Leonardo & the Treasure-Hunt Instinct: TED Talk

The Secret History of Art is giving a TED talk at a TEDx Salon in Ljubljana, Slovenia today.  The Salon opens an exhibition on Leonardo da Vinci.  The talk will be held at the National Conference Center at 5pm today.  I’ll put up the official video as soon as it is ready.  But below, you’ll find a rough transcript of the talk I plan to give on the rivalry between Leonardo and Michelangelo, and a phenomenon I called “the Treasure-Hunt Instinct.”  You can view the video here.

Leonardo & the Treasure-Hunt Instinct

Noah Charney

I have a secret.  It’s about a hidden clue and a lost treasure.  Want to hear more?  I just triggered what I call “the Treasure-Hunt Instinct.”  It’s in all of us: the desire to learn what is secret, to find what is lost and hidden, to solve riddles, puzzles, and mysteries.  For me, the Treasure-Hunt Instinct is greatest in the world of art.

Today I’d like to tell you about a real-life treasure hunt that sounds straight out of an Indiana Jones film.  It’s about a room in a palace in Florence, and the painting that once covered one of its walls.  The room served as a venue for a planned duel between the two leading artists of Renaissance Florence: Leonardo and Michelangelo.  Its story includes a hidden message that leads to a vanished masterpiece…that may be found any day now.

When I talk about the Treasure-Hunt Instinct, I could be speaking of metaphorical treasures.  For instance, what is the symbolism behind these mysterious paintings?  But today I’m speaking of a literal treasure.  There was a painting in a room, and then there was not.   The treasure in question is a lost painting by Leonardo da Vinci.

I’m a professor of art history and author of books, both fiction and non-fiction.  Whether I’m writing novels or history books, whether I’m teaching art history, art crime, or writing, I like to present stories as puzzles, that the listener or reader can try to solve.  History is an enormous jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing.  Historians find archival documents that fill in pieces to the puzzle, but they must rely on educated estimates as to what the finished puzzle would look like.  A lost Leonardo would provide a significant piece to the puzzle.

To the art world, finding a lost Leonardo is like landing on the moon.  Only 22 paintings by Leonardo are extant.  This would be the 23rd.  But this is not only about the art and aesthetics.  This new painting would instantly become the most expensive artwork in the world, were it sold, worth well over 100 million Euros.  It would also shed further light on Leonardo himself, one of the greatest thinkers in human history, an artist and scientist, responsible for the invention of everything from modern surgery to machine guns, from tanks to bicycles to helicopters.  It is not only about the art.

This is a Sala dei Cinquecento, or Hall of Five-Hundred, in the Palazzo Vecchio, in Florence, Italy.  It’s an enormous room, the size of half of a football field, and it is now covered in frescoes by Giorgio Vasari.  Vasari is the key figure in our search for the lost Leonardo.  Vasari was a 16th century Florentine artist and architect, but he is best known for a book he wrote.  The Lives of the Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects was a large, group biography of Renaissance artists, many of whom Vasari knew personally.  It is considered the first work of art history, making Vasari the first art historian.  Vasari’s Lives is still the go-to source for all students and scholars studying Renaissance art and culture.  Through Vasari we learn that Leonardo was commissioned to paint a scene called Battle of Anghiari in 1505, to decorate one of the walls of this room.  Michelangelo was also commissioned to paint a different battle scene, on the opposite wall, Battle of Cascina.  The idea was that you would walk into the room and see a Leonardo battle on one side and a Michelangelo battle on the other, and you could decide which you prefer.  But while Leonardo began, but did not finish his painting, Michelangelo never began his.  He made only a preparatory drawing for it.  His excuse was that Leonardo had already been assigned the wall with better light, so he would be at a disadvantage in this intentional duel of artists.  But in 1563, Vasari was commissioned to restructure and repaint the entire room.  He did so, and Leonardo’s painting disappeared.  What happened to it?  Vasari was such a fan of Leonardo’s that he would not have knowingly destroyed a work by the master.  There was a precedent for preserving wall paintings during a renovation by creating a false wall over the old painting, thereby preserving the painting while fulfilling one’s commission.  Might Vasari have done just that?

In 1975, an Italian scientist-turned-art-historian, Maurizio Seracini, whose talk you will hear after mine, noticed something in this room that no one had seen before.  In the entire room, which is covered in frescoes, there are only two painted words.  Cerca trova.  “Seek and you shall find.”  These words provide a clue, laid out by Giorgio Vasari.  Seracini, myself, and other leading Leonardo scholars believe that this clue indicates where we should look to find the lost Leonardo, which is hidden behind the wall, just beneath the words cerca trova.  Vasari planted this clue to trigger the Treasure-Hunt Instinct in us.  But it took five centuries for someone to follow his trail.

This is what Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari would have looked like.  This is a copy by Rubens, made some one-hundred years after Leonardo’s original.  Below is the preparatory drawing for Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina.  Why did Leonardo never finish his painting, leaving it in this incomplete state?  Well, Leonardo was notoriously hyper-active in his imagination.  He himself said that he regretted having never finished a single painting.  That’s a bit of an over-statement, but not by much.  Leonardo was constantly skipping from one project to the next.  He was also not exclusively interested in painting.  He made far more money in his career as a military engineer, and performing a stringed instrument called the lira da braccio.  Michelangelo likewise did not particularly like painting—he was a sculptor and an architect, he was an archaeologist and curator of the Papal antiques collection and, oh by the way, he also painted.  But there may have been a more meteorological reason why he stopped painting.  According to his diary of 6 June 1505, “Just as I lowered the brush, the weather changed for the worse and the bell started to toll…the cartoon was torn, water poured down and…it rained very heavily until nightfall, and the day was as night.”  So dramatic weather may also have led to the incomplete painting.

The fulcrum between the stories of Leonardo and Michelangelo was Giorgio Vasari.  From his book, we learn of the personal and professional lives of these famous artists, as well as their rivalry.  There were four great Renaissance rivals in Italy.  Leonardo and Michelangelo are the best-known.  They also produced what are arguably the four most famous artworks in the world: Leonardo’s Last Supper and Mona Lisa and Michelangelo’s David and Sistine Chapel ceiling.

But who were the other two leading Renaissance artists, who competed with Leonardo and Michelangelo for commissions?  If you’re a fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you’ll get the answer only half right.  Raphael was a great rival, but the fourth was not Donatello, but Titian.  Donatello lived more than a generation before the others, so he is the odd Ninja Turtle out.

The rivalry between Michelangelo and Raphael has a funny story surrounding the Sistine Chapel.  Raphael tricked the pope into giving Michelangelo the commission to decorate the Sistine Chapel ceiling.  Raphael knew that Michelangelo had never painted a fresco before, and had never trained in the style.  A fresco is a wall painting made with egg-based tempera paint on a wet plaster surface.  He assumed that Michelangelo would make a fool of himself, and leave Raphael as the leading painter of Rome.  Michelangelo did not want to take the commission, but the pope ordered him to do so.  His condition was that no one could see the room until it was finished.  Raphael snuck into the Sistine Chapel to see his rival’s work.  One time the pope tried to sneak in, when he knew that Michelangelo was at the top of the scaffold, and couldn’t chase him out.  But when Michelangelo saw him come in, his started shouting at him from the scaffold, and hurling paint brushes at the pope until he left.  Of course we know the punch line to the story.  Raphael’s trick backfired, and the Sistine Chapel became the most famous fresco in the world.  We learn stories like this largely thanks to the writing of Vasari.

Here are some famous works by Michelangelo.  His greatest artistic legacy was the establishment of a style that would inspire the next great movement in art: Mannerism.  Mannerists were artists who thought that Michelangelo was the best artist who ever lived, and many would still agree with that estimation.  Vasari and other Mannerists emulated Michelangelo’s style, which involved the intentional distortion of realistic bodies, for dramatic effect.  Michelangelo knew what a real human body looked like—he and Leonardo were among the first artists to dissect human cadavers to study musculature, which they did illegally by night at the Ospedale di Santo Spirito in Florence.  So Michelangelo’s contortions were intentional, to heighten the drama, a style carried on by the Mannerists.

Here are some works by Leonardo.  Leonardo was always more interested in science than art, and his artistic legacy is more technical than stylistic.  There are three technical advances that we might consider.  The first is atmospheric perspective.  When we look out into the distance, things that are farther away appear hazier.  This is because we are literally looking through layers of atmosphere.  Leonardo reproduced this in the background of his paintings.  He also developed a technique called sfumato, in which you rub a dry brush over semi-dry paint, to create a milky, cloudy effect that heightens the sense of mystery.  He also developed chiaroscuro, the play of light emerging from darkness, that Caravaggio would make most famous a century later.  Imagine this auditorium with all of the lights out and a single spotlight shining only on my face.  That is a dramatic, highly-chiaroscuro scene.  Now imagine this auditorium with all the lights on.  This general, diffused light was used in most paintings before Leonardo’s time.

I mentioned that there are only 22 extant paintings by Leonardo.  But, every once in awhile, a new work that might be by Leonardo surfaces.  It may surprise you to learn that, for most Old Master painters, we have only about 1/3 of all of their known works.  That means that 2/3 are missing: lost, destroyed, misattributed.  But that gives us hope that these lost works might be found.  In the last few years two possible lost Leonardos were discovered.  This one, Salvator Mundi, is universally considered to be an authentic Leonardo.  The other, La Bella Principessa, divides scholars: half think it is a lost original, half think it is a copy.

Works by Michelangelo may also surface, but the two recently found are both suspicious.  This is an authentic drawing by Michelangelo.  This is the new discovery, which some people think is a lost Michelangelo painting of the same subject.  But to most Michelangelo scholars, it looks like a mediocre copy after a lost original, and nothing more.  This is a wooden crucifix supposedly sculpted by Michelangelo.  It was bought by the Italian government for 4 million Euros.  But I’ve yet to find a Michelangelo scholar who thinks it is authentic.  We have no record of him ever having worked in wood or ever creating a crucifix like this.  When a possible lost work resurfaces, scholars will look to Vasari’s book for clues as to whether it might be authentic.

Vasari, therefore, is the key to many of art history’s mysteries.

You’re probably wondering what happened back in the Sala dei Cinquecento.  In 2006, the wall behind the Cerca trova sign was scanned, and a 4 cm gap was found behind it.  It is, indeed, a false wall.  In 2011, holes were drilled through the Vasari fresco and samples of pigment were found beneath that are similar to those used in Mona Lisa.  Leonardo’s Battle is there.  But the project is on hold, as a group of art historians have signed a petition, arguing that we should not knowingly damage a priceless Vasari fresco in hopes of finding a lost Leonardo.  They also note that the state of Leonardo’s Battle might be very poor, indeed, trapped as it was for five centuries in an airless tomb.  It might be little more than a scattering of pigment, so the search could end up anticlimactic.

But I would make a counter-argument to these petitioners.  I would say that Vasari would happily encourage the removal of part of his fresco to find the lost Leonardo.  After all, we are only following the clues that he planted five-hundred years ago, those two words that triggered our Treasure-Hunt Instinct.

Seek and you shall find.

Noah Charney is a professor of art history and best-selling author of fiction and non-fiction.  This is a rough transcript of his live TED talk, held at a TEDx Salon in Ljubljana, Slovenia on 15 February 2013, at the opening of an exhibition on Leonardo da Vinci.

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