For decades scholars have labored to find a lost masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci, believed by many to be hidden behind a fresco by Giorgio Vasari in the Palazzo Vecchio here. Now — thanks to an unusual marriage of art history and nuclear physics, partly arranged by an unassuming freelance photographer — the quest may soon be over.
Better yet, it may end with a photographic image of the lost mural.
The complex tale begins in the 1970s, when the Florentine art historian Maurizio Seracini became convinced that the mural, The Battle of Anghiari, hailed by some in Leonardo’s era as his finest work, was lurking behind the wall-sized Vasari in the Hall of Five Hundred, for centuries the seat of Florence’s government.
With its violent, bucking horses and bloodthirsty soldiers brandishing swords in the scrum of warfare, The Battle of Anghiari, which Leonardo began in 1505 and appears to have abandoned the following year, was hailed as a triumph and copied by many artists until it mysteriously disappeared sometime in the
mid-16th century. (A well-known Rubens drawing in the Louvre was inspired by an anonymous copy of the wall-size battle scene.)
A combination of historical sleuthing and scientific analysis led Seracini to venture that Vasari covered Leonardo’s oil painting with a protective wall, then painted his own fresco on top, where it remains today. (Vasari was commissioned to create the fresco in 1563 by members of the Medici family, who had returned to power after an interlude of republican government.)
In the 1970s Seracini, who runs the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology at the University of California, San Diego, and is a professor at its school of engineering, noticed the words cerca trova — “seek and you shall find” — painted on a battle standard in Vasari’s fresco, a tantalizing clue that first piqued his interest.
Over the years he has used everything from ultrasound to thermal imaging to radar scanning in an effort to determine the likely location of the Leonardo painting, and has come to believe that a piece of it is directly behind the cerca trova sign. Since 2000 he has repeatedly used radar to find an air gap indicating that Vasari’s work was painted on a new brick wall in front of the original, where he believes the Leonardo to be. Seracini’s efforts have been championed by various patrons but also repeatedly delayed by Italian bureaucracy and lack of funds.
Now things have changed. “We’re closer than we’ve ever been before,” Seracini, an elegant 64, said on a recent afternoon, as he looked down on the Arno from a terrace high up in the Palazzo Vecchio.
For one thing, the project has found an important champion: Matteo Renzi, Florence’s energetic, young mayor since 2009. “I’ve always been a fan of this research, and when I became mayor, I said, ‘During my mandate, we’ll end this game,’” Renzi said in a telephone interview. “We need to end this game or it will become a joke.”
Last year Renzi signed an agreement that the National Geographic Society would pay Florence US$250,000 in exchange for the right to publish the results of Seracini’s research first and to develop other Florence-related projects. The mayor said the city was ready for Seracini and his team to carry out a series of scientific tests on the wall next year.