Search for Missing Da Vinci Work Hits Wall

Maurizio Seracini says a painting by Leonardo da Vinci lies hidden on a wall behind a giant mural by Giorgio Vasari portraying the Battle of Marciano. Vasari's painting is shown behind him on a wall of Florence's Palazzo Vecchio.
Maurizio Seracini says a painting by Leonardo da Vinci lies hidden on a wall behind a giant mural by Giorgio Vasari portraying the Battle of Marciano. Vasari's painting is shown behind him on a wall of Florence's Palazzo Vecchio. (By William Magnuson For The Washington Post)
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 29, 2005

FLORENCE -- Few artists marked the dawn of a painting's creation as precisely and dramatically as Leonardo da Vinci did with his "Battle of Anghiari," a vast fresco of war and rage that he undertook on commission for the Florentine Republic.

"On the 6th of June, 1505, a Friday, at the stroke of the 13th hour, I began to paint in the palace," he wrote in a journal. Just then, the weather turned rotten, he reported. Bells began to toll and wind blew his paper designs all over the place. "Great rain poured down until nightfall," da Vinci continued, "and it became dark as night."

The painting's impact lived up to its thunderous conception, according to critics and commentators of the time. Such was the beauty of the fresco that it was dubbed a "school for the world," that is, a model for all artists to emulate. In 1549, a visitor to the room in Palazzo Vecchio, where the fresco covered part of a wall, called it "something miraculous."

A few years later, the room was remodeled. No one saw the painting again.

Fast forward to this summer and meet Maurizio Seracini, a biomedical engineer and art conservationist. He believes he can bring the "Battle of Anghiari" to light.

Using lasers and other electronic sensing devices, he has conducted a painstaking study of the Room of the Grand Council, where "Battle" was located. The results, he said, suggest that da Vinci's fresco still exists. When the room was altered in 1563, a separate wall was built in front of the painting and, Seracini maintains, a cavity exists between the new wall and the old. Look behind the newer wall, he says, and you will see the fresco.

"There would have been no reason to destroy the 'Battle of Anghiari' in order to remodel the room," he said in an interview. "That kind of thing wasn't done, and especially it would not have been done with this fresco." He made his findings public at a news conference in June.

The claim made headlines in Italy -- the possibility that an unseen da Vinci exists had the mesmerizing attraction of uncovering an unknown poem of Dante's or a hidden statue by Michelangelo. While finding an intact "Battle" is still a long shot, a controversy quickly arose that has all the fury of the June 6, 1505, storm: Who should be tasked with revealing the fresco and possibly reaping the fame and financial benefits?

Seracini's contract with the city of Florence to study the council room expired in 2002. City officials have declined to grant him more time. "Just as we were getting close, suddenly the city saw the possibilities and it is thinking about money," the engineer said. Documentaries, rights to print reproductions and fees from investigators to do further studies are all part of the potential booty, he said.

City officials say Seracini is after a cornucopia of benefits for himself. Simone Siliani, Florence's culture adviser, said officials were upset that Seracini held the news conference in June and recruited donors to continue his research without telling them. "Our duty is not to make movies or scoops," Siliani said. "Our duty is to study and let the people know about the history of the city."

In the meantime, the search for the "Battle of Anghiari" has come to a halt. City officials say they're unconvinced and plan no follow-up.

The painting was commissioned at one of the sparkling heights of Florence's cultural and political history. A republican government, 13 years old at the time and beset by enemies in Italy and abroad, wanted da Vinci to glorify a 15th-century battle in which the Florentines bested an army from Milan.


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