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Leonardo Da Vinci may be at the heart of a real art mystery

Modern science may reveal whether a long-lost work by the Renaissance master was hidden decades later by another painting. And then what?

January 18, 2012|By Jason Felch, Los Angeles Times
  • Falko Kuester at UC San Diego is working with a team of researchers using cutting-edge technology to search for a Leonardo Da Vinci painting that may be hidden behind a mural in Florence.
Falko Kuester at UC San Diego is working with a team of researchers using… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

At three o'clock on a cold December morning, a team of researchers huddled together on scaffolding 25 feet high in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio, holding a tablet computer up to a huge 16th century fresco.

But the researchers weren't interested in the dramatic battle scene, the work of Renaissance artist Georgio Vasari.

Their goal was to solve one of art history's greatest mysteries — whether Vasari preserved a long-lost work of Leonardo Da Vinci, "The Battle of Anghiari," behind his own.

With the swipe of a finger, one used the tablet's custom-built software to virtually peel away layers of pigment, plaster and brick, stripping the centuries-old wall to its bones. Drawing on decades of studies that shot energy through the wall at various wave lengths, it produced shadowy pictures of ancient fissures, bricked-over windows and a mysterious air pocket.

The research, described by team members and demonstrated in San Diego, is an attempt to use technology to accomplish something that has eluded art historians for centuries — determine the fate of the work.

Solving the mystery has been a 36-year obsession for lead researcher Maurizio Seracini, who runs UC San Diego's Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology. The Florence native studied medicine and bioengineering before turning his technical expertise to art, and he has earned an international reputation for diagnosing ailments in the world's great masterpieces.

But now, after decades of noninvasive study, Seracini's team was using its high-tech tablets for a controversial purpose: to determine where to drill small holes through the Vasari fresco so tiny cameras could peer behind it.

Critics are accusing Seracini and his partners — the ambitious young mayor of Florence and a team at National Geographic, which is funding the quest in return for rights to a television documentary — of malpractice.

One government conservation expert monitoring the project resigned in protest. More than five hundred people — including leading art historians — signed a petition to halt the work. A local prosecutor opened a criminal investigation.

At its core, the controversy represents a clash of cultures: Seracini's team of risk-taking techies intent on finding a lost masterpiece versus the starchy world of elite art historians determined to protect the known one. Seracini's critics cast him as a modern Don Quixote on a sensationalistic quest. It doesn't help that he is portrayed as himself, the art diagnostician in Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," the bestselling novel scowled at by art historians for fueling an ill-informed obsession for all things Leonardo.

"It's absurd to think that Vasari enclosed the Leonardo behind the wall," said Tomaso Montanari, an art history professor at the University of Naples and the author of the petition. "It's a little childish, like a Dan Brown conspiracy."

Montanari and other opponents have denounced the project as being driven by marketing and politics. The evidence fueling Seracini's search is circumstantial at best, they say, cobbled together from vague historical accounts and tantalizing but inconclusive scientific findings.

"Why should we be so impatient?" said Patricia Rubin, a leading Renaissance scholar who directs NYU's Institute of Fine Art. "We've been waiting 500 years; why not wait another generation until we can actually do it with a noninvasive technique?"

Seracini is undaunted by the criticism.

"I'm very honored to search for the ultimate masterpiece," he said recently via Skype from his Florence office. "If that means I'm Don Quixote, perhaps I am."

The 'Battle of Anghiari'

Florence in the early 1500s was the heart of the Renaissance, where artists and thinkers flourished under the patronage of the powerful Medici clan.

City leaders decided to commission two of history's greatest painters to decorate the walls of the Palazzo Vecchio's Hall of Five Hundred, the seat of government.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, a 29-year-old prodigy who had just completed his statue of David, sketched bathing soldiers being surprised by the enemy during the Battle of Cascina, the 1364 victory of Florentine troops over the Republic of Pisa.

Across the hall was his rival, the 52-year-old master Leonardo da Vinci, fresh from completing the "Mona Lisa." He began painting a ferocious cavalry charge in which Florence had been victorious over Milan in the Battle of Anghiari in 1440. Neither work was completed.

Michelangelo was called to Rome by Pope Julius II to paint the Sistine Chapel. Leonardo abandoned his painting when his experimental technique — oil painted on a base of plaster mixed with wax or linseed oil — failed. In some areas, the colors ran together and the plaster separated from the wall.

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