Saturday, April 14, 2012

The World Treasure Lost in a Painting

The Battle of Marciano by Giorgio Vasari (1563)
The Battle of Marciano is a massive paintingit covers an entire wall in Florence's city hall. It was painted in 1563 by Giorgio Vasari, who was employed by the Medicis, who had recently returned to power and wanted the walls of city hall covered with frescoes and depictions of their military victories.

In the 1500s the city hall, also known as Palazzo Vecchio, had a grand ceremonial chamber called The Hall of 500. It was here that Leonardo DaVinci and Michelangelo were commissioned to do works.

Dr. Maurizio Seracini has been looking for one of Leonardo DaVinci's most famous, and never found, paintings, The Battle of Anghiari. It was the biggest painting Leonardo ever created. Roughly three times the width of The Last Supper, he ultimately abandoned it for reasons left unknown. According to an article about this in The New York Times, he "left a central scene of clashing soldiers and horses that was hailed as an unprecedented study of anatomy and motion. For decades, artists like Raphael went to the Hall of 500 to see it and make their own copies."

Cerca Trova-"Seek and ye shall find"
In 1975, Seracini was looking at Vasari's painting which is now in the Palazzo Vecchio, when he noticed a small little flag in one of the scenes. On it was written "Cerca Trova", which means "Seek and ye shall find." Seracini was intrigued and thought that this may be a sign.

Using old clues from writings and other paintings, it turns out that Leonardo's painting should have been located at the very spot of the flag in Vasari's painting. Using radar, Seracini discovered that Vasari hadn't plastered his work right on top of the previous one. Instead, he had created new wall and had them erected IN FRONT of the old walls, leaving a small gap behind only one section.

The gap is right behind the "Cerca Trova" flag.

So the new question was: is Leonardo's most famous, lost painting still there, if it was there at all? Had Seracini solved one of art's biggest mysteries?

It wasn't until 2005 that Seracini got a chance to answer those questions. With help form the U.S., he got a device that can send beams of neutrons harmlessly through the walls. According to The New York Times article,

One device can detect the neutrons that bounce back after colliding with hydrogen atoms, which abound in the organic materials (like linseed oil and resin) employed by Leonardo. Instead of using water-based paint for a traditional fresco in wet plaster like Vasari’s, Leonardo covered the wall with a waterproof ground layer and used oil-based paints.

Early reports show that something is there. Until that wall is removed (and delays with the Italian government are all that stand in the way), we won't know for sure if Vasari saved a world treasure or not. But according to Wikipedia:

In March 2012 researchers said "the material found behind the Vasari wall shows a chemical composition similar to black pigment found in brown glazes on Leonardo's Mona Lisa and St. John the Baptist, identified in a recently published scientific paper by the Louvre, which analyzed all the da Vinci paintings in its collection."

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