The mystery behind Leonardo da Vinci’s lost masterpiece
As I stared up at Giorgio Vasari’s painting, The battle of Marciano in Val di Chiana, uncontrollable chills traveled down my spine. I couldn’t believe that Leonardo da Vinci’s most revered work during his lifetime was right beneath this 43 by 25 ft fresco. And I’m most definitely not talking Mona Lisa.
I was standing in the largest political hall in Italy, the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Six similar frescoes depicting battle scenes ornamented the walls of the room, all requiring me to crane my neck to glimpse the tops. A family trip had led me to Italy, but as I looked up at the famous fresco, there didn’t seem to be anyone else in the room. All I knew was myself, soaking in the mystery of the lost masterpiece, The Battle of Anghiari, that was rumored to be behind these walls.
When it was painted in 1505, The Battle of Anghiari was regarded as the best work by Leonardo da Vinci, arguably the most well-known painter of the Renaissance era and today. This one battle scene, commissioned by Italian statesman Piero Soderini to be painted in the Palazzo Vecchio, was said to surpass any other painting produced during the Renaissance. A century later, however, painter Giorgio Vasari was told to paint over it by the Grand Duke Cosimo I. After this, there are no known records of The Battle of Anghiari. Art historians knew it should rest in the Palazzo Vecchio, but found nothing more than copied sketches by Peter Paul Rubens and da Vinci himself. Nothing could point them to the original.
But five years ago, everything changed. In March 2012, Italian art analyst Maurizio Seracini discovered that Vasari’s painting actually rested on a thin wall about one to three inches in front of the rest of the paintings in the gallery. By controversially drilling small holes into parts of Vasari’s painting, Seracini discovered pigments behind this wall. After further analysis, it was found that da Vinci had used these same pigments in many of his other works. Not having the heart to destroy Leonardo’s acclaimed work, Vasari had built a thin wall over the original painting before painting himself.
What’s the big fuss, you ask? What about this could cause me to feel as if I was in an alternate universe, standing in this grand gallery on this particular hot August afternoon? It’s simple. I’d even brought binoculars in preparation. Nothing was going to take away from this life changing moment, and nothing did.
I’ve never cared much for Vasari as a painter. I will, however, attest to the man’s ingenuity. Vasari, reluctant to paint over Leonardo’s work and knowing that historians would be searching for it centuries later, had included a vital clue in his painting. On one of the green flags about 20 feet up, lost in the chaos of the Battle of Marciano in Val di Chiana, he had painted the words “Cerca Trova” in white paint. In other words, “Seek, and ye shall find.” It’s amazing that art historians didn’t find it earlier.
I’ve never shaken off this day of discovery. I was amazed these words weren’t found centuries earlier. This inscription was written on a painting in a room where The Battle of Anghiari was said to have existed, yet no one had pieced together the clues until five years ago.
I’ve come to two conclusions. One: The mysteries I always classified as the realm of fiction novels can manifest themselves in reality, and they can do so in a way that sucks the breath right out of you. You’re left feeling as if you didn’t truly deserve to witness this moment, to see the stars align right in front of you. Two: Sometimes we don’t see what’s right under our noses. But I’m not complaining –– had this been found centuries earlier, I wouldn’t have been as beautifully spellbound as I was four years ago.
The Battle of Anghiari will likely never be recovered. In order to do so, Vasari’s painting would have to be destroyed, and it’s very probable that da Vinci’s painting would emerge in a damaged condition. As an art enthusiast, I’m devastated The Battle of Anghiari won’t ever be seen by myself or the public. It’s almost more distressing, however, that most people will never know this painting.
It seems than an art piece lost isn’t as painful as an art piece undiscovered. Since The Battle of Anghiari is the latter, it’s as if a huge part of da Vinci’s reputation never existed. It brings up the controversial question: Is it just to destroy a “lesser” piece of art to recover a more famous work? As much as I’d love to revel in the glory of da Vinci’s painting, I couldn’t justify destroying another piece of art to do so.
Regardless, seeing the words “Cerca Trova” with my own eyes was an experience that transcended all my previous notions of self-discovery. When I close my eyes, I can still see the white, fine printed words etched in my mind.
“Seek, and ye shall find.”
I wonder what else I’ll discover if I disregard the apparent and dive into the unexplored.