Art researchers and scientists said on Monday that a high-tech project using tiny video probes has uncovered evidence that a fresco by Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci lost for five centuries may still exist behind a wall of Florence’s city hall.
“Together with art historians and scientists combining historical evidence and technology, this research team has unlocked a mystery that has been with us for more than 500 years,” said Terry Garcia, an executive vice-president of the U.S. National Geographic Society, which sponsored the research.
The project to find what has come to be known as the “Lost Leonardo” has been controversial, in part because researchers had to drill several holes into an existing work and because not all agree that the Leonardo fresco is still there.
At the start of the 16th century, Florence’s leaders commissioned Leonardo, then at the height of his career, to paint a massive fresco celebrating the Florentine Republic’s victory over the Milanese in a battle on the plains of Anghiari that took place in 1440.
Leonardo, who loathed war as “a most beastly madness,” depicted a group of horses and riders furiously fighting.
He abandoned the project a year after he started, probably because a new experimental technique for frescoes failed. But some of his preparatory studies remain, as well as other artists’ copies of the original fresco.
All traces of the original were lost more than 50 years later when Giorgio Vasari renovated the great Sala dei Cinquecento in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio and was ordered to paint a new fresco, The Battle of Marciano, to accommodate the higher walls.
Some believe that Vasari was loathe to destroy Leonardo’s work, so he built a new wall with an air gap of several centimetres in front of Leonardo’s piece in order to preserve what was left.
Researchers used tiny, medical-style endoscopic probes and other high-tech tools inserted through existing cracks in the outer wall holding the Vasari fresco and took samples of substances.
“We found traces of pigments that appear to be those known to have been used exclusively by Leonardo,” said Maurizio Seracini, an engineer and expert in art diagnostics who has been on the trail of the “Lost Leonardo” for three decades.
“These data are very encouraging,” he said.
Mr. Garcia said it was now up to Italy’s culture ministry to decide the next steps and if to explore other parts of the wall.
But some art historians are skeptical, saying the fresco of Battle of Anghiari was most likely destroyed before Vasari painted his new fresco.
Some art historians working on the project withdrew their support and Italia Nostra, Italy’s leading nature and arts conservation group, asked Florentine authorities to halt it because they said it risked harming the Vasari fresco and because they believed it was unlikely that the original Leonardo was there.
Mr. Garcia dismissed the criticism. “I think we have demonstrated that those who said the Leonardo was not behind the wall are wrong,” he said.
“All of the holes that were put into the mural were either in areas that had been previously restored or in fissures, so the original Vasari was not touched,” he said.
But even some of the participants at the presentation urged caution.
“We need further certainties and maximum protection for the Vasari fresco,” said Cristina Acidini, arts superintendent for Florence, in response to a question about what the next step would be.
“There are pros and cons about every art project,” said Marco Chatti, head of the Opificio Delle Pietre Dure, Florence’s most prestigious arts restoration laboratory.
Florence mayor Matteo Renzi said more work needed to be done on the project to reveal the condition of the Leonardo, which he believes is behind the wall.
“I ask the government to authorize us to find out how much [of the Leonardo]is left, in what condition it is in, and to evaluate if we can bring this work of Leonardo back into the light for the whole world,” Mr. Renzi said.
The mayor said he believed that modern technology should allow the public to appreciate both the Leonardo and Vasari.
“But if I had to choose, I would choose Leonardo.”