Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Lost Leonardo

Maurizio Seracini is ready with all his scientific gadgetry to see if there is anything left of Leonardo's lost painting of the Battle of Anghiari underneath a later painting by Giorgio Vasari in the Sala di Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. He is optimistic that there might be something there to find. It turns out that Vasari did not plaster directly over the Leonardo, but bricked it in leaving a slight gap. If traces of the Leonardo are detected, Vasari's painting would be removed intact and stored while attempts are made to recover the Leonardo. After the Leonardo is recovered (presuming it is there), it would probably be removed for display elsewhere and the Vasari painting would be returned to its place.

If it is there, then what would we find of it? We all know this painting from a famous copy by Rubens shown at the top of this post. Rubens copied a copy. He never saw Leonardo's painting. It was long gone before he was even born. His copy is based on an engraving. It may be less a copy than a stirring reconstruction.

Here is a small copy displayed in the Palazzo Vecchio today which may have been made after the original. Leonardo never finished the painting. What we see in the copies is only the central episode of what was supposed to be a big sprawling battle panorama. Leonardo experimented with some form of oil painting on a large scale that would allow him to work on the whole painting at once instead of in the sections required by traditional fresco technique. According to the accounts of the time, the experiment didn't work. The paint would not dry. He lit fires in the hall to try to dry the paint, but instead, the heat began melting it off the wall. Leonardo abandoned the painting after an offer of employment by the Duke of Milan. If the painting is there to be found, it may be a wreck.

The Sala di Cinquecento is a huge hall added onto the Palazzo Vecchio during the last Florentine republic. It housed the Great Council of the Five Hundred, the closest thing anywhere in the world at the time to a representative legislature. Unfortunately, that legislature was skillfully exploited by Savonarola during his regime. Michelangelo and Leonardo were together commissioned to paint victorious battles from Florentine history by the republic. They famously quarreled and hated each other. Michelangelo got no further than preliminary drawings before he left for Rome.
After the Florentine republic was destroyed by the armies of Charles V, and the Medici were installed as Dukes of Tuscany, the hall was substantially rebuilt into a large audience chamber for the dukes. Leonardo's painting was covered over (or replaced) by Vasari in 1563 during the rebuilding.

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