Click on photos to enlarge.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Lost Leonardo

Salon dei Cinquecento, Palazzo Vecchio,
Florence, Italy
What does an artist do when he's commissioned to paint a mural over an important work by another artist? What does he do when that artist is one whom he admires greatly? A mural is part of a wall, you can't just take it down and store it away in the attic. It matters little that the mural is deeply flawed, in poor condition, and deteriorating rapidly, almost before your very eyes. According to art historian/detective Maurizio Seracini, this was the plight the mannerist painter/historian Giorgio Vasari faced in 1563 as he labored to redecorate the Salon dei Cinquecento, the Grand Council chamber of the famed Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy. Today, such a scenario might involve photographing the distressed mural then painstakingly removing, piece by piece, the chunks of painted plaster for reassembly elsewhere. Such an undertaking would be extremely difficult, at best. In Vasari's time, it would have been impossible, even if it had been considered, which is unlikely.

Battle of Anghiari, 1503, copy by
Peter Paul Rubens, 1603, based on a
1553 etching by Lorenzo Zacchia
Vasari seems to have tried, though. The mural was Leonardo da Vinci's 1503 Battle of the Anghiari, which the artist had abandoned, unfinished, two generations before. No, Vassari didn't attack the work with hammer and chisel. Instead he called in various artists of the day to copy it (the Renaissance equivalent to photographing it). Then, he hid it. According to Seracini, he had built a new wall, an inch or less in front of the mural (no small undertaking, the room is 170 feet long). It was upon this new wall that he painted his own priceless fresco series. In doing so, he left a clue in one of his own scenes--a battle flag with the words "Cerca Trova." (Seek and ye shall find.) It is behind this, his own mural, Battle of Marciano in the Chiana Valley, that researchers speculate Vasari hid Leonardo's flawed masterpiece.

Battle of Marciano in the Chiana Valley
(detail) ,1563, Giorgio Vasari
But how do you search for, much less preserve, one mural without destroying the other? That's a question even 21st century art conservation technology finds difficult. Even assuming the Leonardo mural is hidden where Seracini says it is, then what? The Leonardo mural could be worth hundreds of millions, even small fragments of it, yet Vasari's mannerist battle scene isn't merely part of the "interior decor." Moreover, Florentine city officials are not about to destroy one work simply in the hope of finding another, even a priceless Leonardo, lost for more than 400 years. At the moment, Seracini is unconcerned about that. First, he must find The Battle of the Anghiari with certainty. If and when he does, he seems to believe the value judgments that must be made will fall into place.
Battle of Marciano in the Chiana Valley, 1563, Giorgio Vasari

No comments:

Post a Comment