I can’t stop exclaiming about this story.

The New York Times this weekend looked at an epic mystery: Is there a lost Leonardo da Vinci painting hidden inside a wall in City Hall in Florence, Italy?

Maurizio Seracini, an engineering professor at University of California, San Diego, and director of the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archeology, believes there is. (We profiled Seracini’s sleuthing a few years ago.)

The NYT story explores an extraordinary relationship between nuclear physics, art history and, now, photography to try to get to the bottom of the puzzle.

First, some background:

The complex tale begins in the 1970s, when the Florentine art historian Maurizio Seracini became convinced that the mural, “The Battle of Anghiari,” hailed by some in Leonardo’s era as his finest work, was lurking behind the wall-sized Vasari in the Hall of Five Hundred, for centuries the seat of Florence’s government.

With its violent, bucking horses and bloodthirsty soldiers brandishing swords in the scrum of warfare, “The Battle of Anghiari,” which Leonardo began in 1505 and appears to have abandoned the following year, was hailed as a triumph and copied by many artists until it mysteriously disappeared sometime in the mid-16th century. …

A combination of historical sleuthing and scientific analysis led Mr. Seracini to venture that Vasari covered Leonardo’s oil painting with a protective wall, then painted his own fresco on top, where it remains today.

There may finally be a way to prove the image is there, once and for all. A freelance photographer from Indiana, David Yoder, pitched National Geographic on the story of Seracini’s research to figure out if the painting is there.

Poking around the internet, Yoder found a nuclear physicist working on a camera that would be able to make high-resolution images of cancer location in the human body. Yoder called the 82-year-old physicist, Robert Smither, and encouraged him aboard.

The camera’s science is fascinating. More from the story:

Mr. Smither figured that his camera, which essentially uses copper crystals in place of lens glass to focus the gamma rays that bounce back when an object is sprayed with neutrons, could provide a definitive answer. It could not only determine whether the Leonardo painting was there by identifying the chemicals in the paint but could also capture an image of the hidden work — without damaging the Vasari fresco on top.

With some initial testing under their belts, Smither and Yoder believe a camera could be built to photograph the painting. But now they have to raise some money. Yoder and National Geographic launched a Kickstarter.com fundraising campaign to raise the $265,000 to build and test the gamma camera. Check out their video.

But even should the camera work, there’s still the question of whether the Leonardo painting is on that wall and intact. Seracini and Smither can’t wait to find out.

And neither can I.

I’m Kelly Bennett, the arts editor for VOSD. You can reach me directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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