Drilling for Leonardo - Martin Kemp's view
March 19 2012
Picture: National Geographic
The noted Leonardo scholar, Professor Martin Kemp, has written some penetrative insights on the results from the Leonardo drilling in Florence. And you have to say that, from the drillers' point of view, they're not good:
The search is important. It has been underway, on and off, since the late 1970s. It needs to be resolved one way or the other. Maurizio Seracini, who is leading the investigation, has the skills to pursue it. If the unfinished Battle of Anghiari - the central knot of fighting horsemen - is discovered in legible condition, it will be one of the greatest art finds of any era - much like the unearthing of Laocoon. The timing and handling of the announcement is, however, unfortunate, and is clearly driven by political, media and, I guess, financial imperatives. The mayor is pressed by critics, and Maurizio presumably needs funding to be sustained. The timing is also related to screening of the National Geographic TV programme on the search. The whole project over the years has been dogged by premature ejaculations via the press. This, as I know from the story of the portrait in vellum, is precisely how not to secure scholarly assent. I have been fed bits of somewhat garbled information by the media.
It is said that there is "proof" that Leonardo's lost Battle has been discovered. My reactions are:
1) the published data about Vasari having built a wall specifically to protect Leonardo's painting is inconclusive;
2) I have seen no evidence that the layers behind Vasari's fresco feature a continuous, flat, primed and painted surface;
3) the "manganese" pigment that has been identified in the core sample taken by the small bores is said to match that in the Mona Lisa. Manganese is a standard component in umber or burnt umber, and cannot be taken specifically to signal Leonardo;
4) the "red lacquer" in the press reports is presumably a red lake pigment - based on an organic dye. The best red lakes were expensive but were used in tempera and oil painting. They could also be used on walls with a binder;
5) it is claimed that there was no other painting in the Council Hall from its construction in 1494 until Vasari's intervention. The idea that the hugely important Council Hall would have been left with bare plaster walls during the almost 20 years of the Republic is untenable. The precise location of Leonardo's horsemen is not certain, and the pigments could well be traces of other decorations in the hall, such as heraldic shields;
6) if Vasari did wall up Leonardo's painting, what might remain? The long-term adhesion of oil paint on a wall in such circumstances is hugely questionable. We might well have only a micro-jigsaw puzzle of fragments fallen off the surface.
This all seems to undermine the confident messages coming from Florence. Meanwhile, over on the indispensable 3 Pipe Problem, we find news that a total of six holes were drilled (a planned seventh was abandoned), as well as the views of Dr Cristina Acidini, the Superintendent of the Polo Museale in Florence. She seems to be more persuaded than Kemp that the pigments found so far can certainly be linked to Leonardo. But note the final sentence of her remarks:
We are dealing with a winding road. Now it is necessary to go deeply into these initial results of the investigation and months will be required to carry out the necessary analyses. When we reach the end, there might be a disappointment. As of today, our only certainty is that there is an intervening space and that there are the same substances that Leonardo used for the Gioconda and the Saint John the Baptist....it is now necessary to proceed step by step, using non-invasive methods.
In other words, if you think we're going to start removing more bits of Vasari to get to the Battle of Anghiari - if it remains - think again.
Regular readers will remember that when the drilling plan was first mooted, I was fairly relaxed about it. As Professor Kemp notes, to find even a fragment of Leonardo's lost work will be exciting. But there is something grating and unnecessarily flamboyant about the way the latest procedures and results have been announced to the world. So far, the evidence that we are dealing with a lost Leonardo is very thin. For example, it looks as if the sophisticated endoscopic cameras inserted into the supposed gap behind the Vasari can show a great deal of information, and relay easily viewable images. I suspect, therefore, that if they had spotted anything like a flat painted surface, we would know about it. There is, of course, the possibility that the best bits of footage are being kept for the National Geographic's programme - perhaps there really will be a glimpse of a hoof, or a finger.
And yet I can't shake the sense that the discovery of a few old flakes of paint, which may or may not relate to Leonardo, constitute an anticlimax for the team behind the search. For if they had found that glimpse of finger, they wouldn't need to test any paint. It would incontrovertibly be the Leonardo. In the meantime, we have beamed images to millions of people around the world which say that no matter how implausible your theory (and please let's get over this Da Vinci Code-like idea that just because Vasari wrote 'Cerca Trova' he was suggesting there was a Leonardo behind his painting) it's ok to start drilling into old masterpieces. Is art history really the winner in all this? Not yet.