Better Than Dan Brown: On the Hunt for Leonardo Masterpiece in Florence’s City Hall

In an art history mystery straight from the pages of the latest airport thriller (or perhaps E.L. Konigsberg’s 1977 young adult book), researchers are hunting a lost work by Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci that is assumed to be hidden under a wall in Florence’s city hall. Dr. Maurizio Seracini is following a clue left by another 16th-century painter and mapping every centimeter of a room in the Hall of 500, a ceremonial chamber in the city’s Palazzo Vecchio. Lasers, radar, UV light, and infrared cameras — a modern Leonardo would certainly approve.

The quest for the Renaissance master’s mural of a battleground, depicting Florentine military victories alongside work by fellow painter Michaelangelo, started almost three decades ago. Once a likely spot is pinpointed, the team of researchers and restorers plan to detect the underpainting by firing neutrons into the wall. All this, of course, depends on the acquiescence of Florence’s recently elected mayor, Matteo Renzi.

Team leader Dr. Seracini told the New York Times, “Leonardo would love to see how much science is being used to look for his most celebrated masterpiece. I can imagine him being fascinated with all this high-tech gear we’re going to set up.”

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(Courtesy of Kalpa Group Project.)

“The Battle of Anghiari” is presumed to be the largest painting ever undertaken by Leonardo at three times the width of “The Last Supper” in Milan. Abandoned as a project in 1506. the work was nonetheless hailed as “an unprecedented study of anatomy and motion” and served as inspiration for the likes of Raphael and subsequent generations of Italian art students. It vanished when architect Giogio Vasari covered the painting with his own frescoes of military victories by the Medicis, who had returned to power and ordered the renovation in 1563. In 1975, when restoring that fresco, Seracini found an inscription by Vasari that read “Cerca Trova,” or, “Seek and ye shall find.” A clue!

The good news: Mayor Renzi restarted the approval process for the neuron gun and met with the National Geographic Society, a sponsor of the project. Once he gets permission, Dr. Seracini hopes to complete his analysis within one year. The questionable news: If “The Battle of Anghiari” is behind the wall, officials would have to remove Vasari’s exterior fresco, extract the Leonardo painting, return the Vasari, and restore a five-century-old painting with no sense of what conditions it’s in. Now there’s an art history mystery worth the challenge.

Read more about the scientific process of shooting neurons at old walls at the New York Times.