The Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy
What’s the News: The walls of the Palazzo Vecchio, the centuries-old seat of Florentine government, have doubtless housed many secrets over the years. Now, a physicist, a photographer, and a researcher who uses advanced technology to analyze art are teaming up to reveal one secret that may still linger there: a long-lost mural by Leonardo da Vinci, thought to be hidden behind a more recent fresco. The team plans to use specially designed cameras, based on nuclear physics, to peer behind the fresco and determine whether the da Vinci is actually there—and if so, to take a picture of it.
What’s the Context:
- Leonardo began the mural, called “The Battle of Anghiari,” in the early 1500s. While copies and historical mentions of it survive, the painting itself has not been seen for centuries.
- Maurizio Seracini—an engineer by training who uses technology to examine, image, and analyze art and artifacts—has been searching for “The Battle of Anghiari” since the 1970s. He’s come to suspect it lies behind a later fresco, “The Battle of Marciano” by Giorgio Vasari, in the Palazzo Vecchio’s enormous council hall. This newer work, Seracini believes, was painted on a five-inch-thick brick wall covering Leonardo’s mural.
- There are myriad methods of digitally “peeling back” layers of paint or peering through grime and other barriers to detect art that lies beneath: X-ray fluorescence and infrared reflectography, among others. Although Seracini tried many of these methods, none located the lost Leonardo—nor proved it wasn’t there.
Part of Vasari’s “The Battle of Marciano”
How the Heck:
- Seracini has now teamed up with photographer Dave Yoder and physicist Bob Smither to search for the painting using a new technique: a gamma camera, based on a device Smither developed to image tumors.
- The camera would first bombard the suspected location of the painting with neutrons. When the neutrons hit the mural, if it is indeed there, metals in the paint would give off gamma rays. These gamma rays would pass back through the wall to hit the copper crystals the camera uses instead of a lens to form an image. (Check out Yoder’s photos and descriptions of Smither’s gamma cameras here.)
- A test of the method last summer showed that it could produce fairly clear images from the sorts of pigments Leonardo used, even through a brick wall.
- Building bespoke, radiation-based cameras isn’t cheap, and despite securing substantial support, the team is still short on funds. They’re working to raise an additional $266,500 for the project.
- If all goes well, the team is slotted to start their gamma camera hunt for the lost Leonardo next year.