Thursday, Dec. 18, 2008 | Maurizio Seracini stands facing Leonardo da Vinci’s “Adoration of the Magi,” which is being displayed on a massive bank of 70 flat-screen monitors. Seracini holds what looks like a plastic gun. He points it at the masterwork and begins moving his arm in a circular motion.

On the screens, the brownish veneer of the painting is brushed away, and da Vinci’s original drawings of a fight scene come into view. “We just went through the paint,” he says. “This is a drawing never seen for 500 years — this the real work of Leonardo.”

It is a typical moment in the life of the University of California, San Diego’s Center for Interdisciplinary Science in Art, Architecture and Archeology. In just under two years the center, dubbed CISA3 and situated inside the ultra-modern Atkinson Hall, has become a hub for the marriage of science, technology and culture.

CISA3 scientists spend their days trying to unlock some of the great mysteries of mankind. Materials scientist Albert Yu-Min Lin has spent the last several years trying to pinpoint Genghis Khan’s secret grave site with non-invasive remote satellite sensing and ground-penetrating radar. CISA3’s lead archeologist, Thomas Levy, has used similar technologies to locate what might be the mythical mines of King Solomon.

Home to 25 researchers, CISA3 opened in February 2007. It was created for Seracini to further his work in the diagnostic imaging of cultural artifacts, a scientific field he essentially invented during the course of his 33-year obsession over “Battle of Anghiari,” da Vinci’s lost masterpiece.

The center is funded through the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, or Calit2, a relationship that allows Seracini and his colleagues access to some of the most state-of-the-art technology in the world, including the display used by Seracini (called HIPerSpace), which was developed by CISA3 Associate Director Falko Kuester. It is the highest resolution display in the world — larger in terms of pixels than the one at NASA.

Seracini is using another Calit2 innovation, STarCave, which is a 3D virtual reality simulator, in his search for “Battle of Anghiari.” He has recreated the famous Hall of Five Hundred from his native Florence, where the depiction of two men on horseback engaging in fierce battle — history’s most famous missing masterwork — last hung in the 16th century.

“You need science to approach a work of art, to study a work of art, to assess truly if it is really a masterpiece,” said the 62-year-old Seracini. “Understand how, out of simple materials (colors, oil, varnish a piece of wood on the table), comes a guy who makes a masterpiece.”

Even in the event that he never finds the painting (he is, of course, convinced that he will) Seracini’s career-long quest has been fruitful for science and culture. He invented the concept of using infrared, ultrasound and ultraviolet devices for non-invasive analysis of classic art and architecture.

Both his technological breakthroughs and his da Vinci scholarship have brought Seracini world renown — since the 1970s he has examined more than 2,500 of the world’s most famous paintings, statues and historical buildings to, among other things authenticate them and gauge the rate of their decay. And he is the only real-life character in the best-selling book “The Da Vinci Code.”

In the book, like in his recent demonstration at CISA3, Seracini reveals the results of his investigation of “Adoration of the Magi.” The masterwork was begun by da Vinci in 1481, but finished by another artist (or artists) between 50 and 150 years later. There has long been documentary evidence that da Vinci was not the only artist to work on the painting, but for centuries there was dispute over how much of the painting was done by him and how much by others. Several years ago, Seracini found the answer — da Vinci did the drawings, but the paint was applied by a far less talented artist.

He proved it by taking thousands of pictures of the painting with super high-resolution camera lenses that are able to capture infrared and ultra-violet light. He then essentially stitched the pictures together. And with HIPerSpace, and some high-powered software, Seracini is now able to show CISA3 visitors how the master’s drawings were painted over, as well as the genius of the drawings.

Seracini wants such demonstrations to be available to the masses, and wants the study of classic art to be a fully interactive and exciting experience, not something most people do only because they know it’s good for them.

“Culture is not something that sits in a museum, and when you have time you go visit,” he said. “It belongs to us; there is a lot there to grab, to be understood, to see your roots in.”

Finding Genghis | The 27-year-old Lin believes his quest for Genghis Khan is in his blood. He was born with what is known as the Mongolian spot on his back — a birthmark, which usually fades after a couple of years — that reveals one’s Mongolian ancestry. Lin was also born with a powerful wanderlust and, in his words, “an obsession on the origins of civilization.”

Two years ago, Lin fed that obsession with a visit to Mongolia. He spent months with a native family, living the nomadic lifestyle that has dominated the region for centuries. During his time with the family he realized the impact that Kahn had on not only Mongolia, but the world.

Western history remembers Kahn primarily as a ruthless warlord — and he was one of the great military tacticians in history. But he was also the first ruler to attempt to unify the East and West. He created trade routes, developed a written language, fostered new religions and attempted to create universal currency.

“He is really underrated as a significant figure in the world — really underrated,” said Lin, who earlier this year earned a Ph.D. in materials science.

When Kahn died in 1227, the area around his tomb was deemed forbidden, the restriction lasted through the 20th century Russian occupation of Mongolia. And though researchers have been allowed in the area since the 1990s, the exact location of the gravesite remains a secret. And according to the region’s shamanistic religion, it should stay that way.

“People believe his spirit is protecting the region,” Lin said. “And if someone tampers with his grave it could cause big problems.”

But in recent decades one of the world’s largest copper reserves has been discovered under Mongolian soil, and the landscape has become littered with rogue mining operations. And the area has always had problems with archeological looters. Lin and others worry that if the grave site is not protected it will eventually be looted or completely destroyed.

So Lin has made it his mission to locate the site, get it protected, possibly as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. CISA3 has provided the platform for him to do that. He describes the center as a haven for scientists who feel that there is a needless “disconnect between pure science and the humanities.” Similar to Seracini, Lin’s ultimate goal is to create an interactive research project that will bring the disciplines together, in his case to show Kahn’s contributions to civilization to the Western world.

But first he has to find Kahn’s tomb. To do this, Lin and his fellow researchers will start by using satellite imagery to look for anomalies in ground. At the site they will deploy ground-penetrating radar and electromagnetic induction, neither of which requires any digging. These tools will help Lin find deflections in the earth’s magnetic field, which can indicate that something was put underneath the ground.

All that may be the easy part. The hard part will be convincing the Mongolian authorities that his technologies will be non-invasive, and then, of course, funding. Right now the project is self-funded. “I am still sleeping on my friends’ couches,” Lin said.

The Iron Age’s Missing Years | Levy is in his 50s and well past his couch-surfing years. And CISA3’s archeologist does not have to worry about whether his exploration is invasive. The site of his research is Jordan, home to many archeological digs over the years.

But Levy has found himself in the middle of a decades-old controversy over the existence of King Solomon’s mines.

A common misconception is that the existence of King Solomon’s mines is documented in the Old Testament. Not true — there is no mention in the Bible of Solomon’s mines; they were an invention by 19th century novelist Sir Henry Haggard.

The Old Testament, however, does recount King David’s rule over the Kingdom of Edom (an area southeast of the Dead Sea, extending to the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba). And it tells of David establishing several fortresses in the kingdom, which were later consolidated by his son Solomon. And, Levy said, the Bible also mentions the Temple of Jerusalem being decked out in copper, which has led researchers to suspect mining operations.

Nonetheless, biblical scholars have long debated whether the Edomites ever had a true kingdom, let alone a mining industry. But in the 1930s, an archeologist named Nelson Glueck claimed to have found King Solomon’s mines, citing, among other things, evidence of mining trails, as well as slag mounds.

However, Glueck’s claim was largely dismissed after British excavations in the 1970s and 80s seemed to show that extensive mining didn’t come to the area until hundreds of years after Solomon’s rule.

Then along came Levy, who became a central character in the controversy, even if he didn’t want to be. “We aren’t looking to prove whether Solomon was there, and whether he had a mining industry,” Levy said. “I am not a biblical archeologist.”

The driving questions behind Levy’s work have to do with how societies evolved during the Iron Age, and who was involved in it. In short, he wants to know when human societies developed to the point where they could undertake complex things like mining operations.

It just so happens that the supposed site of the biblical kingdoms of David and Solomon is just the place for such research. At one of the fortresses, Levy’s crew excavated 20 feet down to virgin soil. The excavation revealed 10 feet of industrial slag production from 1,000 B.C., which coincides with the period of Solomon. The findings were published in the October issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Levy’s team collected the data from the site using new digital recording methods, and then plugged the data into the STarCave, which gives them a 3D virtual reality representation of the site. It is essentially recreating the excavation in the lab.

“We have, for the first time, definitive evidence that the Iron Age in Edom goes back before 1,000 BC,” Levy said. “Its like, ‘Hey everybody, we have 300 more years of Iron Age history.’”

‘Battle of Anghiari’ | Some credit for Lin’s and Levy’s work on Khan and Solomon should go to Seracini’s career-long quest for “Battle of Anghiari,” because without it, CISA3 wouldn’t exisit.

Officially, Seracini’s da Vinci search directly dates to the 1970s, but in reality it goes back to his childhood. Born in Florence, Italy in 1946, He played soccer in the city’s great squares, the domes of famous Renaissance churches were his jungle gyms.

The history and culture “just got into me,” he said, “like it did so many others lucky enough to grow up in such a great city.”

But science and engineering was his career path. Seracini came to the United States and was accepted at UCSD in 1969. He chose engineering, specifically engineering as it relates to medicine, as his major. He minored in art. He earned a doctorate in engineering; his minor became his passion.

During Seracini’s undergraduate years, a UCSD art professor suggested he take a class taught at UCLA by Carlo Pedretti, one of the world’s foremost da Vinci scholars. Seracini was enthralled by both Pedretti and his subject, particularly da Vinci’s lost mural.

The unfinished painting, which Seracini says would have likely gone down as da Vinci’s greatest work had it not been lost for five centuries, was one of two commissioned in 1504 for the Hall of Five Hundred in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio.

The other artist commissioned was Michelangelo Buonarroti, who began painting a scene from the Battle of Cascina on the wall opposite from Leonardo’s work. It was the only time the two masters worked on the same project. The two unfinished works hung together until 1512, when a jealous rival of Michelangelo’s destroyed his painting.

Leonardo’s remained on display for another half century until the hall was remodeled and artist Georgio Vasari was hired to paint a mural that would replace Leonardo’s. It is believed today, mainly due to Seracini’s research, that Vasari built a new wall in front of “Battle of Anghiari” rather than destroy it.

In 1975, Seracini had earned his bioengineering degree, and was back in Florence to serve his military commitment. He ran into Pedretti, who had published a book on newly uncovered documents on the painting.

“He asked me how I could approach this problem, if there were any technological solutions,” Seracini said.

Thus a career, and a new field of science, was born. Thirty years later, CISA3 represents the fruit of Seracini’s dogged search. But there is still no painting. And for the time being, Seracini’s search has been called off while he waits for funding from Italian politicians who are concerning themselves with who will get credit if the painting is found.

Seracini is in Florence this week meeting with government officials, and he says he is confident that he will get the project rolling again, and eventually find the lost masterpiece.

“Up to now I did not find one piece of evidence that would prove that the masterpiece was not there,” he said. All the evidence points to the opposite — otherwise I would have quit. It is that simple.”

Please contact David Washburn directly at with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.