It is believed that Da Vinci painted ‘The Battle of Anghiari’ in the Hall of the Five Hundred in the Palazzo at the beginning of the 16th century. However, under the orders of Grand Duke Cosimo I during the middle of the century, architect and artist Girogio Vasari renovated the hall, restructuring the room and painting new frescoes over the old works, including Da Vinci’s.
In March this year Seracini uncovered fragments of pigment behind Vasari’s fresco which he believes come from the original Da Vinci painting. Once again work has been suspended but Humans Invent spoke to Professor Seracini about the technology he has developed in the hunt for the ‘lost Leonardo’.
In 2000 we introduced laser scanning, scanning every square inch of the surface of the hall – creating a 3D model
After completing his degree in bioengineering at the University of San Diego, Seracini went on to apply these engineering techniques in analyzing art and architecture. In 1977 he set up the first firm in Europe devoted to cultural heritage, scientific diagnostic surveys and authentication. Since then he has analysed over 2,500 works of art, though his Holy Grail remains the ‘Battle of Anghiari’.
The first thing that needed to be done was to work out what the hall looked like before renovation in order to get a rough idea of where the painting would most likely be. Seracini says, “In the early days, the mid 70s and early 80s, I used photogrammetry, (the photographic method of measuring the space between objects) which in recent times has been substituted with laser scanning, to map all the warping of the fresco surfaces in the Hall of the Five Hundred. Then I used thermal imaging (Thermography), to see the layout of the woodwork structure underneath Vasari’s mural as well as looking for hidden doors, windows, essentially the original layout of the great hall before it was remodeled by Vasari.”
He also used infrared to look underneath the visible layers of paint by Vasari to see if Leonardo’s work lay beneath. Seracini says, “I applied Infrared Reflectography to the murals that Dutch physicist Van Asperen De Boer developed. I picked up what I thought was a great idea and made my own camera and introduced it to Italy.”
The project was stopped in the late 70s and apart from a little work done in the mid 90s it wasn’t started again until 2000 after Seracini’s team received sponsorship from a member of the Guinness family. This went on for three years, where they managed to map the whole of the Hall of the Five Hundred. Seracini says, “In 2000 we introduced laser scanning, scanning every square inch of the surface of the hall and creating a 3D model, therefore slowly recomposing visually what the great hall looked like and being able to target where the Battle of Anghiari had been painted.”
Seracini believes Vasari, an admirer of Da Vinci’s work, built a false wall with a small gap for air in front of Leonardo’s work and then painted his fresco on to this, in order to preserve the original work. In fact, Vasari used this exact method to protect Massacio’s Trinity fresco at the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. With this in mind they built sophisticated radio antennas to probe both the east and west wall to search for possible air gaps. They found a gap on the east wall, where Seracini had suspected a part of the painting resided.
Work was again stopped and picked up again in 2007, with the help of National Geographic and his Alma Mater the University of San Diego. They applied far more advanced thermal techniques coupled with historical research. Seracini says, “Again we did a lot of thermal imaging, but the equipment was way better than in the past and was using much better quality images which allowed one to really get precise images down to the single brick, the single stone of the layout of the Vasari work and his murals. The historical document research done by art historians matched with what we found to locate precisely a very well defined area where the painting was completed.”
A lot of work was done, first defining then designing an instrument that would allow one to scan the walls without any physical contact
Around this time Seracini had set up the Centre of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3) at San Diego, in order to develop further technology to uncover the lost painting. He says, “A lot of work was done, first defining then designing an instrument that would allow one to scan the walls without any physical contact and map any colour left, any pigment and the distribution of any Leonardo Da Vinci portion of the battle of Anghiari.”
However, the building of this machine based on Neutron Activation Analyses was scuppered when fears were raised that too much radiation would be left in the walls, thus damaging Vasari’s fresco – something that Seracini believes completely unfounded. This meant they were forced to use endoscopy, inserting tiny cameras on wires through small holes drilled into parts of Vasari’s fresco that had been restored over the years and so did not touch any original paint. Here they found and removed tiny fragments which, under chemical analysis, indicate they were pigments, similar to those used by Leonardo Da Vinci on his other works including the Mona Lisa and St. John the Baptist.
Though they are getting tantalizingly close to finding Leonardo’ lost painting, work has yet again been suspended as politics and money concerns contrive against Seracini’s life-long search for this elusive work of art.