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Its one of the great mysteries of the history of Western art. The missing mural of Leonardo da Vinci has not been seen for 500 years, but 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 combined 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. NPRs Sylvia Poggioli reports from Florence.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Leonardo da Vinci is the prototype Renaissance man, an artist with a scientific curiosity who left copious notebooks, but who also left one mystery unsolved. This is what he wrote in 1505. 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 Florences Palazzo Vecchio, where he was commissioned to paint a huge mural of the Battle of Anghiari. Stefano Merlini is a legal scholar with a passion for Leonardo.
Mr. STEFANO MERLINI: (Through Translator) It is believed the subject was suggested by Niccolo Machiavelli, the advisor to the powerful. The point was to commemorate the great victory of the Florentine republic and to celebrate its power and glory.
POGGIOLI: The mural was to be coupled with another battlefield scene on the opposite wall by Michelangelo, an artist half da Vincis 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 Leonardo left his mural unfinished to go work for the king of France.
But even unfinished, Leonardos mural was immediately deemed a masterpiece. Leonardos contemporary, Giorgio Vasari, artist and biographer of artists, praised it as most excellent and masterful for its marvelous treatment of figures in flight. But today, its Vasaris frescoes that cover the walls of the great hall of Palazzo Vecchio.
For three decades, Maurizio Seracini, engineer and art conservationist, has been seeking answers behind these walls.
Mr. MAURIZIO SERACINI (Engineer, Art Conservationist): 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.
POGGIOLI: What we know about the lost mural derives from Leonardos sketches, pictorial renderings of the violent motion of clashing horses, and a copy by Rubens showing grimacing soldiers and horses entwined in raging battle. Leonardo, ever the experimenter, wanted to try techniques used by the ancient Romans that hed read about in a book by Pliny. Seracini, who is based at the University of California, San Diego, acknowledges Leonardo faced challenges in using oil on dry plaster.
Mr. SERACINI: How you going to dry it? It would take forever. Since there was no sun coming, he needed heat. 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 in an extremely dry material that would crack. If you applied not enough, you have the color running down.
POGGIOLI: Legend has it that Leonardo failed miserably. But Seracini believes whatever problems he encountered, something magnificent was created.
Mr. SERACINI: A lot of people came here to see this masterpiece, to copy this masterpiece, to be fascinated by this masterpiece. This tells us that is not necessarily true that this masterpiece was so damaged.
POGGIOLI: The art sleuth was bolstered in his belief that The Battle of Anghiari lies hidden behind this wall when he inspected a corner of a Vasari mural close to the ceiling and found an inscription.
Mr. SERACINI: There are two words written: Cerca trova. Cerca trova stands for search, you should find. Its an imperative; its almost an invitation.
POGGIOLI: Seracini now has the backing of the Italian Culture Ministry and says hes 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.
Leonardo 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.
Leonardos mural disappeared from sight and was forgotten. In October, the Florentine Indiana Jones will begin his scientific quest aimed at bringing the lost Leonardo back to light.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.
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