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Researchers in Italy have drilled into a centuries-old mural to try to find a centuries-old painting. A few hundred of the world’s foremost art experts think that sounds like cutting off your nose to spite your face. They’re mad at Maurizio Seracini, an engineering professor at the University of California, San Diego.
The epic mystery — a Leonardo da Vinci painting, lost for centuries — has captivated Seracini for more than 30 years. He’s used infrared, ultrasound and ultraviolet devices to analyze classic art and architecture non-invasively. He started a whole center at UCSD to track down cultural gems through scientific means.
Born in Florence, Italy, culture and history seeped into Seracini’s blood, but he came to the United States in the late 1960s to study engineering with a minor in art. One of his professors, a preeminent da Vinci scholar, told the class about the master’s lost mural. It likely would’ve gone down in history as da Vinci’s greatest work, Seracini told us in this 2008 story, if it hadn’t been lost for 500 years.
After decades of sleuthing, Seracini believes the da Vinci painting, commissioned in 1503, is behind another fresco by Giorgio Vasari in the historic building, Palazzo Vecchio, now serving as Florence’s City Hall. But a fundraising campaign didn’t raise the more than $250,000 needed to build a special gamma-ray camera to see if the painting’s hidden under the other mural.
So Seracini turned to more drastic measures. His team has drilled a handful of small holes through which they’ll insert a four-millimeter endoscopic probe. One of the art restorers said the holes were drilled in the places in the fresco where there was already damage and no original paint left. While city and state art officials allowed the project, one art restorer refused to participate, saying she didn’t have enough background information to believe the painting is behind the fresco.
Her protest sparked more than 300 art scholars and historians to sign a petition to stop the drilling. They’re appealing to Florence’s mayor and arts authority. What would happen if Seracini’s probe finds that the da Vinci painting is indeed there? The New York Times quotes an opponent:
“What are we going to do — tear down Vasari’s wall?” asked Chiara Silla, who was director of the Palazzo Vecchio for nine years, during which Mr. Seracini conducted some of his studies. “The message that’s coming across is that this is a city that doesn’t protect its artwork.”
On Seracini’s side: the National Geographic Society and his colleagues at UCSD’s Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology. And Florence’s mayor, Matteo Renzi, remains “a firm champion” of the project, according to the Times:
If Leonardo’s painting were found, it would revolutionize Renaissance art, he said. “Only a crazy person would stop now. I think Florence has the right to solve one of the greatest mysteries of the history of art.”
I’m Kelly Bennett, the arts editor for VOSD. You can reach me directly at email@example.com or 619.325.0531.
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