Da Vinci sleuth invited to find lost masterpiece

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The Independent Online

An Italian "art detective" who has been tracking a great lost masterpiece of the Renaissance for more than half his life has been given consent, and the funds, to carry the quest to its conclusion.

Maurizio Seracini, 60, has been trying since 1975 to learn the truth about the vast fresco The Battle of Anghiari, painted by Leonardo da Vinci in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio, a painting described by contemporaries as "the best work of art, the masterpiece of all".

Da Vinci was commissioned to paint the work in 1504, during Florence's brief republican period, and the 60ft-wide fresco in the city's most important building was to immortalise Florence's victory 60 years earlier over the hated Milanese.

Sketches of the work that survive show Leonardo meant it to be his definitive statement on the ferocious insanity of war, that "most beastly madness" as he called it. In work that prefigures Goya's work and Picasso's Guernica, Da Vinci drew soldiers on horseback as coiled bundles of manic energy, slicing and hacking while their maddened mounts rear, bray and sink their teeth into each other.

In his papers, Leonardo described what he was driving at. He wanted to evoke, "the smoke of the artillery mingled with the dust thrown up by" the horses and soldiers. "Make the conquered and beaten pale," he wrote, "with brows raised and knit, and the skin above their brows furrowed with pain..."

But Leonardo's painting was dogged by bad luck. The cartoon, the full-size design of the painting, was apparently damaged by rain, the oil paints the master used instead of the usual water-based ones refused to dry and, before the work could be completed, he skipped off to Milan to work for the enemy. Contemporaries were awed by his achievement but after the Medicis returned to power, the painter and historian Giorgio Vasari was commissioned to replace the painting.

It was long thought that Vasari merely whitewashed over Leonardo's work. But Maurizio Seracini doubted it. An expert in using modern technologies - X-rays, infra-red photography, fluoroscopy, adapted ultra-sound and thermography - to probe ancient paint without damaging it, Mr Seracini previously exposed the drawings underneath Leonardo's Adoration of the Magi. He was also named in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. "Vasari was a great admirer of Leonardo," Mr Seracini said. "He did not have any reason to destroy, damage or remove Leonardo's painting. Maybe he saw he had a chance and saved it." He had taken the trouble to preserve one masterpiece, leaving a narrow void over a fresco by Masaccio in Florence's Santa Maria Novella church rather than paint over it.

Might he not have done the same with the Leonardo? Mr Seracini has already established that there is a void under the Vasari work.

And it was while exploring the surface of Marciano in the Chiana Valley, the Vasari battle scene that replaced Da Vinci's, that he found an extraordinary hint that he was on the right track: on a banner carried by soldiers in the Vasari scene, invisible from floor level, the words "Seek and you will find". Now, after a five-year hiatus caused by infighting in the Italian art world, Mr Seracini is to get his chance to finish the search. The Italian government has given him permission to continue the work suspended in 2002.