Photo: Dave Yoder

Photograph courtesy National Geographic Television

Dave Yoder is a photographer based in Milan, Italy. He first learned about the lost Leonardo mural in 2006 and introduced the story to National Geographic.

How did you first learn about the Lost Leonardo?

I read about the possibility that there was a lost Leonardo painting behind another mural in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio in 2006, and promptly forgot about it for two years. While arranging an assignment in Florence with the New York Times, I remembered the story, and suggested to the reporter that we do a story on Leonardo instead.

What was it specifically that attracted you to this story?

I've always been intrigued by fantastical stories like this, when truth is stranger than fiction. It immediately caught my attention.

How long have you been working on this story?

The story has been through many starts and stops over the span of four years.

Why has it taken so many years to bring it to its conclusion?

Most of the delays were due to local politics, but there were also fundraising issues for technology.

How much time do you spend researching and preparing for a story, versus the time you spend actually taking photos for it?

This was an exceedingly atypical story for me. I became unusually involved with the scientific side of the project while looking for a way to image the painting while it was still behind the wall. Countless hours were invested into finding and developing a gamma ray camera to do that. So in this case, the amount of research greatly outweighed the time I spent shooting. But normally I probably put about a quarter of the time into research that I put into shooting.

Do you have a favorite camera/lens that you like to use?

The Canon 5D MII is the only body I use, and my 24mm f/1.4 and 16mm-35mm lenses are what I use 90 percent of the time. They're just the right tools for how I shoot.

What was the most complicated part of taking photos for this story?

A picture of a painting is pretty boring to begin with, but I didn't even have the painting to work with. The challenge was to find things to photograph about a painting that might or might not be behind a wall. Finding that content was the challenge.

Do you have a favorite photograph you took from this story?

Perhaps it would be a vertical picture of an endoscope in the wall, with a warrior in the Vasari fresco seeming to peer up toward it, and a spear plunging into a body below him. The real human hand reaching for the endoscope has some body language that I'd like to think is Renaissance-esque.

You've been following this story for four years. What was the lowest moment for you in trying to tell this story?

Without question, when my project to image the painting with a gamma camera was shelved for political reasons. Three years of work down the drain. It gutted me.

What was the highest moment?

Working on the scaffold was engrossing and sometimes even fun. It was nice to feel like the project was coming to a conclusion.

As you've learned more about Leonardo da Vinci while searching for this painting, how have your opinions changed about him as a person and as an artist?

He still feels like a complete mystery to me, despite having read a few biographies and studied his surviving paintings, which, as a body of work, seem very incomplete. But he had a certain magic that I think even I can see in his sketches, and paintings, especially of the female face. And I'm not talking about the "Mona Lisa," which really doesn't do that much for me.

What do you think the chances are that Leonardo's painting is still in that room?

I think it is probable that there is at least part of it somewhere in the room. I am less confident, however, in the odds that we'll be able to find it given the technology we are limited to. Limited endoscope-or more properly, videoscope-probes are like playing pin the tail on the donkey. We could easily miss it by a few inches and then the world would never know.

What were your thoughts when you climbed the scaffold for the first time and stood within inches of where the lost Leonardo is thought to be hidden?

Finally, hopefully, we've reached the finale.


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.

Learn More »

Il Leonardo Perduto