- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 25, 2007

ROME (AP) — Analyzing 500-year-old bricks, engineers in California are searching for a lost Leonardo da Vinci fresco that some researchers believe is behind a wall in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio.

The hunt for the “Battle of Anghiari,” an unfinished mural by da Vinci, has captivated art historians for centuries and is being tackled by experts wielding state-of-the art scientific tools.

Laser scanners, thermal imaging, radar and neutrons will be employed in the project that Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli says is expected to take about a year.

Art lovers want to get to the bottom of the mystery in the Salone del Cinquecento (Hall of the 1500s) in the Palazzo Vecchio, a fortresslike palace in the heart of Florence that houses municipal offices.

Maurizio Seracini, an Italian engineer, says he and colleagues at the University of San Diego are studying bricks and stonework that were found in a storeroom in the Palazzo Vecchio and once were part of the huge hall. The bricks were hauled to California, where their structure and composition are being analyzed, Mr. Seracini says by telephone.

Some researchers believe a cavity in one of the hall’s walls might have preserved the mural, which da Vinci began in 1505 to commemorate the 15th-century Florentine victory over Milan at Anghiari, a medieval Tuscan town. The work was unfinished when da Vinci left Florence in 1506.

The search for the masterpiece was given new impetus about 30 years ago, when Mr. Seracini noticed a cryptic message by Giorgio Vasari on a fresco in the hall. Vasari was a 16th-century artist famed for chronicling Renaissance artists’ labors.

“Cerca, trova” — “seek and you shall find” — say the words on a tiny green flag in the “Battle of Marciano in the Chiana Valley.” Because Vasari respected the Renaissance masters, some hypothesize he wouldn’t have destroyed da Vinci’s work on what is presumed to have been a wall behind one Vasari painted when he decorated the room in the 1560s.

A few years ago, using radar and X-ray scans, Mr. Seracini and his team found a cavity behind Vasari’s fresco that could indicate a space between two walls.

“We’re going to see if Vasari, instead of destroying, saved” da Vinci’s fresco, Mr. Rutelli said Monday.

Next month, engineers using a laser scanner will start work on constructing a three-dimensional model of Vasari’s wall, Mr. Seracini says. Chemical analyses of Vasari’s paint pigments will follow, as well as thermal imaging to help better understand the wall structure.

By knowing the exact composition of the paint on the Vasari fresco and the wall itself, experts will have a better chance at understanding what might be behind it when the next step comes, Mr. Seracini says. That will be to send a flux of neutrons through the entire structure.

“When we know what [Vasari’s] pigments and wall are [made of], we can ‘subtract’ ” that information from the overall neutron analysis to establish the composition of the wall Leonardo worked on, Mr. Seracini says. “Leonardo’s mural should be located on top of the original stone wall” of the hall. He says researchers know which pigments da Vinci used.

If there’s no da Vinci masterpiece behind Vasari’s wall?

Mr. Seracini predicts that art restoration will benefit in any case because the project will pioneer ways for restorers to understand countless paintings that have been covered by whitewash and plaster.

The project is “absolutely a novelty in application” to the art world, Mr. Seracini says, adding that many of the techniques to be used in the da Vinci hunt are already employed in medical and military fields.

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