The Battle of Anghiari

Dr Seracini has long believed that one of Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest paintings is hidden inside a wall in Florence’s city hall, the Palazzo Vecchio. The Palazzo’s grand ceremonial chamber, known as the Hall of the 500, had been at the epicentre of Renaissance politics when Leonardo and Michelangelo were both commissioned to adorn its walls with depictions of Florentine military victories. Dr Seracini had first surveyed the Hall of the 500 in 1975, looking for clues to the fate of Leonardo’s great masterpiece, The Battle of Anghiari.

Commissioned in 1504, The Battle of Anghiari was the largest painting Leonardo ever undertook (three times wider than The Last Supper). It was completed just two years later. But as Leonardo lit the fires that would ‘set’ the mural, disaster struck. A cataclysmic thunderstorm raged across Florence’s night sky, and the rising humidity caused the murals to weep. Before his eyes, Leonardo’s masterpiece crumbled. All that survived was an astonishing central scene of clashing soldiers and horses, battling for control of a standard. Hailed as an exemplar of anatomy and motion, for decades, artists such as Raphael had come to the Hall of 500 to study it and make their own copies. But then this famous remnant disappeared too.

During the remodelling of the hall in 1563, the architect and painter Giorgio Vasari had been commissioned to decorate the walls with frescoes of military victories by the Medicis, who had returned to power. As Dr Seracini studied one of these vast battle scenes, he noticed a tiny flag with two words, “Cerca Trova” - “seek and ye shall find”. However, the technology of the 1970s was not able to provide answers. In 2000, with funding from the Kalpa Group, he returned to the Hall. Using advanced architectural diagnostic technologies, such as laser-mapping, Dr Seracini’s team discovered where the doors and windows had been before Vasari’s remodelling. This reconstructed blueprint, along with 16th century documents, helped to locate the area painted by Leonardo and showed that it coincided perfectly with the “Cerca Trova” clue. Radar scanning also showed that Vasari, known to have been an ardent admirer of Leonardo’s mural, had not plastered his work directly on top of the earlier painting. Instead, he had erected a new brick wall to hold his fresco, and had left a small air gap behind one section of the bricks, which again coincided with the “Cerca Trova” flag.

Dr Seracini’s investigations were stalled once more until 2005, when he appealed for help at a scientific conference for possible ways to see behind the wall without damaging the Vasari work. It was suggested that beams of neutrons could be sent harmlessly through the fresco. With help from physicists at the University of San Diego, Italy’s nuclear-energy agency and universities in the Netherlands and Russia, Dr Seracini has developed a number of devices for identifying the telltale chemicals used by Leonardo. These devices will be deployed in the next phase of the research, scheduled to take place in 2010-2012. Amongst those to be used is one that can detect the neutrons that bounce back after colliding with hydrogen atoms that abound in the organic materials that were used by Leonardo, such as linseed oil and resin. Another device will detect the distinctive gamma rays produced by collisions of neutrons with the atoms of different chemical elements.

Dr Seracini hopes that it will be feasible for Florentine authorities to bring in experts to remove the exterior fresco by Vasari, extract the Leonardo painting and then replace the Vasari fresco. At present, it is not clear what the condition of the painting might be, but with his extensive experience of analysing the damages suffered by so many Renaissance paintings, Dr Seracini is optimistic about the fate of The Battle of Anghiari.