Science reveals new clues to lost da Vinci masterpiece

One constant challenge for science is proving something exists when its existence is not immediately apparent.  Such is the case with a lost da Vinci painting…supposedly hidden beneath another painting. Developments in radar, imaging, materials analysis, and more have generated a new interest in the hunt for a “lost” da Vinci painting, The Battle of Anghiari, rumored to be located under another fresco in the Palazzo Vecchio of Florence, Italy. The most recent attempt to locate the lost da Vinci, led by Maurizio Seracini, who has been hunting for the painting for more than 30 years, seem promising enough, but his attempt has generated strong opposition. Based on a series of news reports on Seracini’s so-called discovery and a comparison of his evidence to previous investigations, Seracini’s results lack the definitive conclusions needed to convince me that his discovery holds promise. While the current frescoes may conceal the long lost painting, the evidence lacks the certainty required to risk damaging the existing priceless work.

A rendition of the Fight for the Standard, composed by Paul Ruben, a copy of the lost da Vinci.

The history of the lost painting reads like a historical thriller, complete with political intrigue and suspense. In 1504, Machiavelli of Florence signed a contract with Leonardo for a commissioned mural to decorate the Sala del Gran Consiglio, political center for the new Republic. Though Leonardo never finished the commission, there are eyewitness reports that prove that he nearly completed one panel, The Fight for the Standard. It was supposedly Leonardo’s greatest accomplishment and many artists traveled to Florence to admire it and copy their own version of the painting. In 1563, the panel disappeared after Giorgio Vasari remodeled the room and erected his own murals when the Medici’s disposed of Machiavelli and regained power. The only clue to the location of the da Vinci is Vasari’s description of the room before the renovation. At the start of his research, Seracini was convinced that the da Vinci is still hidden within the room, but he lacked the means to safely remove the existing Vasari murals. In order to prove the lost da Vinci exists, Seracini has been working on developing technology to locate the painting by using non-invasive techniques, a 30-year labor of love.

The Battle of Marciano by Giorgio Vasari, behind which the da Vinci may still remain.

Seracini’s first step utilized radar and imaging to virtually shape the original architecture of the room. When Seracini confirmed that an anomaly existed behind the east wall, he confronted his next challenge – accessing the hidden wall behind the Vasari. He attempted a number of different techniques, none of which produced conclusive results (you can read more in Seracini’s published articles, listed at the bottom of this post).  Art historians eventually gave Seracini’s team their blessing to drill six access points along the Vasari fresco that had been previously damaged or restored. The team then inserted cameras to view the texture and condition of the wall behind the Vasari and concluded that there is a strong possibility that the da Vinci is there. In their analysis, Seracini and his team used several techniques that you have possibly used in the lab, including fiber optic Raman spectroscopy, stereomicroscopy, x-ray fluorescence spectrometry, reflected light and UV fluorescence microscopy, FTIR, SEM, EDS, LiDAR imaging, and radar. A brief description on how each was used in this project can be found on The National Geographic Society’s website.

The analyzed samples of the hidden surface revealed a presence of red lacquer, black, brown, and beige pigments, which Seracini believes bolsters his case that a da Vinci lies behind the east wall. By comparing the composition of the materials with the Louvre’s study of its da Vinci collection, the Seracini team was able to confirm that the pigments are similar to those in da Vinci’s other paintings and that the red lacquer was used as a base for an oil medium. Based on da Vinci’s experimentation with color and medium, Seracini claims that some of the unique pigments found behind the east wall were “used exclusively by Leonardo.”

Though the team is producing evidence that validates Seracini’s theory, the project has attracted its share of controversy. In an ABC News article, an expert claimed that the project is nothing but propaganda and that even if the painting exists, it most likely deteriorated because of da Vinci’s experimental techniques. I was surprised at this strong display of disbelief in Seracini’s research, but soon discovered such distrust is common. I found three articles from 1975, 1982, and 1994, two of which include scientific data, that detail previous efforts to discover the painting’s location.  Each presents a convincing argument and evidence, but they completely contradict each other. The search for the lost da Vinci is by no means novel, and each previous attempt has yielded wildly differing results.

3D Tour of the Hall of 500 (Sala del Gran Consiglio) within the Palazzo Vecchio.

Laser technique for the divestment of a lost Leonardo da Vinci mural,” published in 1975, refers to historical accounts of Vasari erecting a brick wall along the east wall of the room. It also claims that cores taken from the wall suggest the da Vinci may still exist underneath, but the article does not detail the composition of the cores. Interestingly, the article ends with a confident statement that the Vasari fresco would most likely be taken down within the next year.

On the location of Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari,” published in 1982 by authors Newton and Spencer, explores the history of the mural and an alternative theory on its location. The majority of the article explains in detail the architecture of the Sala before and after the renovation in 1563. By using thermovision and ultrasonic equipment, Newton and Spencer claim to have found a complex anomaly along the west wall. They also claim to have found samples of red lacquer, large traces of charcoal, and two unusual pigments to that era: copper carbonate and blue smalt. They also discovered traces of azurite, which Leonardo used in previous paintings for a unique lighting effect. Newton and Spencer claim that the error of the location lies in a misinterpretation of Vasari’s description, which does not tell the reader from where Vasari was positioned in the room when he was assigning directions. The article also mentions that, “after a decade of research,” one Vasari panel was expected to be removed.

The window panels in “Madonna and Child” are brlightly colored by using an azurite background. Farago mentions that da Vinci also uses the same technique in “The Last Supper.”

The two articles contain several contradictions regarding physical evidence of the painting. One has analyzed cores from the east wall, and the other found compelling samples from the west wall. Both claim that the Vasari frescos would be removed, though they never were. And a third paper does little to clarify the confusion. In “Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari: A study in the exchange between theory and practice,” published in 1994, Farago confirms in note 55 that the panel is hidden on the east wall. He admits that there is no verification for either wall, but claims that Vasari clearly indicates the location of the painting in a passage following the one that Newton and Spencer criticize. Farago suggests that any trace of red pigment would have muted oils as a base, but was necessary to support azurite. He claims the presence of azurite on the west wall is the only curious discovery.

There is such an abundance of contradiction surrounding the assignment of directions that I am still thoroughly confused over which evidence is reliable. Each article claims to have historical and scientific evidence of the probable location of the painting, but there is still no undeniable evidence. The results Seracini released in March seem to be promising, but after more than 30 years of searching it is difficult to determine whether or not Seracini is making something out of nothing. There have been misleading scientific investigations and “proof” of the painting in the past, so who is to say that Seracini is any more trustworthy?  Though previous investigations are conflicting, perhaps Seracini’s methods will settle the dispute. But first Seracini will have to overcome the disbelief of many in his field. I’m hesitant to accept that Seracini has discovered the painting, but am interested to see what he can prove. That said, his use of novel technology has its own valuable contribution to the mystery. Seracini’s great contribution to the unfolding puzzle is his willingness to bring instrumental analysis familiar to many chemists to the search for The Fight for the Standard. As the techniques used continue to advance, it’s only a matter of time until he or someone else finally confirms the painting’s location – or non-existence.

If you are interested in following the project, the National Geographic Society has extensive coverage, videos, and photos as Seracini’s partner. There is also a National Geographic Society TV special following the project available on the website. Here’s a preview of the video.

Good luck discovering the truth!

Seracini’s articles:

  • “Non-contact intrawall penetrating radar for heritage survey: the search for the ‘Battle of Anghiari’ by Leonardo da Vinci” 2005
  • “Nanosecond Neutron Analysis for the search of the lost Leonardo’s masterpiece, the Battle of Anghiari” 2009
  • “Neutron back scattering for the search of the Battle of Anghiari” 2010

Alexandra Aloia is a rising junior at Alvernia College majoring in history and chemistry.


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