Search for Mysterious Lost Da Vinci Aborted

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A longstanding Leonardo da Vinci mystery — the fate of a lost masterpiece known as the Battle of Anghiari –- will remain unsolved.

The ambitious project to find the long-lost artwork has been put on indefinite hold and the massive scaffolding erected for the hunt will be dismantled at the end of the month.

The scaffoldings have been standing for nearly 10 months

in front of a frescoed wall in Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's 14th-century city hall, in the imposing Hall of Five Hundred. This was a room built at the end of the 15th century to accommodate the meetings of the Florentine Council.

Right there, behind a mural known as the "Battle of Marciano," would lie Da Vinci's masterpiece, according to art diagnostic expert Maurizio Seracini, director of the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology at the University of California, San Diego.

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Created by the renowned 15th-century painter, architect and writer Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), the mural has been at the center of Seracini’s research since the 1970s.

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Finally, in late 2011, Seracini identified 14 small areas in the frescoed wall that could be explored by endoscopy and asked for permission to investigate them.

Italy’s culture minister granted authorization to work in seven areas, leaving the decision of where to insert the endoscopic probe to the local superintendency and the Opificio delle Pietre Dure (OPD) art restoration laboratory.

To ensure that no damage would be done to Vasari’s mural, areas were chosen that were either free of original Vasari paint or were cracked or previously restored.

In January, Seracini's team drilled six tiny holes into Vasari's fresco, inserted a 0.15-inch-wide probe and micro-cameras and collected samples of red, white, orange and black material.

"None of the six points of entry chosen by the Opificio Delle Pietre Dure was among the 14 original points identified by Prof. Seracini. Nevertheless, he and his scientific team were encouraged by the results," said National Geographic, who sponsored the Battle of Anghiari Project, in a statement.

Indeed, analysis with a scanning electron microscope revealed the black material had an unusual chemical makeup of manganese and iron. 

According to Seracini, the compound corresponded to the black pigment found in brown glazes on Leonardo's "Mona Lisa" and"'St. John the Baptist."

Red material, most likely red lacquer, was also found. Moreover, high-definition endoscopic images revealed a beige material that "could only have been applied by a paint brush," the researcher said.

According to Seracini, the endoscopy also provided visual evidence of an air gap, previously identified by radar scanning, between The Battle of Marciano and the wall behind it. This would suggest that Vasari created it intentionally to preserve Leonardo’s masterpiece, he said.

The hypothesis added more intrigue to Leonardo Da Vinci’s lost masterpiece.

Described as "the great mystery story of the Renaissance" by the mayor of Florence Matteo Renzi, the Battle of Anghiari was conceived in 1503, when Leonardo and Michelangelo received twin commissions to paint historic Florentine victories on opposite walls of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

While Michelangelo never got past a sketch of his "Battle of Cascina," Leonardo began to paint the centerpiece of the ''Battle of Anghiari," known as the ''Fight for the Standard," on June 6, 1505, when he was 53.

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"Representing vividly the rage and fury both of the men and the horses," as Vasari wrote in his 1550 book "Lives of the Artists," the 12- by 15-foot mural would celebrate the Florentine's victory over Milanese troops in 1440.

Vasari reported that Leonardo abandoned the project because of technical problems arising from his experimental mixing of oil paint and fresco.

Historians, however, have questioned his conclusion. Some speculated that Vasari made up the story, and that the fresco actually was completed.

Hailed by Leonardo's contemporaries as his finest work, the "Battle of Anghiari" now survives in several preparatory drawings and sketches by the master himself and in a Rubens drawing which was inspired by an anonymous copy of the fresco.

Ten years after writing his account of the "Battle of Anghiari," Vasari was hired to modify the council room into the Hall of Five Hundred, a hall dedicated to the ruling Medici family.

In the course of this work, Leonardo's mural disappeared.

It wasn't the only artwork to dissolve.

Working on the city-wide renovation plan devised by Duke Cosimo I to celebrate the Medici family, Vasari had to sacrifice masterpieces such as Masaccio's Trinity in the church of Santa Maria Novella.

Yet he did not destroy the work; he just bricked it over and added his own fresco, the "Madonna of the Rosary."

Masaccio's work remained obscured until 1861, when Vasari's wall was removed.

In 2000, at a Da Vinci conference, leading scholar Carlo Pedretti proposed that Vasari saved Leonardo's masterpiece just as he had Masaccio's.

The conference prompted Seracini to carry out sophisticated tests that involved the use of laser scanners, X-ray machines, and thermographic and radar equipment.

The only nonfictional living character mentioned in "The Da Vinci Code," Seracini found a Dan Brown-like clue in the wall housing the "Battle of Marciano."

There, on a tiny painted green flag, Vasari wrote: "Cerca, trova — seek and you shall find."

The intriguing traces of paint found behind Vasari’s fresco represented  "an historic result, a mile stone," according to Renzi.

However, to continue their work, researchers required more sophisticated chemical exams such as tomography by XRD/XRF at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, in Grenoble, France.

Renzi recently requested permission from the Italian authorities to resume and bring to completion the research, but a controversy had already sprung up over the intrusive approach.

Cecilia Frosinini, mural paintings section director at the Opificio, immediately resigned in protest from the project.

"It's an ethical question. I'm supposed to protect the artworks, and here there is an invasive intervention on the painting," Frosinini wrote.

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Following her reaction, many art historians signed a petition asking to stop the drilling and even questioning the possibility that the fresco was indeed hidden behind Vasari’s mural.

"Vasari would have never covered a work by an artist he admired so much in the hope that one day someone would search and find it. You would expect such a hypothesis from Dan Brown, certainly not from art historians," Tomaso Montanari, an art historian at the University Federico II in Naples, said.

This summer, the saga of the lost Da Vinci’s fresco took its final twist.

Cristina Acidini, superintendent for the Polo Museale Fiorentino, replied to Renzi by authorizing the endoscopic investigation of a seventh hole in a paint-free area originally identified by the OPD, but ruled out the possibility of carrying out futher holes as requested by the scientific team.

In response, Renzi decided to put the project on hold.

In a highly polemic letter to culture minister Lorenzo Ornaghi, Renzi, now a candidate for Prime Minister in the center left party’s primary elections, stated: "if the government is afraid to authorize this restoration, which would be authorized anywhere else at any point of time, we will wait until the government changes."

A few days ago, Acidini gave the go ahead to fill in the six holes in Vasari’s fresco and dismantle the scaffoldings.

"This is how it ends, with strokes of stucco and paint, the search for Leonardo’s mythical work," the daily La Repubblica wrote.

Photo: Top: A fresco restorer discusses the work on the Leonardo project with Florence mayor Matteo Renzi, as researchers Maurizio Seracini looks on. The comprehensive research effort to locate the lost Leonardo da Vinci painting “The Battle of Anghiari” was led by the National Geographic Society and University of California San Diego's Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), in cooperation with the City of Florence. Credit: photo by Dave Yoder/National Geographic. The Battle of Anghiari Project 2012.

– Middle: A 0.4 inch hole was created after a loose fragment of paint from the Vasari mural was removed by restorers and the surrounding area was secured. The point of entry was located at an existing crack in the Vasari mural. Credit: photo by UCSD. The Battle of Anghiari Project 2012

– Bottom: An endoscopic image of the air gap that was confirmed to exist between the original wall in Palazzo Vecchio’s Hall of the 500 and the wall on which the Vasari mural was painted. Credit: photo by UCSD. The Battle of Anghiari Project 2012

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