Finding Leonardo da Vincis lost masterpiece
November 23, 2007
On Sept. 24, when my wife and I were vacationing in Tuscany, we and our friends enjoyed a privately guided art tour of the incomparable Galleria degli Uffizi, the Uffizi Gallery. Our visit was set for a Monday when the Uffizi is closed to the general public, and all this was arranged by the nonprofit Friends of Florence. On the following Wednesday we were to meet with the Friends of Florence to hear about some of their new arts projects, including the search for a famous masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci that has been lost or at least hidden for hundreds of years.
This Italian arts organization, the Friends of Florence, is headed by the Contessa Simonetta Brandolini dAdda. She says of the Friends, Some like to think that the preponderance of the worlds greatest art is in Italy, and that the best of Italys artworks are in Florence. Unfortunately the Italian government cant take care of everything, so we created the Friends. This organization, which helps fund restoration of Florences irreplaceable artistic heritage, so impressed my wife and myself that we joined. Their website is http://www.friendsofflorence.org. The Friends of Florence will join with the Aspen Institutes Arts & Ideas Series to present a seminar Dec. 9-11 in Aspen titled Florence Birthplace of the Modern World. The Arts & Ideas Series is new this year and has thus far proved a success. More news about this exciting seminar later on.Back in Florence, my wife, Anneliese, and I were staying with our friends Nora and Jerry Blumenshein from Victoria, British Columbia. The Blumensheins joined us at a rented villa, deep in the countryside and pleasantly set amid Tuscan vineyards, olive groves, pointed dark cypresses, wooded hills and weathered stone farmhouses. Jerry, a scholarly man, is well-read in history, and he and the adventurous Nora have traveled to more countries than I ever knew existed. Jerry, now white-haired, was once a fighter pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force.Alone at the Uffizi Our guide at the Uffizi Gallery was a very informal, shirttails-hanging-out American art professor from the University of Syracuse. Call me Rocky, he said. Instead of the usual hour-long delays and swarming Uffizi crowds, we found empty, peaceful galleries on this visit. Professor Rocky held us rapt through a tour of Italys art history, pointing out enlightening details that we never would have noticed by ourselves. Besides the Botticellis and Leonardos of the Uffizi, he showed us some priceless works that the Friends had helped restore, including the group of 17 Roman statues in the Uffizis Sala della Niobe. We then took a taxi to the Accademia Gallery for a private viewing of Michelangelos David, which the Friends had also helped restore. Much impressed, the four of us gratefully thanked Professor Rocky and the
Friends of FlorenceAs for the Wednesday program about Leonardo, Anneliese and Nora needed a rest day and stayed at our villa in the country, while Jerry and I took the train to Florence. So, at 8:30 a.m. on a Wednesday in late September, Jerry and I found central Florence fresh and sunny after a heavy rain the night before. The stone pavement blocks of the Piazza della Signoria (or Plaza of the Governors), Florences famous central square, were still glistening. Only a few morning strollers sauntered about, and at the caf tables on the square just a dozen or so early risers were leisurely sipping their morning cappuccino.We joined the Friends of Florence group near the piazza, altogether about 30 people including the Contessa Brandolini. The contessa was informal, helpful and very easy to talk to. Our group then walked to the Palazzo della Signoria. This Palace, dating from the 13th century, is an austere, weathered, massive structure of tan-colored stone blocks topped by battlements and a tower that dominate the Piazza. This stern fortress-palace was the seat of Florences government in the days when Florence was an independent republic with its own empire, its own army and its own foreign policy.
Seeking the lost LeonardoEntering the palazzo, we walked up a huge stone staircase into a gigantic chamber of nearly 13,000 square feet, the Hall of the Five Hundred, where the signoria and their many councilors once met. At one end was a raised dais, and along both sides were several sculptures, including a Michelangelo. High on the side walls were huge frescos, paintings of battle scenes by the Florentine artist Vasari that showed Florences victories over its rival states. Still believed to be buried behind one of these huge Vasari frescos is an unfinished masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci. Titled The Battle of Anghiari, its central scene depicted the fierce armed combat between soldiers mounted on raging warhorses, enemies fighting to the death for possession of a battle flag.
Vasari, the painter and architect who also wrote a biography of Leonardo, was commissioned sometime around 1560 or 1570 to bury Leonardos unfinished fresco behind a 6-inch-thick brick wall, as part of a major palace renovation. Vasari was then commissioned to paint his new frescos (that we see today) on top of that brick wall. We have every reason to believe that Vasari would have made all possible efforts to protect Leonardos buried fresco, which he praised so highly in his biography of Leonardo.
This fresco, a painting on plaster, was talked about all over Europe, said Professor Rab Hatfield of Syracuse University, the Friends chosen speaker. The Signoria of Florence commissioned it, he said, in a contract signed by no less than Machiavelli. We do know from the city records of Florence, from Leonardos biographers, including Vasari, and from visitors to Florence who marveled at the fresco and wrote home about it that in the year 1505 Leonardo painted his fresco on one of these four chamber walls. Furthermore, during the years before it was covered, many artists copied Leonardos famed fresco, including even Raphael, whose copy portrays the full battle fury and power apparently presented by Leonardos painting. So we know a great deal about Leonardos masterful fresco except whether it still exists and, if it does, then where in the Hall of the Five Hundred is it buried? The second speaker sponsored by the Friends was Maurizio Seracini, an Italian expert in high-technology art analysis. He believes the exact location of Leonardos buried fresco has now been correctly deduced from old records and other sources. He proposes to use his newly developed neutron beams, which can penetrate even 6-inch-thick brick walls, to discover if anything of Leonardos fresco still exists. Signor Seracini said that Leonardo chose paint pigments that were unique among all artists, and that his neutron-beam technology can detect them, if still present. The City Council of Florence and the Italian minister of culture have given him permission for further investigations. Good luck to him, we say, and to his supporters, the Friends of Florence! The Aspen Institutes Arts & Ideas Seminar, Florence Birthplace of the Modern World, will take place Dec. 9-11 in Aspen. The Friends of Florence have sponsored as seminar leaders Contessa Brandolini along with five world-renowned scholars on Michelangelo, Galileo, Brunelleschi, Machiavelli and Dante. Ken Adelman will lead the seminar. Those interested in the seminar should contact Cristal Logan at email@example.com or (970) 544-7914.There will also be a panel discussion on Florence, open to the general public from 5-6:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 10, in Paepcke Auditorium. Tickets are $10 apiece and go on sale Dec. 3 at the Aspen Music Festival Box Office, (970) 925-9042.We asked the Contessa, What about Leonardo, why isnt he on this Decembers agenda? She said, Leonardo is well worth a seminar all by himself. The Friends and the Aspen Institutes Arts & Ideas Seminars hope to present a Leonardo seminar in Aspen in 2008. Lets hope they will.Larry Ladin, a past president of the Aspen Writers Foundation, has lived in Aspen-Snowmass since 1996, when he retired from the computer business.