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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2

DaVinci Decoded



Seracini uses surface penetrating radar on the Vasari mural. This is thought to cover Da Vinci's “Battle of Anghiari.”

Although his schedule was booked with clients ranging from Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York and London, to Renaissance churches in hilltop Tuscan towns, Seracini did not hesitate to follow his passion. He set about planning his new search for the elusive Anghiari mural, reputedly three times the size of Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

After amassing a wealth of historical research from such Renaissance scholars as Professor Rab Hatfield from the University of Syracuse and Professor Martin Kemp from Oxford, he made a detailed architectural survey of the present-day building using laser scanners. Next he carried out a thermographic investigation, using a FLIRSytems Thermographic camera, which can detect radiation in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum (roughly 900-10,0000 nanometers). Since the amount of radiation emitted by an object increases with temperature, thermography allows the viewer to see these variations in temperature, which in turn reveal different materials within the walls. This allowed him to uncover the architecture of the building in 1495 and trace its major renovations since that period (see illustration 3, page 30). Using the thermographic surveys, he calculated the height of the ceiling and the placement of the windows and doors in the period when Da Vinci was working in the hall.

“We knew that by the time Leonardo walked into the hall, in June 1505, two earlier windows were filled in,” Seracini recalls. “This meant Leonardo had the entire east wall at his disposal to paint.”

But Seracini further discovered that during the renovation of the hall in the early 1560s, Vasari raised the roof, added three large arched windows and ten small rectangular ones. Most important for the Da Vinci mural, Vasari built a brick wall over the eastern side of the building’s original stone wall, the one on which Da Vinci is reported to have painted his Battle of Anghiari.

Seracini had planned to develop a portable echograph for the east wall but did not have the funds, so he adapted a portable, ground-penetrating radar machine. “We used much higher frequencies, which meant less penetration,” says Seracini. “On the other hand, you got a much higher resolution, so you get better information over a shorter distance.”

Seracini discovered a gap, varying from 1- to 3-centimeters thick, between the newer brick wall and the original stone wall—a gap large enough to preserve a mural on the hidden, older wall.

“Vasari was a great admirer of Leonardo as we know from his Lives of the Artists, “ Seracini concludes. “And he would have had no reason whatsoever to destroy Leonardo’s mural. He had to place a wall in front of it since it represented a victory of the Republic of Florence.”

Professor Hatfield concurs with the results obtained during the surveys. “Seracini’s work with thermography reinforces my own conclusions,” Hatfield says. “And they also help me refine these conclusions.”

So is the mural still there behind this “new” Vasari wall?

It would seem that Seracini had gone about as far as he could, without unpeeling the Vasari mural and removing the wall that held it. Then last July he was asked to address a physics conference on “solid state imaging systems,” in Taormina, Sicily. Seracini’s genius is that he is constantly searching for new technologies and is undaunted by the challenge of fusing art and science. Although it was a long shot, he finished his lecture by posing his dilemma. Did they know of any new non-invasive method that could penetrate the walls and detect paint on the second wall behind the Vasari?

Professor Raymond DuVarney, chair of the physics department at Emory University, mused on the question overnight and woke up to a Eureka moment. “The next day I had this idea,” DuVarney says, “to use neutron activation and a gamma camera.” Neutron activation could penetrate the wall with gamma rays and then capture the returning rays with a gamma camera. “The intensity of the gamma ray will be proportional to the kind of pigment that is in various colors,” DuVarney explains. It is therefore hoped that as the camera scans the walls reading the returning gamma rays it will be able to trace out a black and white image of what is on the inner wall.

“This new approach is an example of the type of research that thinks outside the box,” says Kalpa’s Guinness. “It may get nowhere, but on the other hand, many developments in the past seemed ‘sci-fi’ until they were successful.”

Seracini’s Editech offices are in a constant flurry of activity. While he patiently explains his reams of research on the Hall of the Five Hundred, he fields calls from London’s Guardian newspaper, a French television station, and Horizonte, a German technical magazine. Then he sets out for an appointment across the River Arno with the organizing committee of a new Da Vinci exhibit to be opened in March 2006.

The media is always interested in his work, but this latest spurt of interview requests is because Seracini is about to lob another bomb into the world of Renaissance scholarship.

In essence: After four years of intensive detective work, uncovering original Da Vinci drawings, Seracini believes he can prove that Da Vinci did not paint the “Adoration of the Magi.” “Leonardo never meant the painting to look like this,” he says. “He left us just a drawing that was later covered by someone else.”

He crosses the river to the Uffizi gallery, where the “Adoration” hangs. He knows the history of virtually every palazzo, piazza, street and alley in the city. As he passes a construction dumpster outside a fifteenth century building advertising remodeled apartments, he erupts with barely concealed disdain. He runs his fingers along a discarded heap of narrow, 3-foot-long stone slabs and unpeels layers of plaster flakes. In delicate shades of blues and whites, the flakes represent the many layers of passing generations.

“This is what they used to fill in arches in the fifteenth and sixteenth century.” He shakes his head and hastily snaps a photo with his cell phone. “It is such a pity to see this thrown away. But they don’t care. What they call architectural restoration here, is sometimes really just demolition.”

Seracini feels he is in a constant battle to protect the city’s irreplaceable heritage from the development that threatens to destroy it. At the very least he insists on reminding Florentines of the treasures that still lie hidden behind the walls of their city. He passes the Palazzo dei Notai, which for centuries was the official building for the notaries of Florence. “Part of the property was sold to someone who wanted to open a restaurant. A restorer was called in and she asked me to look at the walls. What we found hidden behind plaster was a mural, the very first portrait of Dante Alighieri.” He shrugs. Despair, disbelief? Or is it the universal Italian gesture of whimsical acceptance?

Finding what is hidden. It is a motif, a ruling metaphor in his life.

Inside the Uffizi Gallery, Da Vinci’s “Adoration” is surrounded by an adoring crowd of tourists. Seracini shakes his head in frustration, as if he wants to share a secret with them but can’t. He steps back and quietly explains that the friars of San Donato in Florence asked Da Vinci to paint an altarpiece for their chapel, in 1481. Except for the mention by Vasari in 1568, the “painting” essentially disappeared until it turned up in the collection of Antonio D’Medici in 1621. “No one knows what happened to this painting,” Seracini says. “No one knows where it was and no one knew if he really finished it until we started investigating.”

He points at the dark brown wash that surrounds most of the area containing Mary, the child Jesus and the Magi. “There is a sequence of drawings underneath this brown top layer, which is a mix of carbon, bitumen, pine resin and shellac,” he says. “They have never been seen by anyone. It’s like discovering hundreds of drawings by Leonardo that nobody’s ever seen. And all this is in one painting hidden under the layers.”




"Seracini believes he got a worldview at UCSD that he would not have received at any other school."