The Affair of the Battle of Anghiari

1. Pierre-Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
Copy after Léonard de Vinci’s drawings
for the Battle of Anghiari
Black Chalk, Pen, Brown and Grey Ink, Grey Wash,
White and Coloured Heightenings - 45.3 x 63.6 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMN

"Mister Mayor..."

"Mister Mayor, be careful what you do at the Palazzo Vecchio in the Salone dei Cinquecenti !..." These were the words pronounced last 28 May, during the social event organized for the presentation of the restored Saint Anne at the Louvre, by Cinzia Pasquali, the restorer, addressing Matteo Renzi, the flashy mayor of Florence [1]. So what is going on in Vasari’s Salone dei Cinquecenti ? If we are to believe the media, something quite extraordinary. Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari - lost since the second half of the 16th century (ill. 1) - is about to resurface after five centuries. How sure can we be ? And at what price ? This is what we are going to try to determine for The Art Tribune readers here.

The theory of a lost Leonardo

In 1968, in his Leonardo inedito, Carlo Pedretti had presented the theory that the Battle of Anghiari from 1503 (an aborted attempt by Leonardo at encaustic painting) could not have totally disappeared under Vasari’s brush. Basing his statement on the example of Masaccio’s Trinity, lost but then found in 1860, Pedretti imagined in 1968 that Vasari, "who never destroyed anything" had tried to preserve at any cost the Battle of Anghiari, already imperiled, when he renovated the Palazzo Vecchio. Yet, no trace of Leonardo has been found in his Ragionamenti di Palazzo Vecchio, now translated into French [2]. However, for almost forty years a very experienced Italian engineer based at the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaelogy of the University of California at San Diego, Maurizio Seracini, did very thorough research on the lost painting. Since 1976, he thought he had identified its presence first on the west [3] then on the east side of the Salone dei Cinquecenti. However, it was only after 2000 that Seracini found support for pursuing his theory among various institutions and patrons allowing him to start tests. Thus, Loel Guinness and his Kalpa Group, the university and the city of Florence, the Polo Museale in Florence, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the Fondation Renato Giunti, the Defense of CISA3 at the University of San Diego, the association Friends of Florence and, finally, National Geographic contributed financially or technically in Seracini’s research. Although in 2007 Francesco Rutelli, then Minister of Cultural Affairs in Italy, announced that 2008 would bring the revelation of the lost Leonardo, it was only in 2012 that the mayor of Florence Matteo Renzi proclaimed far and wide that the Battle of Anghiari had been found at last. How ? Thanks to optical probes slipped under a Vasari fresco, theBattle of Scannagallo, (ill. 2) through the Cinquecento pictorial layer. The affair started at this precise moment.

Leonardo, politics and marketing

2. Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574)
Battle of Scannagallo
Firenze, Palazzo Vecchio,
Salone dei Cinquecenti
Photo : Wikimedia Commons

Before testing the veracity of the findings, let us see how the vested interest of the National Geographic Society’s participation (corresponding to 250,000 euros) and the very strong political involvement of the mayor of Florence weighed on the spectacular announcement. In just a few years The Battle of Anghiari became the stakes for a communications strategy often distanced from art history. As proof, we have this latest media event orchestrated by Renzi around the concept of "new Stil Novo" and of "the revolution of beauty from Dante to Twitter" (a post-modern manifestation of kitsch he apparently assumes), placing the Battle of Anghiari at the heart of a strategy to win the people over politically. The most caustic observers of happenings in the art world, such as the famous Tomaso Montanari, qualify this process as "a weapon of mass distraction". The Italian branch of the National Geographic is just as responsible as seen in its advertisement of a program on 20 March 2012 presenting Seracini’s research, entitled Leonardo, the Last Secret.

It reveals The Battle of Anghiari during a frenetic but totally imaginary "chase". A rough voice whispers then pronounces that "a great mystery has hidden for five centuries in Florence’s walls", finally revealed by the National Geographic Society. This is a bit like Sherlock Holmes in Florence and Dan Brown at the Palazzo Vecchio. Interestingly enough, Seracini has occasionally boasted of being the only Leonardo specialist quoted in The Da Vinci Code. These notes of local color, although they do not tell us much more about the lost Leonardo, speak eloquently of a project which, while claiming to be hyper-scientifc and super-technological, openly adopts the wiles of a cultural barker. There is no doubt that there is a fine line between popularization and research which is hard to establish. Moreover, the demands made by investors and the general public naturally dominate those of scholars. But with the stated ambition of appearing as rigorous as science and as attractive as a best-seller, the promotion made by the National Geographic Society is trying to win out on every front. Looking closely at such an intrepid alliance, we are entitled to ask if rigor did not suffer at the hands of attraction. Confronted with this question, the association for the protection of Italian heritage, Italia Nostra vigorously answered in the affirmative via an appeal dated 2 December 2011 addressed to the Prosecutor of the Republic of Florence, as follows :

"You are surely aware of the affair which has attracted the press’ attention, not only in Florence, and has given rise to growing concern among competent art historians. The Vasari frescoes in the Salone del Gran Consiglio of the Palazzo Vecchio are being harmed, in an adventurous search for Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari based on a fragile theory of a dubious historical souvenir. This is not a new idea of course, and it is continuously encouraged by superficial impulses seeking miraculous finds ; it has recently been espoused once more and put into practice through the initiative of the mayor Matteo Renzi. His trip to the United States, crowned with success, gained him the financial participation of the National Geographic Society, and the cameras of this prestigious journal (and also those of the television program Voyager of Sandro Giacobbo) are ready to start filming this sensational operation in the Salone dei Cinquecenti which will obviously harm, even if only partially, the physical integrity of the Vasari frescos (by means of about ten holes at least according to the research director [4]). Indeed, the procedure is most certainly "invasive" for the painting, as the civil servant Cecilia Frosinini, in charge of mural paintings at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, immediately objected ; given her responsibility, her only recourse was to express her right of moral objection in contrast to the approval of the Surintendante Cristina Acidinii [5]. In an article published in the Fatto Quotidiano of last 30 November an art history scholar, eminently respected [6], presents the reasons why "the idea of rediscovering Leonardo might seem romantic, but when studying it a bit more critically it is anti-historical, impulsive, dangerous and demagogic". This is patently not a response to the demand for a restoration, duly defined in article 29 of the Code for Cultural Assets and for Landscape [...]. On the contrary, the goal being pursued is [...] a "marketing" ploy (using Renzi’s own words) which in fact sacrifices the first obligation of preserving the artistic asset, and which implies unacceptable harm to the physical integrity of the cultural asset (the Vasari fresco) [7]."

This appeal was soon repeated in the national and international press by art historians such as Salvatore Settis, Tomaso Montanari, Charles Dempsey, Nicole Dacos and Paola Barocchi, as well as by lawyers, researchers and professors. It resulted in deeply divided opinions [8] and inspired great caution among Florentine curators, as I myself observed personally during my investigation.

Research and morality : where does The Battle of Anghiari fall ?

Can one perforate a Vasari fresco in order to find a Leonardo painting ? When stated in this way, many would find it hard to answer. However, after a close look, the problem is in fact not this dualistic - a Leonardo instead of a Vasari - for the elementary reason that the existence of the Leonardo has not yet been demonstrated. True, according to Renzi, de Seracini and the National Geographic Society team, those who signed the appeal are jealous and backward looking, to whom they need only answer with the following facts : there is an empty space between the old wall in the east zone of the Salone dei Cinquecenti (on which Leonardo supposedly painted his Battle) and the "new" wall built on top of it in 1566 (on which Vasari painted the Battle known as of Marciano or of Scannagallo ; this intervening space attests to the intentional wish of preserving the Leonardo fresco reinforced by a "sign" addressed to posterity in the inscription "Cerca Trova" (Look Find) set down by Vasari on a standard in his fresco ; infiltrating probes by drilling in the "new" eastern wall revealed the surface of the underlying old wall, apparently brushed over in beige wash, and microscopic samples of the colored material were taken, such as black and (perhaps) a reddish lacquer ; finally, an analysis of these samples seems to show similar pigments to those used in the Mona Lisa. As far back as 2011, Matteo Renzi had thought of practising strappo on Vasari, that is detach the Battle of Scannagallo from the wall in order to access the Leonardo [9]. Why, said Renzi, should we not resolve "the greatest enigma in art history" for a public which avidly wants to know more ? Endowing his marketing strategy with scientific, artistic and philanthropic virtue is the creed of any successful cultural business person. The Mayor of Florence is one of them. Among historians and specialists he accuses of keeping people from reaching the lost and (almost) re-found Leonardo, through hateful maneuvers, some of them accepted to provide me with their own analysis of the situation, at times openly, others while remaining anonymous. This is why I can only thank two of them openly for their contribution : Cecilia Frosinini, already quoted in the above document, and Massimiliano Pieraccini, a professor of physics and electronics at the University of Florence.

First of all, no matter how small the size, perforations were made in the Battle of Scannagallo and this raises a moral problem. Should one harm the integrity of a work in order to establish the hypothetical existence of another one ? For a long time Seracini spoke of using a neutron radar device, but never carried out, which would have obtained more precise images without in any way harming the work. In May 2007, when Rutelli was Italian Minister for Culturel Affairs and Leonardo Dominici was mayor of Florence, a committee presided by Mrs. Acidini including Seracini, professor Carlo Atzeni and a few art historians was formed with the purpose of studying the east wall with "non-invasive" techniques. Then nothing happened. In 2011, Renzi and Seracini announced there would soon be 15 perforations performed in the Battle of Scannagallo, of which only 7 were done. This statement, flagrantly contradicting the promise of "non-invasive" probes, provoked the very strong opposition narrated above. Why did they not wait for technological progress allowing, thirty even fifty years from now, a clear and complete view of what lies (or does not lie) under the Battle of Scannagallo ? In total contradiction with such scruples, inherently associated with the mission of a curator or restorer, Matteo Renzi’s statements, asking either for the Vasari fresco to be detached or else for the extraction of the Battle of Anghiari (using which means ?), are proof that he is not working in the service of Renaissance art. Given this political haste supported by an impressive media campaign, what most troubles Cecilia Frosinini, to whom I am indebted for her thoughts, is the inability to understand the absolute imperative of transmitting the work, that is preserving it for future generations. In fact, there is no possible compromise between a tourist/economic exploitation planned by the mayor of Florence, and a cultural understanding of art. In this case, for Cecilia Frosinini, the victim is not just Vasari but also the moral obligation of any civil servant in charge of a non-deaccessible national asset, of heritage in the French sense of the term, "patrimony".

Let us now look at the historical and technical, in a word, the scientific aspects of the Battle of Anghiari. Vasari was the first to provide indications, often debated, concerning the whereabouts of the Battle of Anghiari and there exist historical studies supporting the theory that the Battle was painted where Seracini is now searching [10]. However, none of them claim to take the place of the proof provided by a technical investigation and on which I must elaborate. In 2000, Professor Pieraccini, as he told me himself, was contacted by Seracini in order to probe via radar the walls of the Salone dei Cinquecenti. Normally, geo-radars are used to take spectographical views of the ground and their reduced specter makes it impossible to make a vertical diagnostic of the presence of a vacuum or intervening space between walls with enough precision. For this reason, in 2002 Pieraccini developed a special wide specter radar device. The results of this series of probes were published in 2005 in a collective article by Pieraccini, Mercati, Luzi, Seracini, Pinelli, Atzeni, Non-contact intrawall penetrating radar for heritage survey : the search of the ’Battle of Anghiari’ by Leonardo da Vinci, "NDT&E International" 38 (2005), pp. 151-157. This scientific study concluded that the east side of the Salone dei Cinquecenti contains, as we already know, a vacuum, that is an intervening space of about 50 meters long and less than 4 cm deep from north to south and below the entire length of the Battle of Scannagallo and of The Taking of Sienna. Pieraccini’s radar analysis also shows that around 1566 Vasari raised a uniform partition a few centimeters away from the Quattrocento wall. Yet, and this is very important, "uniformity of structure" does not mean we can deduct that a specific "niche" under the Battle of Scannagallo holds the remains of the Battle of Anghiari. Furthermore, Seracini, an engineer, stated that he performed three other probes since 2005 after Pieraccini. However, during the press conference of 13 March 2012 on the investigation results, a geo-radar photogram taken from the article published in 2005 was exhibited as proof that only the south panel of the east wall - that of the Battle of Scannagallio - appears to hide an intervening space with the Battle of Anghiari. Given the absence of an exact quote of the 2005 article, the public was misled into thinking that the image came from recent probes ; it is in fact a selective repetition of negatives produced ten years earlier by Pieraccini. Following this episode, the rector of the University of Florence served Seracini with an injunction (diffida), requiring him to quote his sources and respect the terms of a research convention approved in 2012. But above all, the 13 March press conference left important information unspoken, that is that the Battle of Anghiari might be located just about anywhere... or else nowhere, because the vacuum which was found was in no way specifically local or intentional. Consequently, an essential piece of evidence in the case presented by the National Geographic Society seemed to be fabricated. This important detail for locating the supposed whereabouts of the Battle of Anghiari was barely noticed, until Pieraccini spokr before an ad hoc commission in April 2012 at the Palazzo Vecchio when the press finally decided to mention his research work [11]. No matter, the media machine had taken off.

The battle of the samples : is this Leonardo’s color ?

The mayor of Florence announced on 19 March 2012 that the remains of the samples taken by Seracini and already analyzed in his own laboratory (Editech) as well as in a private one (Pontlab) [12] would soon be handed over to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the only agency competent enough to decide the difficult question of Leonardo’s pigments. These micro-samples (and on which subject Seracini chose not to respond to my questions) appear to contain according to an expert who wishes to remain anonymous, chemical components comparable to black pigment and reddish materials evoking probably lacquer. These observations are too vague for the expert in question. In any case, the scientific protocol of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure prohibits performing an analysis on microscopic leftovers which have been already manipulated (and perhaps altered) earlier by another laboratory. In these conditions, the counter-analyses of Seracini’s samples were not and will probably never be carried out, unless other perforations are made under the Vasari fresco. Renzi claims that the current Minister of Cultural Affairs, Ornaghi, will authorize further operations. But the new cultural advisor to the mayor of Florence, a colleague, Sergio Givone, recently appointed by Renzi, has just admitted implicitly that the search for the Battle of Anghiari will perhaps be a fruitless endeavor with no findings... This affair will once again have evidenced the trampling of the principle of scholarly verification for the sake of the media and scientific rigor swept away by the superficiality of journalistic reporting. However, the most serious responsibility is as usual due to political leaders, uneducated but powerful, which should be, for the public good, excluded in the future from participating in any cultural decisions. As for the patrons, they would do well in distributing their financial manna on open wounds : while 250,000 euros have probably been wasted in Florence, I would like us all to remember that there are historic villas collapsing and that libraries cannot afford to buy books in the city of Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Version française

Stéphane Toussaint, mercredi 13 juin 2012


[1] See here.

[2] Giorgio Vasari, Entretiens du Palazzo Vecchio, translated by R. le Mollé, Paris, 2007.

[3] Concerning the problems of locating the Battle of Anghiari, Seracini totally changed his opinion over thirty years, as proven by a 1976 document (graciously forwarded by Massimiliano Pieraccini) entitled Development of Non-Destructive Techniques to Search for a Lost Mural by Leonardo da Vinci, co-written with H. Travers-Newton Jr., as a "tapuscript" (Final Report for Grant N. FC-6-66619, 1976, Special Studies/Research), National Museum Act, The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. This is a report on the research conducted on the Salone dei Cinquecenti, using infrared and ultrasound devices, in which Seracini implied, notably on pages 50, 63 107 and 132 that the Battle of Anghiari was located somewhere under the Vasari frescoes on the west wall. Based on this conviction, parts of the plaster had been removed at the bottom of the wall and four square meters of pictoral layer had been taken off in 1979 then put back, without producing any confirmation. The Fototeca of the Sopraintendenza per i Beni Artistici di Firenze, Pistoia e Prato, to which Cristina Danti (former director of mural paintings at the OPD) referred me, hold photographs of this debatable operation.

[4] Translator’s note : seven holes will in fact be drilled.

[5] Translator’s note : in favor of the probes.

[6] Translator’s note : Tomaso Montanari.

[7] My translation. The original document can be found online on the Italia Nostra site.

[8] For example, the Surintendante du Polo Museale Cristina Acidini spoke out fundamentally in favor of the probes ; in the same way, an official at the Brera Museum, some Florentine civil servants and many cultural journalists sided with Renzi, Acidini and de Seracini.

[9] "Decideremo se passare alla fase successiva, ovvero allo strappo". This information was confirmed by Artinfo.

[10] The most recent is that of R. Hatfield, Finding Leonardo. The case for recovering the Battle of Anghiari, Florence, 2007. For a very different opinion : H. Travers Newton, J. R. Spencer, On the location of Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari, "Art Bulletin", March 1982, vol. 64/1, pp. 49-52.

[11] Repubblica di Firenze, p. VII, 24/04/2102 ; Il Giornale della Toscana, p. 7, 24/04/2012. I would like to thank Massimiliano Pieraccini for graciously forwarding to me all of the documents in his possession concerning this affair.

[12] See here.

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