The myth has been there for centuries, the discussion has been brewing for months and now finally it seems to be coming to a head. The controversial methods being used by Maurizio Seracini and a team of Art Historians investigating what lies behind a large fresco by Vasari in the Plazzo Vecchio, Florence, seem to have yielded conclusive evidence that there is in fact a painting lingering in an air pocket behind the 16th Century fresco.
Sceptics were up in arms when the team were given the go ahead to drill 4mm exploratory holes into Vasari’s work in order to satisfy their curiosity.
So what is this all about?
Leonardo Da Vinci began work on The Battle of Anghiari in 1504 before abandoning the work due to difficulties with his experimental oil based paints. The work remained unfinished in the Palazzo until 1563 when Vasari painted a series of frescoes in the space coinciding with the room’s renovation.
It is argued by Seracini that Vasari, an art historian in his own right, refused to paint over the Da Vinci painting out of respect to the Master and had the painting preserved behind a new wall. The ball really got rolling when radar scans of the wall revealed an air pocket behind the wall, one that did not exist behind any of the other walls in the room.
As a result, the decision was taken to drill small holes into damaged areas of the existing fresco that are due to be restored anyway, and extract some samples from the surface behind to test for traces of paint.
Expert art restorer Cecilia Frosinone left Seracini’s team in protest at the decision to drill and led a campaign (Ultimately in vein) with sceptic, Naples art historian Tomaso Montanari, to halt the drilling.
The results released this week show that samples gathered do in fact have traces the paint used by Leonardo Da Vinci at the time of the original painting.
So what is the problem and where does it go from here?
Those that oppose the investigations have had good reason to be sceptical up to this point, and perhaps have also desired to avoid any future actions that may be taken should the results turn up positive. Seracini’s suspicions, while no doubt backed up by historical records of the painting in the room, are also based on the existence of a flag on the Vasari painting that reads “He who seeks, finds”. The art historian was perhaps the prime target to be ridiculed for such romantic assumptions considering his featuring in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
However these fairy tale results seem to confirm his suspicions making for a great story (and great TV with National Geographic involved in the investigations). Sceptics maintain however that the results have still not been independently verified and only examined privately:
“These samples were analysed in a private laboratory and not delivered to Florence’s official restoration centre, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure,” said the Italian art history professor Tomaso Montanari. “All they got was a PowerPoint presentation. If they have results which are truly relevant from a scientific point of view, would it not have been better to send them to the Opificio, then hold a press conference?”
The Guardian: 12/03/2012
However if we are to avoid any dramatic scepticism and believe that they are in fact traces of a Da Vinci painting…
…what difference does it make now?
Nobody disputes that the unfinished work ever existed, however it was abandoned due to the failure of the Master’s own experiments with paint solutions. These same experiments resulted in the degradation of famous works like The Last Supper which is a good measure for the state that this painting would be in now. Considering that Da Vinci abandoned the work before it was finished, it also suggests that it may be in worse condition than the Last Supper.
So when the call comes to expose the Da Vinci painting from behind the Vasari fresco, and it will no doubt come, should it be entertained?
This is not to say that the Vasari will be destroyed, it would not be the first time that a fresco had been moved (For example Masaccio’s Trinity (1425), was transferred to canvas and moved in 1860 to the inside wall of the church facade in Santa Maria Novella down the street.) But would it be worth putting the existing artwork in danger? The Vasari is in itself a priceless work that deserves to be considered just as important as the work that may or may not exist beneath it.
Everyone is obsessed with the genius of Da Vinci, and rightly so, his record speaks for itself and time has consistently demonstrated the relevance of the great man’s work to future generations, however does our admiration and desire for this Master lead us astray? Should we not just let go?
Statements like “Da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari is considered by some to be his finest work” fuel this blind desire to, at any cost, release the work from its tomb, as if raising a loved one from the dead. Furthermore, terms like “the lost Da Vinci” distract from the fact that the work was abandoned, unfinished, and has never been lost. We have always known it existed in some shape of form in that room, the original preparatory work still exists, an etching by Lorenzo Zacchia and later copies of that etching by Rubens are also to be found in the Louvre, yet they all feed this desire to see the real thing.
Perhaps we need to let go.
So is Vasari in the way?
It is no doubt true that he would be the first to admit his love for the great Masters of the High Renaissance and his own personal debt to their genius. While his style is more attuned to the work of his idol Michelangelo, Vasari gushed over Da Vinci in his Lives of the Artists (1550) and described him as a man “in whom, besides a beauty of body never sufficiently extolled, there was an infinite grace in all his actions; and so great was his genius, and such its growth, that to whatever difficulties he turned his mind, he solved them with ease.“.
Vasari would stand aside in an instant, however that is not to say that Vasari’s work is not deserving of as much of our attention! Should Vasari’s work be moved to expose a degraded, unfinished Da Vinci, a room which has displayed Vasari’s work for nearly 500 years would be disfigured and unbalanced for the sake of curiosity.
I would say to everyone to sit back and enjoy Vasari’s The Battle of Marciano and the influence that the work of the great masters had on its conception. It may pale in comparison, however one would worry that should we get what we wish for we will ultimately be sorely disappointed.
What do you think?
Let us know what you think should happen at this stage. Do you believe it is worth moving Vasari? Or that there is even a Da Vinci painting to be found at all?
Here is a great blog post on the topic from blogger William Newton…
Regardless, what this investigation really boils down to is the answer to a simple, but difficult question: Is it worth destroying a Vasari in order to obtain a da Vinci? For no matter how careful the investigators might be, and no matter how advanced the technology employed, there is no way to bring whatever is on this inner wall to the light of day without some risk that the Vasari painting on the outer wall will be completely destroyed, whether as a result of carelessness on the part of those conducting the operation, or through some at-present unforeseeable event or events.
William Newton – blogofthecourtier.com
Jonathan Jones seems to believe without question that the work is that of Leonardo’s. His blog on the Guardian seems to show just how caught up in the media storm of a new Da Vinci one can get.
But a Leonardo is a Leonardo. This one exerts a terrific pull on the imagination even though we can only look at tiny preparatory drawings. The original would be a new (and secular) Last Supper. This might just be the most important hole in a wall since the one Howard Carter looked through to see the treasures of King Tut.
Some Informative Articles
BBC – Lost Da Vinci Prompts Art Row
Guardian – 2005 New Lead in Hunt for lost Leonardo
Guardian – Art historians say they have found evidence of ‘hidden’ Leonardo da Vinci