Is A Leonardo Worth Destroying For?

I was intrigued this morning to read some very interesting news about the investigations taking place in Florence in search of a lost masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci.  Back in October 2009, I noted the possibility that da Vinci’s lost fresco “The Battle of Anghiari” had been found in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, hidden beneath a later fresco by Giorgio Vasari entitled “The Battle of Marciano in Val di Chiana”.  News today that researchers have found paint of the same kind used by Leonardo in his paintings of the same period as the Anghiari fresco, as a result of drilling beneath the Vasari fresco,  makes the possibility seem more likely. Yet as this quest for lost treasure continues, exciting as it may be, some serious questions need to be asked before things go too far.

There is no question that the reemergence of the da Vinci fresco, if in fact it could be recovered, would be of tremendous historic and artistic significance.  Although the thing was pretty much a wreck by the time Vasari came along, thanks to Leonardo’s usual disastrous experimental painting techniques, it made a profound impact on those who were able to view it before it disappeared.  Preparatory drawings and engravings of it were studied and copied by generations of artists.

Vasari the painter had great respect for the work of those artists who came before him, including Leonardo,  and Vasari the scholar can justly be considered the father of art history, as a result of his seminal book, “The Lives of the Artists”.  Therefore I would tend to agree with the theory postulated by those studying the frescoes in the Palazzo Vecchio, that Vasari would not have wanted to scrape down and remove what was left of da Vinci’s monumental painting.  Rather, he was more likely to have persuaded the city council to cover it up, out of respect for the master’s work.

The theory that Vasari did so seems to have been bolstered by the discovery that the wall on which Vasari’s fresco was painted is, in fact, built in front of another wall, with a gap of about 2 centimeters between the two.  Researchers are quite rightly wondering why such a wall would have been placed before another, perfectly good wall, let alone why there was a gap left between the two.  Perhaps Vasari may have justified the expenditure of building this second wall to the city fathers who were paying his bill by claiming that he needed a newer, smoother wall surface on which to work, and that the wall containing da Vinci’s failed fresco was too rough to be properly smoothed over and whitewashed.

Moving a bit into “Indiana Jones” territory, there is also  speculation that the figure of a man in Vasari’s painting holding a banner which reads, “He Who Seeks, Finds” was left as a clue for future historians that the da Vinci painting was behind the Vasari painting.  As intriguing a possibility as this may be, especially for everyone who loves a good mystery story, to me this seems a bit fanciful.  I would not dream of entirely discounting the possibility, but ultimately finding what is on the newly-discovered inner wall is a scientific matter, not pulp fiction, and we have to go with the science.

Indeed, we do not know for certain whether there is in fact a painting on the surface of this inner wall, or that if there is a painting that it is da Vinci’s lost fresco.  There is always the possibility that if there is a painting, it may be from an artist before Leonardo’s time, for example, and it was of such little merit or importance that no one cared enough when it was covered over to note its existence or appearance.  If this turns out to be the case, then it would mean that the wall which presently displays Vasari’s work was, in fact, the wall on which da Vinci himself worked, meaning Vasari did remove what remained of Leonardo’s fresco before he started his own.

Aside from these mystery stories, one extremely important practical question in this investigation is whether our technology has advanced to the point where researchers will be able to safely move the wall on which the Vasari fresco is painted, in order to reveal the wall beneath it.  I can only guess at how this would be attempted, and those with better understandings of matters such as engineering and physics will have to correct me if they think I am off the mark.  My supposition is that the team will eventually seek permission to cut the present outer wall into pieces, removing sections at a time, in order to have a look at the wall behind it.  If they remove enough sections to reveal that there is a painting on the inner wall, and that it is definitely the lost work by Leonardo, then they would continue to remove the outer wall; if not, then they would have to put the outer wall back up again.

This is of course an extremely risky proposition.  Even assuming that this could be done, the Vasari fresco would certainly be damaged in the process, whether taken down in whole or in part, and would then require a great deal of restoration, even if the researchers were able to position their cuts so as to avoid destroying the more complicated sections of the Vasari painting.  They would need to cover the Vasari fresco in some type of protective material as they work, to keep any loose paint from flaking off.  And there would be a danger that the  surface of the outer wall, or indeed the entire structure of it, would become unstable, and the surface plaster containing Vasari’s original paint would shatter into millions of fragments.

As a result, the Italian authorities are going to have a very difficult time, deciding whether or not to take the risk of further poking and prodding into this mystery – which could end up ruining Vasari’s fresco, an art object of historic significance they are charged to help protect and preserve for future generations.  They will also have to worry about whether this case will set a precedent for a torrent of similar investigations, with people dashing about historic sites poking through frescoes with a drill, to see if there are earlier paintings underneath.  There are legitimate concerns over whether this investigation, as it presently stands, ought to continue, or whether it would be better to wait and see whether less invasive technology could be developed, in order to “see” what is on that inner wall without doing further damage to the outer wall.

Regardless, what this investigation really boils down to is the answer to a simple, but difficult question: Is it worth destroying a Vasari in order to obtain a da Vinci?  For no matter how careful the investigators might be, and no matter how advanced the technology employed, there is no way to bring whatever is on this inner wall to the light of day without some risk that the Vasari painting on the outer wall will be completely destroyed, whether as a result of carelessness on the part of those conducting the operation,  or through some at-present unforeseeable event or events.  I am not going to presume to venture an opinion on the matter, and will let my readers battle it out among themselves, as it were.  Whatever the final decision, it will no doubt have a significant impact on researchers, curators, and scientists around the world for many years to come.

“The Battle of Marciano in Val di Chiana” by Giorgio Vasari (1563)
Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

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7 thoughts on “Is A Leonardo Worth Destroying For?

  1. As much as I would love to see the DaVici, it seems a shame to risk destroying a perfectly beautiful painting. I would not want to be the decision maker on this one.

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  2. Pingback: Da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari: Is Vasari in the way?

  3. William, thank you so much for your thoughtful essay. You may know that National Geographic is airing a piece on this subject this coming Sunday night on the NatGeo Channel at 9:00 pm EDT.

    I posted two items on this titillating mystery on my own WordPress blog yesterday and today.

    Very best wishes. Elliott

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  4. Pingback: Pássaros Feridos » Blog Archive » Resenha: Inferno (guia para leitura)

  5. I have a brass repousse of a portrait of Leonard DaVinci that appears to be a mirror image of the engraving of Leonard in Vasari’s Lives of The Artists. I would be glad to send you a photograph of this repousse in hopes that you might have seen it before and could help me determine its origin.

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