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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2
   

DaVinci Decoded
by Raymond Hardie

On the Job: Maurizio Seracini, ’73

 
     


Photography by Laila Pozzo

 

The security guard at Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio waves Maurizio Seracini through the door of the Salone dei Cinquecento (the Hall of the Five Hundred). Ahead of him, a busload of English tourists shuffle to a halt under the mural on the east wall. It is a hot, humid, late-summer Tuscan day and the Brits are beginning to wilt under the weight of packaged culture.

“This magnificent mural of the ‘Battle of Marciano in Val di Chiana’ was painted by Giorgio Vasari in 1563,” the tour guide intones. “Vasari reconstructed the hall for Cosimo de Medici, the ruler of Florence (1519-1574).” Seracini smiles benignly as he if he guards a secret.

And he does.

As they move on, he points to the top of the bloody battle scene where an anonymous Florentine foot soldier waves a green flag amid a surging phalanx of pike men. There is a phrase on the flag—the only writing in the whole mural. You can’t read it from the floor, but Seracini has photographed it from a scaffold.

Cerca Trova,” he says quietly, then translates: “He who seeks, finds.”

It is a phrase aptly applied to Seracini. He is seeking the lost Leonardo Da Vinci mural of the Battle of Anghiari, unseen since the 1540s, which he believes is hidden behind this wall. If that is not challenging enough, he has also just completed a four-year exploration of Da Vinci’s painting, the “Adoration of the Magi,” and uncovered a series of magnificent Da Vinci drawings hidden for 500 years. As Dan Brown wrote in his blockbuster novel, The Da Vinci Code, “Italian art diagnostician Maurizio Seracini had unveiled the unsettling truth.”

Unsettling indeed.

 

Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Adoration of the Magi” (1481-82), Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Seracini has been a seeker since he graduated from UCSD’s Muir College in bioengineering in 1973. After he completed his postgraduate work in electronic engineering at Padua University in 1976, he set up his Florence-based company Editech (electronics, diagnostics and technology), in 1977. At first, the company was purely a medical diagnostic facility but Seracini soon began to apply his techniques to works of art in order to ascertain their age, history and authenticity. Within a few years, he had acquired a long list of clients and sold off the medical division. He has been challenging the art world with provable scientific data ever since.

Editech’s offices are on the Via dei Bardi a few minutes’ walk from the Ponte Vecchio over the River Arno, with its tourist shops and restaurants anarchically stacked like a child’s first Lego creation. Four-story Renaissance palazzos, now occupied by architects, bookmakers, artisan woodworkers and restorers, loom over a narrow street of rutted ancient flagstones, plagued by honking Vespas and the interminable rattle of three-wheeled trucks. Editech occupies the second floor of a palazzo built in the 1530s, two buildings down from where the movie Hannibal (as in Hannibal Lector) was filmed.

Like his career, Seracini’s offices display a convergence of Renaissance art and technology. Angels painted on the 20-foot-high vaulted ceiling hover benevolently over a half dozen international interns, working at a humming bank of computers, scanners and light boxes. In an adjacent room, a rainbow frieze of Renaissance coats of arms stand sentinel over a room stacked from floor to painted ceiling with 2,000 file boxes. Each contains the results of a clinical survey on a specific work of art. As well as diagnostics on 27 Caravaggio paintings and 33 Raphaels, the files range from detailed analyses on works in the Louvre to frescoes on the domed ceiling of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to paintings in the Museum of Catalonia in Barcelona.

Stacked around these files, on metal shelves and in corners and closets he has carefully stored the costly tools of his trade. They include echographs, radar with high frequency antennae, X-rays and stereomicroscopes. Seracini adapted each of these machines, and his passion for tinkering with the innards of diagnostic tools is matched only by his passion for Renaissance art. “I believed from the beginning, that the technology should go to the work of art and not the other way around,” he says. “And so I adapt a sort of laboratory around the work of art and analyze it.”

Seracini is a fourth-generation Florentine, whose father owned a legendary ice cream store and became vice president of the European handmade ice cream makers (gelato artigianale). When he arrived at UCSD in 1969, his family’s culinary skills garnered him a reputation as a cook, and he recalls preparing dishes for a number of professors including Piero Ariotti and Herbert Marcuse.

A member of the Italian national volleyball team in high school, Seracini was quickly snapped up by the neophyte Tritons and played for four years. (He recalls that when he was not studying, or on the volleyball courts, he would go spear fishing for his dinner in the kelp beds off La Jolla shores — adding a new dimension to the term Renaissance man.)

In search of the lost Da Vinci, Seracini used ultrasound in the Salone dei Cinquecento in 1977.

Seracini believes he got a worldview at UCSD that he would not have received at any other school. “Almost everything I learned at UCSD, I’ve been using since,” he says. As well as classes in bioengineering and applied mathematics, UCSD taught him a way of thinking outside the box, of blurring boundaries between disciplines.

He broadened his interdisciplinary studies when he took classes at UCLA with Carlo Pedretti, a Leonardo scholar who taught Renaissance art. His interest in applying engineering to art was further stimulated when he worked with John Asmus at the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP) on a research project developing a way to clean dirty marble surfaces using laser beams.

In 1975, while Seracini was still at the University of Padua, UCLA’s Pedretti approached him with a tempting proposition. Could he help solve a Da Vinci mystery? Seracini had learned to use ultrasound at UCSD and at a local hospital. Pedretti asked if technology could uncover any trace of the lost Da Vinci mural, the “Battle of Anghiari”, in the Hall of the Five Hundred.

The trail of Leonardo’s lost masterpiece is interwoven with the violent political intrigues of fifteenth and sixteenth century Florentine history. In 1494, Piero de Medici was expelled from the city during the invasion of Italy by the French king, Charles VIII. The Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola seized the moment and proclaimed a republic.

According to Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists, “It was ordained by public decree that Leonardo should be employed to paint some fine work,” to celebrate the republic. “In 1503, the hall was allotted to him by Piero Soderini, the Gonfaloniere of justice. Leonardo began by drawing a cartoon ...” Da Vinci notes rather ominously in his own journal that he began to paint on June 6, 1505, just as a storm broke over the city and “great rain poured down until nightfall.”

We know the mural was still there in 1549, from a letter written by Anton Francesco Doni advising a friend who was traveling to Florence. “Having ascended the stairs of the Salone Grande, take a diligent view of a group of horses (a portion of Lionardo’s battle), which will appear a miraculous thing to you.”

However by the 1560s, the Medicis had returned to power and Cosimo Medici engaged Vasari to renovate the Hall of the Five Hundred and cover Da Vinci’s mural celebrating the republic. There is no mention of the “Battle of Anghiari” after 1563.

Enter Pedretti, Seracini and Asmus in 1975. With funds from the Kress and Armand Hammer foundations, they set about scanning the walls of the Salone dei Cinquecento with ultrasound. But because of a combination of limited technology and money, as well as the intrusions of local politics, the results were inconclusive (although tempting enough to convince Hammer to suggest that for a princely price the city remove the Vasari mural and see if Da Vinci’s mural was underneath).

Fast-forward 25 years. Seracini is now one of the most prominent experts in the science of art diagnostics with a worldwide reputation and a range of equipment in his arsenal. In a scene reminiscent of a Brown novel, a stranger walked into his office in 2000. “He said ‘good evening,’” Seracini recalls, “‘my name is Loel Guinness. I’m here to propose that you restart the Anghiari project and bring it to completion.’” Guinness, a member of the banking side of the Irish brewing family, said that his Kalpa Group would bankroll a new investigation of the Hall of the Five Hundred.

“Maurizio was looking for funding to carry out three-dimensional architectural diagnostics in the Hall of Five Hundred, using a range of non-invasive scientific techniques to probe the walls and floors,” says Loel Guinness. “The Kalpa Group is interested in unusual ways of thinking, ways that synthesize knowledge from very different fields. Maurizio’s work is one of those projects.”

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RELATED LINKS

Channel 8 News - Interview with Raymond Hardie

VIEW

Dogged Alumnus Uncovers Da Vinci Secrets

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Sherlock Seracini

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Da Vinci Decoded: An Evening with Maurizio Seracini, '73

7p, February 2, 2006
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Program Introduction

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Part I: Hall of 500

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Part II: Adoration of the Magi

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Editech
VIEW

"As Dan Brown wrote in his blockbuster novel, The DaVinci Code, Italian art dagnostician Maurizio Seracini had unveiled the unsettling truth."