What’s the Real Find Behind “Finding the Lost da Vinci”?

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.

[Image: Giorgio Vasari. Battle of Marciano in Val di Chiana (1563). Fresco in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy.]

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.