On the trail of the lost Leonardo
Forget the Da Vinci Code. Dr Seracini thinks he's cracked art's biggest mystery
The two men had an intense dislike for one another. The person signing Leonardo’s contract was Niccolò Machiavelli, Secretary of the Republic, whose name now stands for political cunning.
When both artists hung up their cartoons — large scale drawings showing the intended scenes — Michelangelo's composition focused on a group of nude soldiers bathing while Leonardo’s centred on a furious battle between horsemen in which the sheer beauty of the horses takes centre stage.
In so doing, he was faithfully following the instruction given to him by his patron to represent a key moment in the Battle of Anghiari, the fierce Fight for the Standard, that witnesses recall as its turning point. Giorgio Vasari’s breathless description of Leonardo’s painting gives a sense of its power: “It would be impossible to express the inventiveness of Leonardo’s design for the soldiers’ uniforms, which he sketched in all their variety, or the crests of the helmets and other ornaments, not to mention the incredible skill he demonstrated in the shape and features of the horses, which Leonardo, better than any other master, created with their boldness, muscles and graceful beauty.”
The great scheme, however, was overtaken by events. In March 1505 Michelangelo left for Rome to work on the tomb of the great art patron Pope Julius II, never to finish the Battle of Cascina. Perhaps sensing that this was now his moment, Leonardo began painting his Battle later that year. Right from the start, however, disaster dogged his efforts.
Dr Seracini explains, “and that he used wax in the paint presumably to create certain effects, but it could also have been that wax was used to seal the plaster underneath the paintings and that this liquidised. But it’s also the case that he was given very cheap materials to work with. We have a list of all his ingredients. I’d like to do a mock up and test what happens.”
When the Republic fell with the return of the Medici, it was Vasari who was commissioned in 1563 to redesign the chamber and to create six murals celebrating Medici military victories to obliterate those commissioned by the Republic. In the process, Dr Seracini believes, Vasari covered up the Battle rather than destroy it out of recognition of its outstanding qualities. “He’d done this before when he altered Sta Maria Novella [a Florentine church] and protected the Holy Trinity by Masaccio from destruction.” As if confirming his hunch, he’s discovered a small inscription written on a flag at the top of one of Vasari’s murals with the words cerca trova — “seek and ye shall find”.
n his studio the other side of the River Arno, Dr Seracini shows me image after image of the Vasari mural under which he thinks the Battle still lies and Leonardo’s iconic Adoration of the Magi, held by the Uffizi gallery. His approach — unique in the art world — is to combine X-ray, X-ray fluoroscopy, adapted ultrasound, thermography and other non-invasive investigative processes to explore the structure of walls, paintings, ceilings and gaps — to ascertain whether the Battle really does lie beneath. X-rays, for example, reveal the presence of pencil lead.
Dr Seracini has already caused considerable upset at the Uffizi by demonstrating through analysis of paint layers that most of the Adoration isn’t by Leonardo. His remarkable photographs have revealed similarities between Leonardo’s hitherto invisible under-drawing, in which a fierce battle between horsemen is evident, and the composition of the same scene from the Battle. Using the same processes to examine the Vasari mural, Dr Seracini has found a 1½ in gap behind it. Could the Battle lie underneath and be undamaged? “Why not?”
Very interesting story