The Italian Almanac

Leonardo Da Vinci

Italian Art - June 20

In 1505, Leonardo da Vinci began a vast work, The Battle of Anghiari, on a wall in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. The work, a whirl of horses and soldiers in battle, was to commemorate Florence's defeat of Milanese forces in 1440. It was described at the time as a miraculous thing. What happened next is less than clear. It is not known if the painting was finished, or whether it later suffered irreparable damage. The work vanished and in the process became a mystery worthy of Dan Brown's fictional thriller, The Da Vinci Code.

Now art experts, backed by a British foundation, say they are convinced that the masterpiece is hidden behind a later Renaissance fresco. Maurizio Seracini, an engineer who specializes in using medical techniques to investigate artworks, wants to pierce a hole in the fresco and use an endoscope to prove that the masterpiece lies behind it. But Mr Seracini faces opposition from fellow art historians who claim the "lost Leonardo" is a myth, and fear that the huge Giorgio Vasari painting that covers an entire wall in the council chamber of the Palazzo Vecchio will suffer extensive damage for no good reason.

Leonardo was commissioned to paint The Battle of Anghiari in the early 16th century, during the short-lived Florentine republic that overthrew the Medici dukes. However, the Medicis returned to power and, in 1563, Duke Cosimo apparently instructed Vasari to paint The Battle of Marciano, depicting one of the Medicis' own victories, apparently replacing Leonardo's work.

Mr Seracini says he does not believe that Vasari destroyed the Leonardo. "Instead, he erected a wall between his painting and Leonardo's," he says. "In fact, I am convinced he used the Leonardo as a model for his own work." Vasari even left behind a clue worthy of Dan Brown, says Mr Seracini. One of the pennants in his battle scene bears the words "Cerca Trova", Italian for "seek and you shall find".