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Cracking a Real-Life Da Vinci Code

4 minute read
Jeff Israely

Maurizio Seracini is a serious man, with a seriously square jaw and dark tweed jacket. And he is being taken more seriously than ever now that Italy’s Culture Ministry has committed the nation to a full-fledged pursuit of the so-called Lost Leonardo. Seracini, a forensic expert in Renaissance art and architecture, is 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.

Curious about his quest, I found Seracini through a local Florentine politician who has been acting as the modern-day equivalent of a Renaissance-era public patron for this cutting-edge cultural pursuit. As we stand under the palazzo’s vaulted frescoes, Seracini lures me into his obsessive world, enumerating the historical and technical evidence that has accumulated as part of the centuries-old search for the lost mural. I can’t help thinking of Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, and, indeed, Seracini is the only real-life character mentioned in the book, as the man who “unveiled the unsettling truth” about Leonardo. Seracini has devoted 30 years to the task, interpreting ancient diaries and city records to try to locate the spot where the uncompleted masterpiece was painted. He has proof, he says, that Giorgio Vasari, the artist who renovated this hall in 1563 and painted the mural that covers it today, was an admirer of Leonardo’s and had “saved” other works of his behind interior walls. Seracini says his ultrasound instruments have detected gaps behind the giant mural that follow the contours of Leonardo’s original work. Most intriguing of all is a detail on the existing mural: in the area presumed to be covering the Leonardo, Vasari had painted a soldier carrying a banner on which are written the only words in the enormous work: CERCA TROVA, which roughly translates as “Seek and ye shall find.”

Seracini may be serious about his task, but he clearly relishes the spice of the mystery. After we stand together for 20 minutes in the center of the sprawling sala, Seracini looks at me with a twinkle in his eye. “I know I haven’t told you where it is yet,” he says. He then indicates a 250-sq.-ft. area on the eastern stretch of the Vasari mural, behind which, he asserts, lies the masterpiece. Having looked at sketches and copies of Anghiari, I strain to tap into an inner X-ray to see through the mural to the Leonardo behind. The original, a Renaissance forebear of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, was described by Italian writer Anton Francesco Doni as a “miraculous” rendering of the ravages of war. The battle depicted was a key victory of the Florentine Republic, which may help explain why Vasari was asked to paint over it by his Medici patrons, who were enemies of the Republic. “We have to be careful,” Seracini acknowledges, “that we’re not seeing something that isn’t there.”

The doubts are likely to persist until the outer mural is temporarily removed and the wall behind it is finally opened–if it ever is. For now, Seracini is trying at least to show that Leonardo’s mural is likely to be there. To accomplish that, he’s using an instrument he developed in collaboration with the University of California at San Diego and Emory University to capture chemical clues of any paint colors that may be present behind the wall. There’s a good chance that Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli will grant Seracini permission in the next year or two to peel back the Vasari mural, which won’t have to be damaged in the process. A great work might be found, but a great mystery would be gone.

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