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

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    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