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Hunt for Da Vinci Battle Fresco Stirs Squabble: Martin Gayford

"Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (The Lady with an Ermine)," by Leonardo da Vinci. The painting is included in "Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan" at the National Gallery in London through Feb. 5. National Gallery show through Feb. 5. The exhibition comes as historians investigate claims of another Leonardo masterpiece in Florence, Italy. Source: National Gallery via Bloomberg

A masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci hidden for 450 years behind a false wall in the center of Florence, a clue hidden in plain sight that tens of thousands of tourists passed by every year: It sounds like the plot of a Dan Brown novel. Indeed, that’s what some people say it is.

They don’t mean it nicely. To make a comparison with “The Da Vinci Code” is the rudest remark in the insult dictionary of a Renaissance art historian. It’s a sign that the saga of the search for Leonardo’s lost “Battle of Anghiari” is heating up.

In 1975, Maurizio Seracini noticed the words “Cerca Trova” (roughly, “Seek and Ye Shall Find”) on a fresco “The Battle of Marciano” (1563) by Giorgio Vasari. This painting is one of several decorating the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio, a room visited by most travelers to Florence.

For many years, Seracini --- a professor at the University of California in San Diego -- has been attempting by various techniques including radar and thermal imaging to detect a space in the wall behind the Vasari fresco. He is, as it happens, namechecked in “The Da Vinci Code.”

More recently, with the backing of the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, and financial support from National Geographic, the quest has intensified.

At the end of November, Seracini and his team drilled six 4-millimeter-diameter holes in Vasari’s picture and inserted an endoscopic probe into a narrow gap behind. They claimed to have discovered traces of pigment in the cavity.

Scholarly Protest

Since then 300 scholars have signed a petition calling for the search to be stopped. They object to such intrusive methods being used on a 16th-century work of art and question whether the Leonardo is underneath.

There are two points at issue. One is whether Leonardo’s Battle might really be there. The answer seems to be, probably not but just possibly, it might be. Many scholars believe that Leonardo’s picture was on a different wall. The jury is still out on that dispute.

Assuming that the position is correct, why would Vasari have gone to the trouble of building a false wall to protect it? It would have been an odd thing to do.

Jonathan Jones, author of “The Lost Battles,” an excellent book on the picture and the companion piece commissioned from Michelangelo, points out that Vasari once did something similar. On another occasion, he erected an altar in such a way as to protect, not destroy, a fresco by Masaccio behind. The reason was, perhaps, that as a pioneer historian -- author of “The Lives of the Artists” -- he could not bring himself to obliterate a monument of Florentine art. The Leonardo would have come into the same category.

Peeling Away

A final consideration is whether there would be anything left worth looking at. Leonardo used an experimental technique, as he did on the “The Last Supper,” with similarly disappointing results (which would seem to be why he left the work unfinished). The “Battle of Anghiari” already was peeling in the early 16th century, according to Vasari himself.

If after all these considerations a significant section does survive, it would be sensational. Yet that would raise the most difficult question of all: How to get it out from behind that wall?

The Vasari fresco can hardly be destroyed or damaged, the critics are right about that. It would be tantalizing indeed to know the Leonardo was really there, and not be able to see it.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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