Local art scholars battle over lost da Vinci

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“La Battaglia di Anghiari,” by Joaquin Junco/ Staff

 

Dan Brown’s mega-best seller “The Da Vinci Code,” with its epic historic and religious conspiracies, secret messages and political intrigue, may have only scratched the surface. Leonardo is doing again what he always did best, stirring up the imagination of mankind.

Not bad for a man who has been dead for nearly 500 years.

Da Vinci, the Renaissance man of the Renaissance, is the focal point of a mystery that features warring art historians, a tottering Italian government, two 15th century masterpieces, UCSD scholars and a small group of Southwestern College faculty and students. Dan Brown should get out his laptop and take some notes, the latest DaVinci dustup is worthy of “Angels and Demons.”

This story begins on June 29, 1440, when two armies of mounted swordsmen battled at a bridge in Tuscany. Da Vinci was commissioned to paint a sweeping mural on a wall in a beautiful Florence hall portraying the battle in which a Milanese battalion, battle flags unfurled, defended their land on the Anghiari planes. Da Vinci’s “La Battaglia di Anghiari” (“The Battle of Anghiari”) has been described by those who saw it as a stunning masterpiece replete with The Master’s gift of painting humans and horses, his two favorite subjects.

Anghiari’s bloody battle, however, ended quicker that the cultural war raging today in the Italian halls of power, the world headquarters of National Geographic, UCSD and San Diego’s Little Italy community.

Da Vinci backers claim there is a massive cover-up in this story, which is “La Battaglia di Anghiari” itself. Art historians are convinced the da Vinci masterpiece is centimeters behind a wall erected in the 1560s featuring a second masterwork, Giorgio Vasari’s fresco “Battle of Marciano.”

UCSD Professor Dr. Maurizio Seracini, an art diagnostician, has spent more than three decades searching for Leonardo’s lost battle mural backed by $250,000 from the National Geographic Society and a $5,000 contribution by San Diego’s Little Italy Cultural Center. Seracini said he thinks he found the da Vinci behind the Vasari mural. By drilling small holes through damaged portions of the Vasari wall, Seracini and his team extracted samples of paints and dye on the backing wall that are consistent with da Vinci’s personal formula.

Leonardo scholars around the world were riveted by the news and the Italian National Geographic broadcasted a documentary in March.

As quickly as the news raced around the world, the project came to a screeching halt. Italy’s powerful arts directive, Italia Nostra, put a stop to the investigation after University of Naples Professor Tomaso Montanari led a petition drive to protest the drilling of holes in the Vasari mural. Seracini’s argument that the drilling was being done surgically and only in damaged parts of the Vasari masterpiece did not persuade Montanari and his backers. Alessandra Mottola Molfino, president of the Italian National Trust, went so far as to file a criminal complaint that brought the Carabinieri, Italy’s military police, to Florence’s Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the 500) where Seracini’s team was working.

Italy’s Minister of Cultural Properties ordered the work stopped and Seracini’s scaffolding in front of the Vasari mural was disassembled. Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi protested and sided with Seracini, but to no avail. Renzi said he believes the da Vinci fresco is behind the Vasari work and that both works could be saved. Vasari backers were alarmed, however, by something Renzi said.

“If I had to choose,” the mayor was quoted as saying. “I would choose Leonardo.”

Seracini is on record as not wanting to damage the Vasari mural, but he said there is ample historical and scientific evidence that a da Vinci masterpiece was bricked off in the 1560s by the powerful Medici family when it ordered the ceiling of the Hall of 500 to be raised. Cosemo I seemed willing to sacrifice the Leonardo fresco in order to create a more grandiose building and allow in more light. (Ironically, da Vinci himself had recommended the same modifications about 60 years earlier.) Renaissance architect and painter Vasari was brought in to supervise the construction work and paint a new floor-to-ceiling mural.

Vasari was said to have great respect for Leonardo and did not want to destroy “La Battaglia di Anghiari.” Seracini hypothesized that Vasari painted his own battle mural on a brick wall in front of Leonardo’s painting. Near the top of Vasari’s fresco just below the ceiling he left a mysterious message on a battle pennant. “Cerca trova” (Search and ye shall find) painted Vasari, mimicking da Vinci’s own penchant for leaving tantalizing clues in his works.

Vasari, it turns out, also left an air gap between the newer wall his mural is on and the original wall behind it. Seracini and other scholars have postulated that he was attempting to preserve the da Vinci fresco.

Seracini had state-of-the art technology to work on the 500-year-old mystery. LIDAR imaging, radar and endoscopic probes with miniature cameras peered in behind the Vasari wall. Extracting tools brought out samples of paint and pigments that have spent half a millennium in the Florentine darkness. Black and brown pigments collected were similar in chemical composition to paint used by da Vinci in “Mona Lisa” and “St. John the Baptist,” according to a scientific paper published by the Louvre which analyzed all da Vinci paintings in its collection.

Seracini said he plans to publish his findings in the journal Nature in the coming months.

Molfino, president of the Italian National Trust, condemned Seracini’s work and promised to fight future drilling in the Vasari mural.

“The idea of discovering a Leonardo may appear romantic, but it is anti-historical, over-zealous, dangerous and demagogic,” she told Geoffrey Luck in the journal Quadrant Online. “This is a wasted expense when we need every penny for restoring the art we have. Instead of restoring Vasari’s ‘Battle of Marciano’ fresco, we are drilling holes in it.”

Seracini and his team of researchers insist Molfino is overstating the risk to the Vasari fresco, which they all claim to greatly respect and admire. Tiny bore holes were only drilled in cracks, damaged areas or restored areas, Seracini said, and no original Vasari brush strokes were touched.

Art aficionados on both sides of the controversy admit to being curious about whether there is a lost Leonardo behind Vasari’s mural. It is a question that has taken nearly 500 years to reach this point. It may require a few more years.

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