Real Life DaVinci Code Nearing Conclusion

Advertising people love art.  We like to think we make it (some of us do), we like to support it, critique it, analyze, mock, etc.  I point this out because this, like most of my posts, article is about art and specifically the science being used to find art.  So give me the benefit of a doubt that something I think is cool has anything to do with bloomfield knoble and the science of marketing.

You might have noticed that DaVinci, and specifically the Mona Lisa, has been all over the news lately.  In case you’ve missed it, Madrid’s Prado Museum has held what was believed to be a mere replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, the Mona Lisa. But researchers at the museum recently discovered that their copy wasn’t just any copy. Thanks to the use of infrared technology, they deduced that the work was not only painted in Leonardo’s workshop, by one of his students, but that it was done at the same time as the master was completing the original.

Although the copy, which depicts La Gioconda with a narrower face, redder dress and significantly more pronounced eyebrows than the original, has been in the Prado’s collection for centuries, no one thought much of it, and it was generally attributed to an unknown Flemish artist. But when the Prado’s conservators began to study it in preparation for an upcoming show in Paris, they realized there might be more to the work than previously recognized.

Using infrared technology, they detected a lush Tuscan landscape — the same as in Leonardo’s original — hiding beneath the coat of black varnish that had been added probably in the 18th century and obscured the original background.  That wasn’t all they found. Infrared reflectography can reveal the sketches — called underdrawings — and changes that a painter makes in the course of composing a work. By comparing reflectography images taken of the Mona Lisa in 2004 with the copy (they matched), Prado conservators determined that the replica was painted while Leonardo was himself still at work on the original.  No one thinks that this is anything other than a copy, but it does change the way art historians view Leonardo’s workshop.

Reading this article brought back to memory a trip to Florence and the Palazzo Vecchio and a lecture by Maurizio Seracini, who was trying to prove that The Battle of Anghiari–the mural once considered the greatest of all of Leonardo’s masterpieces–lies buried in the Sala del Gran Consiglio in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, behind a wall covered by a mural–a vision of the Battle of Marciano–that was painted in the 16th century.  Seracini was so convincing that I was sure he was correct and that one day the lost DaVinci masterpiece would be found.  I promptly forgot about his quest – until I read the article about the Mona Lisa copy.

A quick Google search, and to my surprise, the following article in National Geographic:

It is a mystery worthy of a detective novel. A mural by Leonardo da Vinci, rumored to have been his greatest artistic accomplishment, lost centuries ago. Another mural, painted over the first, in response to changing political alliances. A present day “art diagnostician” who has been searching for the lost mural for 30 years. A clue hidden in the later mural: a tiny banner reads “Cerca Trova,” or “seek and ye shall find.” Could it be that the “Lost Leonardo” is not really lost but lies, still intact, under this signpost?

“The Battle of Anghiari” was painted by Leonardo da Vinci in 1505 to commemorate the 1440 battle on the plain of Anghiari between Milan and the Italian League led by the Republic of Florence. The Florentines emerged from the conflict as the most important power in central Italy, re-establishing Papal powers and Italian politics for years to come. In 1503, da Vinci was commissioned by Gonfaloniere Piero Soderini to paint the mural in the Hall of the Five Hundred of the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of government in Florence.

Da Vinci used the commission as an opportunity to experiment with new mural techniques, which did not meet with the results he hoped, but nonetheless this masterpiece was later called “the school of the world.” In the mid-16th century the hall was enlarged and completely remodeled, and Giorgio Vasari, himself an admirer of da Vinci’s work, painted six new murals over the east and west walls. “The Battle of Anghiari” was assumed to have been destroyed in the process.

Seek and Ye Shall Find

Dr. Maurizio Seracini, National Geographic Fellow and a cultural heritage engineer and founder of the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture, and Archaeology (CISA3), at the University of California, San Diego, is leading this effort to find the “Lost Leonardo.” One of the world’s leading experts in the field of art diagnostics, Seracini began searching for the mural more than 30 years ago. He felt that Vasari left the small banner reading “Cerca Trova” as a clue for future generations. He conducted laser, thermal, and radar scans of the hall, which confirmed that there is an air gap present between the brick wall on which Vasari painted his mural and another wall behind it—suggesting that Vasari may have preserved da Vinci’s masterpiece by building a wall in front of it.

Now, Seracini and his team are entering another phase of research using cutting edge technology to attempt to look through the wall, and into the past, to see if the painting is really there.

The search for Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Battle of Anghiari” conducted in the Palazzo Vecchio is a project led by the National Geographic Society and UC San Diego’s Center for Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology, in cooperation with the City of Florence.

National Geographic Channel is documenting the entire process for a world premiere special to be broadcast globally early next year.

Here is the latest update (as of the time I write this) from their website:

The City of Florence and the National Geographic Society are pleased to announce that the scaffolding housed in the Hall of 500 in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio in support of the search for Leonardo’s “Battle of Anghiari” will remain in place for the next few weeks.

In terms of research status, we can further confirm the presence of a cavity – the only one present in all of Vasari’s frescoes in the Hall of 500. This air gap has been detected in three different areas behind the Vasari, inspected through a sophisticated 4 mm probe kindly provided by Olympus and under the guidance of the Opificio.

In addition, the team has potentially identified a primer material on the original palazzo wall behind the Vasari mural. We expect to communicate further details from this exploratory phase once the laboratory analyses are completed, which we expect will be in the next few days.

Since they are filming it, I’m hoping something has been discovered and they are keeping it a secret to air it on television.

I just wanted to point out that something pretty cool is happening, but it hasn’t been getting much press.  It also makes me wonder about other things we consider art and our ability to preserve them.  In my hometown of Abilene, Kansas (home of Ike), you can see traces of old advertisements painted on some of the buildings.  They are long faded, but discernible.  No one has ever covered them – they’ve just been left to fade away.  I think it would be cool to restore them – give a bit of flair to the town.

As memory serves, several are of brands still active (Coca Cola, Dairy Queen come to mind).  In today’s world of digital advertising (even print is really from a digital file), it’s easy to forget that ads used to be art.  Illustrations, paintings, even mass-produced signs were often hand-painted or touched.  I get how advertising works – Coca Cola didn’t renew their advertising commitment to some long-forgotten business in Kansas, and the owner just never bothered to paint over it.  I can’t blame that person for not touching-up the ad as it started to fade.  I also can’t blame them for not covering it up (like the DaVinci), because it was just an ad – but as time passes as old paint becomes nostalgia, I think it would be cool to recognize what that ad meant to the town and to the time.  I think I’ll reach out to Coke and see if they are interested in restoring the ad – even if the numbers don’t make sense anymore – because of what it meant – not what it means today.

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