The Hidden Mona Lisa: Closer to a Lost Leonardo

The Secret History of Art has a feature in today’s (20 March 2012) San Francisco Chronicle (“One Step Closer to a Lost Leonardo“) about the progress made by Maurizio Seracini in his search for the lost Leonardo “Battle of Anghiari.”  The article is an opinions piece, and therefore limited to 550 words.  Below we present the full-length version of the article.

The colossal frescoes that cover the walls of the Sala dei Cinquecento in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, painted by the Mannerist artist Giorgio Vasari, are not to everyone’s taste, but they are undoubtedly awe-inspiring, and are considered masterworks of 16th century painting.  And whether or not they suit your aesthetic, they are intriguing for another reason: they seem to contain a riddle-filled treasure map, which a charismatic engineer-turned-art historian is about to crack.

As you step out of the blinding Florentine sunlight and into the terracotta-scented Palazzo Vecchio, it will take a moment for your eyes to adjust.  But when they do, and the Sala dei Cinquecento leaps into clarity, you may be surprised to be surrounded by giants.  The soaring walls of this vast meeting hall (12,750 square feet) are painted with larger-than-life-size frescoes of riding and ranting warriors.  Four enormous battle scenes show the military triumphs of the Medici family, painted in 1563 by Vasari.  His soldiers bristle with superhuman melon-like musculature bulging out of skin-tight armor, as they assault a fortified city by lamplight.

But there is a problem.  Buried beneath one of the four frescoed walls there may lie a treasure of far greater importance—one which has not been seen for five centuries.

A lost painting by Leonardo da Vinci.

At the center of the auditorium-size sala stands Maurizio Seracini.  He has been called the “real Indiana Jones” and the tracker of a “real-life Da Vinci Code.”  He has been profiled in dozens of languages, from The New York Times to National Geographic as a “cultural heritage engineer,” at title that did not exist before he established the field.  As director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture, and Archaeology (CISA3) at UC San Diego in the United States and director of both Editech, a high-tech art diagnostics service, and the Interdisciplinary Center for Ultrasonic Diagnostics in Medicine, both in Florence, Italy, he has studied over 2500 artworks and monuments using new technologies, many of which he himself adapted and developed.  He is the man searching for the lost Leonardo, in a project sponsored by National Geographic.

In 1975, Seracini noticed a tiny bit of text hidden within Vasari’s frescoes in the Sala dei Cinquecento. Throughout the entire room, one frescoed wall of which is 177 feet long, Vasari had painted exactly two words.

Cerca trova.

“Seek and you shall find.”

Seracini and many leading Leonardo scholars believe this to be a real clue from Vasari, indicating that he somehow preserved Leonardo’s fresco, while still fulfilling his commission—and that Leonardo’s fresco is hidden beneath a false wall onto which Vasari painted his own frescoes.

Delayed by bureaucratic red tape, it was only in 2006 that Seracini announced that he had discovered a 1.5 inch hollow gap between the back of Vasari’s frescoed wall and a second wall behind it.  This double-wall, which Vasari must have built when he painted the frescoes, is unheard of, and has no architectural or structural rationale.  Further, the gap is only behind one of Vasari’s four frescoed walls—the one with the words “Cerca trova” written on it.

This is a treasure hunt for grown-ups, a real-life Da Vinci code—the search for a lost masterpiece by Leonardo.  If Seracini’s theory is true, and it is supported by most of the world’s leading art historians, then behind Vasari’s fresco is Leonardo’s only other wall painting besides the Last Supper.

The story behind the fresco tells the tale of a duel between the two greatest painters of Renaissance Italy and, one might argue, the history of art.  In 1505, Leonardo was commissioned to paint a battle scene on a wall of the Sala dei Cinquecento, a torqued swirl of swordsmen and horses called Battle of Anghiari.  He never completed it, drawn away by other business.  Michelangelo had also been commissioned to paint a rival battle scene, Battle of Cascina, on another wall in the same colossal room.  It was an intentional head-to-head of the two leading painters of the era, but Michelangelo thought he got a bum deal—the wall he was assigned had poor lighting, and he never began his painting, which is known only through preparatory drawings.  We know of Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari only through a drawing, a copy by Rubens.

On 12 March 2012, the BBC reported that Seracini and his team found a black pigment that matched pigment used in Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, by drilling through the Vasari fresco.  This is indeed promising, because many art historians fear that the priceless Vasari fresco is being partially damaged during this investigation for naught.  Renowned Leonardo expert and Oxford professor Martin Kemp wishes Seracini well, but fears that, if anything is found, it may be anti-climactic.  Leonardo did not paint a traditional fresco (which calls for egg-based tempera painted onto wet plaster) but rather, like the deteriorated Last Supper, the Battle was painted onto a dry plaster wall.  Having been walled-up behind the Vasari for centuries, the chances are that the painting is now little more than a crumble of pigments barely affixed into place.  Some art historians have signed a petition to stop the investigation, because it is damaging the Vasari, and may end up as a wild goose chase.

The news that pigments used by Leonardo have already been found beneath the Vasari is encouraging.  The art world eagerly awaits what would be the biggest discovery of the century.  But if the projects moves ahead, it will encounter one more puzzle: how to reveal the entire Leonardo without irrevocably damaging the Vasari that lies above it?

Noah Charney is the author of Stealing the Mystic Lamb: the True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece.  He teaches art history and art crime for Brown University and the ARCA Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection Studies.

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