This is hands-down one of my favorite stories. I mean it has it all: mystery, Renaissance celebrities, top-secret government sting operations, and a little Dan Brown-esque art history (that is actually FACTUAL). Also, for us at Select Study Abroad, it is particularly close to home. Not only is Leonardo da Vinci our BFF and not only do we personally take students to the scene of the “crime,” but our very own professor, Rab Hatfield, was involved, wrote a book on the subject, and gave us the opportunity of meeting (on several occasions) the man behind the mystery (No, not Leonardo! Read on!).
So the story goes like this:
There was this little thing called the Florentine Republic. It had a tough time over the years (those darn Medici are so troublesome), but at the very end of the 15th century it had been reinstated and things were looking good. Now, if you are a little republic in the Renaissance looking to flex your new governmental muscles there a couple things you can do. One of them just happens to be harnessing the artistic power of some of the most coveted and respected artists of the day to do your bidding. Lucky, for this little republic, they just happened to have access to two of the most significant artists available: Leonardo da Vinci (technically he is from Vinci, but whatevs) and Michelangelo. You know…no big deal.
So, you take these two BIG names and you give them a BIG project: decorate the massive walls of the Sala del Gran Consiglio (also known as the Sala dei Cinquecento) in the Palazzo Vecchio (the government building in Florence). In 1503, Leonardo was commissioned to fresco the “Battle of Anghiari” (a battle famously won by the Florentines) on one of the long walls of the rectangular Sala. He had finished his preliminary drawing (called a cartoon) and had begun painting it by 1505. In typical Leo fashion, however, he used a very experimental technique and before the brushes were dry the wall was already having problems.
Damage aside, Leonardo’s work was getting great reviews from those who could get in and catch a glimpse. Michelangelo’s cartoon (which would have been as large as the final artwork itself) was also getting an enormous amount of attention. Our favorite artist Benvenuto Cellini called these two works (seeing as they were becoming so influential to contemporary artists) the “school of the world.” As the well-known art historian and Leonardo scholar, Kenneth Clark notes, “It is not too fanciful to say that [these two works] initiate the two styles which sixteenth-century painting was to develop…”(Clark 1939, 198)
In 1506, Leonardo was called to Milan at the request of the King of France (Florence could not refuse). He would never return to work on the fresco. Michelangelo’s design never even made it to the wall before he was called down south by the Pope to paint something else pretty important (*cough* Sistine chapel). The cartoons were apparently so studied, so loved, and so coveted by eager young artists that they took home pieces of them until there was no more left to take. Luckily, we have contemporary copies of both. However, in the case of Leonardo, these copies differ somewhat and we are unsure of exactly when they were made, which, when you realize they are all we have to go on, is pretty darn important. The most famously referenced copy of Leonardo’s work is actually a heavily imagined and embellished version by Rubens based on a (what we assume is) a more accurate contemporary copy.
Fast-forward 50 years. We no longer have a republic, but a duchy. And at the head of this duchy is a man named Cosimo I de’ Medici (we’ve mentioned him before). He has a certain man by the name of Giorgio Vasari come in and do a little remodeling on his new digs (Palazzo Vecchio, the republic’s government building). He doesn’t want any old republic stuff around and he wants the building to be even grander. In the Sala dei Cinquecento, Vasari builds the walls higher, adds windows, shifts the shape of the room, frescoes the new walls, and constructs a magnificent ceiling in honor of the duke. It would appear that whatever is left of Leonardo’s masterpiece is lost to us at this time.
Fast-forward to now. Well not now…more like 1970s. A man named Maurizio Seracini has a vision and a mission to uncover this lost masterpiece. Inspired in part by the history and intrigued by a small, but not insignificant detail (here comes Dan Brown!): a small flag bearing the words “cerca trova,” (the Italian equivalent of “seek and ye shall find”) painted on the flag of a small soldier in one of Vasari’s frescoes (see image below). They are the only words to be found in any of the massive paintings and, most interestingly, are not visible from the ground. So why are they there? Seracini had to wonder, “Is Vasari trying to tell us something?”
Coming from a medical background originally, Seracini started looking at works of art with ultrasound technology. Today he uses everything from thermal imaging to radar scanning to literally see through walls (and you thought art historian didn’t have super powers). After years of research, trial and error (at one point even believing the painting was on the other side of the room and having the Italian government attempt to beat him to the punch by drilling a hole into the wrong painting while he was out of town!), Seracini is now convinced that he has found the location of Leonardo’s lost work (with a little help from this book we imagine…shameless plug). Working in the Florentine Archives and sleuthing through 500 year old books (not to mention 500 year old Italian, people!), Rab Hatfield was able to piece together various first hand accounts that painted the picture, so to speak, of where exactly Leonardo’s work would have been. With this information and with the help of some very high tech equipment, Seracini was able to see that directly behind Vasari’s possible clue (cerca trova) and coincidentally exactly where Leonardo’s fresco would have been, there is small air gap in between the original wall and the new one built during Vasari’s remodeling. Is this gap structural or could it have been intentionally left there by Vasari? Could the remains of Leonardo’s fresco still be behind this layer of bricks? If so, how can we find out without damaging the work that now covers it?
After years of red tape, the Mayor and the city of Florence are ready to allow Seracini and his team into the room to start doing tests. National Geographic has offered the city $250,000 for exclusive rights to this research’s results. Since 2005, Seracini has been developing technologies that would give him the power of x-ray vision: to see behind the wall without removing or damaging it in any way. Some of his latest attempts test for certain organic pigments (typical in Renaissance paint) that his devices can detect through the 500 year old wall. And most recently, as seen in the New York Times, a highly advanced camera (originally designed to test for cancer in the body) is now being developed that can shoot gamma rays through the wall, detect what is behind it and, if there is anything to be detected, map an image of it. This latest bit of technology is the most promising as it has the potential to see both what is behind the wall and where – i.e. creating an actual layout of Leonardo’s image based on the various materials it detects.
Here’s the catch. A camera like this runs almost $300,000. So in a valiant effort to get the funding for a project over thirty years in the making, along with thehelp of National Geographic photographer David Yoder, Seracini has put the funding in our hands. You can become part of history – art history! With the donation of as little as a dollar on kickstarter.com, you could help make this amazing piece of history unfold in our lifetime. Check out more at their kickstarter page and read up on the many articles written on these fascinating and passionate people. But also…SPREAD THE WORD! There are just over 10 days left to make this dream a reality!
As we wait for the final results, there of course remains some significant questions to be answered. For example, what will we actually find? If the Last Supper is any indication, we may be looking at just illegible pigments on the wall, or worse, on the ground between the walls. If the new camera can achieve its goal and we are able to confirm that something is there, the next big question will be: do we even risk trying to “excavate” it at all? Protected all these years from the elements, is it possible that exposure could destroy what is still left?
For another fantastic account of this story (complete with David Yoder interview and a highly informative 14 minute video that happens to feature a certain professor we know) see this article at Three Pipe Problem.