Following the news stories of Maurizio Seracini’s search for The Battle of Anghiari, a “lost” 1505 fresco by Leonardo da Vinci that Seracini believes is hidden behind Giorgio Vasari’s 1563 fresco titled Battle of Marciano in Val di Chiana (shown above) in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy, has seemed like one long tease. When National Geographic announced that they would premier their exclusive footage of Finding the Lost da Vinci this past weekend, I had high hopes. Alas, the tease continues and the debates swirling around the enterprise—whether the da Vinci fresco is there and if it’s worth possibly ruining a Vasari fresco to find out—rage on. Although Seracini, who has pursued this dream for 36 years, failed to find his grail, those who look closely at Finding the Lost da Vinci didn’t come away empty handed.
The story behind Leonardo’s Battle is well documented by contemporaries. When the city fathers of Florence wanted prime time decorations for their Salone dei Cinquecento (in English, “The Hall of the Five Hundred,” named for the 500 members of the Grand Council that would be seated there), they called on the two biggest names in Renaissance art—Leonardo and Michelangelo. Michelangelo chose to depict The Battle of Cascin, finishing a cartoon but never even starting his fresco. Leonardo not only finished the cartoon, but actually began painting. Still plagued by the memory of the visual success but technical train wreck of The Last Supper, da Vinci tried a yet another unconventional fresco approach for The Battle of Anghiari. Leonardo wanted to work in oils on the wall, so he applied an undercoat of several ingredients, one of which was wax.
To da Vinci’s horror, the oil paint began to drip from the wall. Proving that even geniuses can have non-genius moments, Leonardo tried to dry the oil paint quickly by hanging charcoal braziers near the painting, which melted the wax in the undercoat. Like Icarus, the top part of the painting fell to Earth, but quick action saved the bottom half. A dejected (and busy) Leonardo abandoned the project, leaving an eyesore in the hall for half a century until Vasari erected his own battle-based frescoes. (Jonathan Jones’ The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo and the Artistic Duel that Defined the Renaissancen, which I reviewed here, tells the full story of this Renaissance battle royal in vivid, entertaining detail.)
Amazingly, the makers of the documentary couldn’t find a place for that compelling backstory, except to have a critic of the project point out that even if they find the lost Leonardo, there might not be much fresco to find. What I also found frustrating was the presentation of the controversy over possibly damaging the Vasari without any mention of what makes Vasari significant, especially in the context of da Vinci and Michelangelo. Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects stands as the beginning of all art history writing. For me, the greatest piece of evidence that Vasari could have gone to the trouble of preserving the ruined fragment of a da Vinci fresco is the obvious respect Vasari had for the art and artists of the past. In the Lives, Vasari couldn’t praise the cartoon of The Battle of Anghiari enough: “It would be impossible to express the inventiveness of Leonardo's design for the soldiers' uniforms, which he sketched in all their variety, or the crests of the helmets and other ornaments, not to mention the incredible skill he demonstrated in the shape and features of the horses, which Leonardo, better than any other master, created with their boldness, muscles and graceful beauty.” As Andrew Ladis explained in Victims and Villains in Vasari’s Lives (which I reviewed here), Vasari’s art history came with a clear agenda, namely to have all art point towards Michelangelo as the pinnacle. Vasari actually claims that Bartolommeo Bandinelli—his evil anti-Michelangelo—destroyed the cartoon of Michelangelo’s The Battle of Cascin out of spiteful jealousy. Such hyperbole aside, Vasari’s passion for preserving art history makes his moral imperative understandable, if not forgivable.
Perhaps the real story of Finding the Lost da Vinci isn’t the painting itself, but how Vasari preserved at least the memory of the work, if not the work itself. Seracini’s team claims that they found traces of materials inside the wall consistent with those used by da Vinci, possibly proving that some remnant of the painting remains, although other experts remain unconvinced. The National Geographic documentary ends with Seracini “finding” this evidence at the absolute last minute in an episode staged so painfully and ginned up with enough false drama to embarrass even Zahi Hawass. Just as the whole search seems to have reminded the people of Florence of the value of Vasari’s frescoes, perhaps the best thing to come out of this search is finding these “other” masters of the Renaissance, who suffer in the shadow of Leonardo and Michelangelo but deserve their own day in the sun again. There’s enough real drama in the lives and achievement of the Renaissance masters that manufacturing more isn’t necessary. Seracini claims that his quest began when he read the words “Cerca trova” (“Seek and you shall find”) on Vasari’s fresco and took it as proof that the da Vinci lurked beneath. Maybe we should also seek a little more on the surface. Amazing things await there, too.