High-Tech Hunt Aims to Find Missing Da Vinci Mural

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The slogan "Cerca Trova" on the fresco painted by Giorgio Vasari. i

This photo reproduction made available by arts diagnostics company Editech shows the slogan "Search, you shall find" on the fresco by Giorgio Vasari at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy. The slogan has bolstered Maurizio Seracini's belief that the da Vinci mural is behind the fresco. Editech, Handout/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Editech, Handout/AP
The slogan "Cerca Trova" on the fresco painted by Giorgio Vasari.

This photo reproduction made available by arts diagnostics company Editech shows the slogan "Search, you shall find" on the fresco by Giorgio Vasari at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy. The slogan has bolstered Maurizio Seracini's belief that the da Vinci mural is behind the fresco.

Editech, Handout/AP

Da Vinci's Sketches

See several preparatory drawings by Leonardo da Vinci now in Venice's Galleria dell'Accademia on the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage's Web site. Click on the left-hand menu to see:

  • "Due mischie tra cavalieri e pedoni" (Soldiers on horseback and on the ground)
  • "Mischia di combattenti a cavallo e..." (Soldiers in movement fighting)
  • "Lotta per lo stendardo..." (Battle for the flag)
  • "Studi per due uomini in lotta" (Sketches of men fighting)
  • Maurizio Seracini in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio. i

    Engineer Maurizio Seracini stands in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio with Vasari's wall paintings in the background. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR hide caption

    itoggle caption Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
    Maurizio Seracini in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio.

    Engineer Maurizio Seracini stands in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio with Vasari's wall paintings in the background.

    Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
    A very high frequency radar antennas used to analyze the walls. i

    One of four very high-frequency radar antennas used to analyze the inner structure of the Vasari wall and determine its thickness and the thickness of the original wall behind it. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR hide caption

    itoggle caption Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
    A very high frequency radar antennas used to analyze the walls.

    One of four very high-frequency radar antennas used to analyze the inner structure of the Vasari wall and determine its thickness and the thickness of the original wall behind it.

    Sylvia Poggioli, NPR

    It's one of the great mysteries of the history of Western art: A mural by Leonardo da Vinci that has not been seen for 500 years. The vast painting of the fury of war is said to have been one of the landmarks of Renaissance art.

    Now, an Italian engineer has joined his scientific knowledge with his passion for art in an Indiana Jones-type quest. He believes the mural is hidden behind another frescoed wall, and he says he can prove it.

    The History

    Da Vinci left copious notebooks, and in 1505, he wrote, "On the sixth of June, a Friday, at the stroke of the 13th hour, I began to paint in the palace."

    "The palace" was the grand hall of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy, where he was commissioned to paint a huge mural of the Battle of Anghiari.

    "It's believed the subject was suggested by Niccolo Machiavelli, the adviser to the powerful," says Stefano Merlini, a legal scholar with a passion for da Vinci. "The point was to commemorate a great victory of the Florentine republic and to celebrate its power and glory."

    The mural was to be coupled with another battlefield scene on the opposite wall by Michelangelo, an artist half da Vinci's age. But the artistic battle of the two titans of the Florentine Renaissance was never to happen. Michelangelo was lured to Rome by the pope, and da Vinci left his mural unfinished to go work for the king of France.

    But even unfinished, da Vinci's mural was immediately deemed a masterpiece. His contemporary, Giorgio Vasari, an artist and biographer of artists, praised it as "most excellent and masterful for its marvelous treatment of figures in flight."

    The Evidence

    Today, it is Vasari's frescoes that cover the walls of the great hall of Palazzo Vecchio.

    For three decades, Maurizio Seracini, an engineer and art conservationist, has been seeking answers behind those walls.

    "We know for a fact that there are two walls — one is the original wall on which Leonardo painted his mural, and then Vasari placed another wall on top of it, so hiding ... the mural behind this wall," Seracini says.

    What's known about the lost mural has been derived from da Vinci's sketches — pictorial renderings of the violent motion of clashing horses — and from a copy by Rubens showing grimacing soldiers and horses entwined in raging battle.

    Da Vinci, ever the experimenter, wanted to try techniques used by the ancient Romans that he had read about in a book by Pliny. Seracini, who is based at the University of California, San Diego, acknowledges da Vinci faced challenges in using oil on dry plaster.

    "How you going to dry it? It would take forever. Since there was no sun coming, he needed heat," Seracini explains. "How do you produce heat? How do you apply that heat? And that needed to be done fast. Because if you had applied too much heat, you would end up [with] an extremely dry material that would crack. If you applied not enough, you have the color running down."

    Legend has it that da Vinci failed miserably, but Seracini believes whatever problems he encountered, something magnificent was created.

    "A lot of people came here to see this masterpiece," he says. "This tells us that it is not necessarily true that this masterpiece was so damaged."

    The art sleuth was bolstered in his belief that The Battle of Anghiari lies hidden behind another wall when he inspected a corner of a Vasari mural close to the ceiling and found an inscription.

    "There are two words written: Cerca trova. Cerca trova stands for 'Search, you shall find,'" he says. "It's an imperative; it's almost an invitation."

    The Technology

    Seracini now has the backing of the Italian culture ministry and says he has perfected the technology to see through walls to prove the mural exists — an energy beam that will collide with the chemical elements of pigments behind the wall, reading the material and producing a ghost image.

    Da Vinci wrote that The Battle of Anghiari with its tangle of horses and men in vicious mortal combat was an image of war's folly, not its glory. This anti-war message may have bothered the Medicis when they returned to power in 1563 and commissioned Vasari to paint military victories of their own.

    Da Vinci's mural disappeared from sight and was forgotten. In October, the Florentine Indiana Jones will begin his scientific quest aimed at bringing the lost mural back to light.

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