Drilling for Leonardo

March 12 2012

'Lost', 'hidden', 'Leonardo'; three words guaranteed to deliver a cascade of press interest. The quest to find Leonardo's lost painting The Battle of Anghiari in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio, which some say was covered up by Vasari's later murals, has uncovered... some old flakes of paint. From The Guardian:

Researchers in Florence say they are one step closer to proving a lost masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci, The Battle of Anghiari, is painted on a hidden wall in a cavity in Florence's town hall, where it has remained unseen for five centuries.

After drilling tiny holes in a fresco painted on a wall which hides the cavity, the researchers inserted a 4mm wide probe and took samples of paint, which they say is similar to that used by Leonardo when he painted the Mona Lisa. [...]

The research team's probe confirmed the existence of an air gap, originally identified through radar scans conducted of the hall, between the brick wall on which Vasari painted his mural and the wall located behind it. "No other gaps exist behind the other five massive Vasari frescoes in the high-ceilinged hall," the team said.

A sample of black material removed from the back wall was analysed with a scanning electron microscope using energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy to identify its chemical makeup.

The chemical composition "was similar to black pigment found in brown glazes on Leonardo's Mona Lisa and St John the Baptist, identified in a recently published scientific paper by the Louvre, which analysed all the Da Vinci paintings in its collection", the team said.

"Note that Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa in Florence at the same time," said Seracini, who was featured in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.

Flakes of red material were also found. "Analysis of these samples seems to identify them as organic material, which could be associated with red lacquer. This type of material is unlikely to be present in an ordinary plastered wall," the team said.

And on the BBC, a note of dissent:

Tomaso Montanari, an art historian who has led the opposition to the research said that he did not "consider the source of these findings credible."

He added: "What do they mean by saying the findings are compatible with Leonardo? Any painting from the Renaissance would be. Anything from that era could be painted on that wall."

Whether this was worth all the effort remains to be seen. If the Battle of Anghiari has miraculously survived, and if it is anything like Leonardo's other famousy fragile frescoe, The Last Supper, there won't be much left to see. One could reasonably believe that if it was covered up by Vasari, it must have been done so for a good reason - that is, it had perished beyond use. We know Leonardo took great risks with his murals, and was constantly experimenting. After all, what are the chances that Vasari, the first great art historian and Leonardo's biographer, deliberately covered up a viewable Leonardo? 

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