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.
“Within the next year you won’t write, ‘Now they’re starting,’” Renzi said. “I hope you can write, ‘What will we do with the Leonardo painting?’ This is the real question.”
Seracini’s project took an unexpected turn in 2007, when he met David Yoder. A slow-talking Indiana native and a photographer who freelances for publications including the New York Times, Yoder would seem an unlikely character to solve the mystery of a lost Leonardo. But after selling National Geographic on an article about Seracini’s quest, he found himself motivated to try.
“I entertained a very simple thought process,” Yoder said on a recent morning in a Florence cafe. “I’m a photographer on a story about a painting that may or may not be behind a wall. I should try to take a picture of the painting.”
Since 2005 Seracini had been working with scientists in Russia, the Netherlands and the US to develop techniques to determine if the painting was there by identifying chemicals Leonardo was known to have used in his painting. One technique, using a portable device normally applied to explosives detection, could help identify the paint pigments; another would detect the organic material used by Leonardo, who painted his mural in oil, while Vasari used wet plaster.
But neither, Seracini conceded, would be able to create an image of the lost painting.
In his spare time Yoder began Googling and came upon Robert Smither, a senior nuclear physicist at the Advanced Photon Source division of the Argonne National Laboratory, outside Chicago, run by the US Energy Department. Smither was working on a special camera to generate high-resolution images of a cancer’s location in the human body.
Yoder cold-called Smither and asked if he thought the technique would work on the Leonardo. Smither, who is 82 and has worked at Argonne since the 1950s, said he was senior enough in his profession to have nothing to lose.
“It looked like fun,” he said. “What was I going to waste? A couple weeks in Florence.”
Smither figured that his camera, which essentially uses copper crystals in place of lens glass to focus the gamma rays that bounce back when an object is sprayed with neutrons, could provide a definitive answer. It could not only determine whether the Leonardo painting was there by identifying the chemicals in the paint but could also capture an image of the hidden work — without damaging the Vasari fresco on top.
Thus ensued an unlikely and somewhat surreal turn of events in which Yoder, between glossy-magazine assignments, found himself borrowing time at a facility of Italy’s energy research agency in Frascati, outside Rome. The testing, in June last year, went well. The team took pigments similar to those used by Leonardo and original bricks from Leonardo’s era that Seracini found at the Palazzo Vecchio and sprayed them with neutrons. The gamma rays that bounced back were strong enough for Smither to collect and read.
That convinced Smither that if they exposed the wall in the Hall of Five Hundred to neutrons, they could tell from the gamma rays that bounced back whether Leonardo’s painting was still there. And, at that point, they could build a special camera that would create an image from those particular gamma rays.
Once the city of Florence gives Seracini the green light to start testing, he said he would proceed with the gamma-camera technique first.
But now the project has run up against a final hurdle: financing. This month Yoder and National Geographic started an unusual fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.com, aimed at raising the US$265,000 they say they need to build and test the gamma camera.
Of course, there is one big hypothetical: that the Leonardo painting is still intact on the wall where Seracini believes it to be. Over the years the paint might have flaked and fallen off, crumbling to the bottom of the space behind the fresco.
But Smither has a scientist’s cool. If they can test the gamma camera, “it will be a success in its failure, in that we’ll know where the painting is,” he said. “For me, that answers the question. If it’s not on the wall, it’s down at the bottom of the slot. Where else can it go?”
If the testing ultimately proves that the Leonardo mural is indeed behind the fresco, a highly charged international debate would result about how to move forward, and whether the Vasari could be cut into to make way for research on the Leonardo.
During an interview at the Palazzo Vecchio, Seracini raced through the upstairs rooms toward two terra-cotta statuettes of wild, bucking horses by the Renaissance artist Giovanni Francesco Rustici, based on The Battle of Anghiari.
“It gives you an idea of the bestiality, of the fury of the fresco,” he said.
After more than 30 years on his quest, “I still have the same passion,” Seracini added. “I don’t want to quit now that I’m so close.”
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