In Florence last October I had a chance to catch a fascinating show about Leonardo da Vinci at the Uffizi Gallery. It focused in one part on The Battle of Anghiari, the never completed mural by Leonardo that has been one of art history’s most bitterly regretted lost works since it disappeared in the mid-16th century. In anticipation of the show I even made a trek to the little hilltop town that is Anghiari today, not far from Arezzo.
(Is it a bad sign that not even two weeks into my blogging career I’m already running my vacation pictures? This is the last one, I swear.)
Then came the news this weekend that Italy’s Minister of Culture Francesco Rutelli, best known in the U.S. for spearheading his nation’s campaign to retrieve pilfered antiquities from American museums, announced that he had decided to allow the art researcher Maurizio Seracini to resume his attempts to determine if the remnant of Leonardo’s work might be hidden within a wall of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.
Leonardo had begun the work there in 1505, just across the Sala del Consiglio where Michelangelo was to produce his own mural, The Battle of Cascina, another scene from a Florentine military victory. Neither work was finished. Michelangelo produced a completed cartoon, now lost, which has come down to us in detailed copies by other hands. Leonardo got as far as applying color to the dry plaster wall, but only finished a few horsemen before decamping for Milan in 1506. His completed fragment remained visible until the hall was remodelled by Giorgio Vasari in the 1560s and was copied repeatedly by artists of the time. We also have four related drawings by Leonardo himself. So we have some impression of the wild vortex of four battling horseman, a scene that has come to be called “The Fight for the Standard”, one that made the work legendary, especially after it was swallowed up.
Here it is in a copy made by Rubens, who was himself working from a copy made by an anonymous Italian artist.
Three decades ago Seracini noticed a tantalizing message on a small green flag carried by one of the soldiers in The Battle of Marciano in the Chianna Valley, a 16th century fresco in the “Hall of the 500″ by Vasari. Written on the flag were the words “Cerca Trova” — “Seek and You Shall Find”. Seracini decided to try that out. Working with a team of researchers, in 2003 and 2004 he used x-ray and infrared scans of Vasari’s fresco to determine that behind the wall it’s painted on there’s a cavity large enough to contain the completed fragment of Leonardo’s lost work. Then Florentine officials refused to renew Seracini’s permit to work on the wall. (Maybe they heard that his name pops up in The Da Vinci Code and decided to penalize him for Dan Brown’s knuckleheaded speculations.) That decision was reversed last week. There’s a good Associated Press account of all this here.
“Lost” works reemerge all the time. Just last fall two lost altarpiece panels by Fra Angelico turned up in Britain in the home of librarian who had died a few months earlier. And a Norman Rockwell turned up in an attic. But the reappearance of that Leonardo would be a class by itself, like rediscovering that monumental statue of Jupiter by Phidias. (Not an easy thing to lose, one would think.) Could it be that those horses have been rumbling behind that wall for five centuries but no one heard them til now? Seracini says that even after his work resumes, it will take a year and a half to develop an answer.