Scholars have been trying to find Leonardo’s “lost masterpiece” for years—and now, some experts are saying the search will never be complete because the work doesn’t exist at all.
At a roundtable held by the Uffizi Galleries in Florence on October 8, art historians Roberta Barsanti, Giancula Belli, Emanuela Ferrretti, and Cecilia Frosinini presented research that they said attests to the fact that the Leonardo work is not behind a wall in Florence’s centuries-old town hall, the Palazzo Vecchio, as some have previously suggested. Their research goes against decades’ worth of work by the researcher Maurizio Seracini, who has advocated for high-tech scientific testing that would potentially reveal the fresco’s presence.
Key among the historians’ findings—which were released in 2019 in an Italian-language book—are technical details that would suggest that The Battle of Anghiari, a vast battle scene that Leonardo is believed to have been commissioned to paint in 1503, could not be beneath a wall because it was never painted in the first place. They claim that the way the painting was prepared, using a technique involving a layer of gesso and oil, rendered it impossible to execute—Leonardo couldn’t have created an image because the paint wouldn’t hold.
“This process, which was always thought to be part of the painting, was instead meant for the preparation of the wall before the paint,” said art historian Francesca Fiorani, whose new book The Shadow Drawing: How Science Taught Leonardo to Paint (due out in the U.S. from Farrar, Strauss and Giroux next month), features a detailed backstory for the painting. “Since the process to prepare the wall was not successful, Leonardo never painted on it. This means that Leonardo’s battle existed only as a cartoon, never as paint on a wall.”
Furthermore, the art historians claimed at the Uffizi event, a close examination of traces of pigment found beneath the Palazzo Vecchio wall suggests that something was once there, but it may not necessarily have been the Leonardo. Between 2009 and 2012, Seracini and others repeatedly said that the black pigment found there matched the kind that appears in the Mona Lisa, a Leonardo painting whose attribution is unquestioned. But at the Uffizi, Frosinini said that the black pigments were used widely at the time, so it was impossible to prove these traces belonged to The Battle of Anghiari, and in the 2019 publication, art historian Mauro Matteini argues that the pigments may have come from a wall, not an artwork.
Reached by phone, Seracini, who runs a Florence-based center called Editech Art & Science SRL, framed the newly presented research as part of a larger standoff between art historians and scientists. “This had to be a competition,” Seracini said. “If you belong to academia, you must be better. If you’re a scientist, oh no.”
He added, “I think I’ve done what I could to provide knowledge, and I don’t deserve to be seen as the enemy.”
The broader public became interested in The Battle of Anghiari in 2002, after Seracini found a crevice behind a Giorgio Vasari painting where he thought the Leonardo mural might be. At the time, Seracini said it could become “one of the greatest art finds of all time,” and he began using sophisticated imaging technology to uncover what lay beyond the Vasari. (Some alleged that Seracini’s technology could profoundly alter a valuable architectural structure and the work on it, but he claimed his methods were “non-invasive.”)
Local politics and an outcry from historians about drilling into the Vasari delayed work on the project, which had received extensive coverage in international media and vast amounts of funding from organizations like National Geographic. In 2012, research was brought to a halt, after authorities turned down a request to continue perforating the painting.
Existing evidence of what The Battle of Anghiari may have looked like lives on mainly in the form of a full-scale cartoon by Leonardo, or what’s known as a ben finito cartone, in which he created a crisscrossing composition filled with interlocking swords, charging horses, and anguished men. Its subject is a 1440 battle that took place during the Wars of Lombardy in which the Florentines reigned victorious over the Milanese.
Leonardo faced competition from his rival Michelangelo, who was commissioned to create a painting of a different conflict, the Battle of Cascina. “It was almost like a vote of no confidence in Leonardo’s ability to deliver the mural,” Fiorani writes in The Shadow Drawing. Neither artist appears to have created a finished product, though scholars know what Leonardo’s would have looked like because of the cartoon and sketches of it by other artists, including Peter Paul Ruben and Gérard Edelinck, whose works based on Leonardo’s preparatory image are now held by the Louvre and London’s Royal Academy of Arts, respectively.
Citing Benvenuto Cellini’s comment about the cartoon acting as a “school for the world,” Seracini, who began researching The Battle of Anghiari in 1975, said, “It was the highest form of art achieved by the Renaissance people. This was accepted and honored by the top artists, like Verrocchio and Botticelli.”
There are fewer than two dozen paintings with universally accepted Leonardo attributions (many of them appeared in a 2019 smash-hit retrospective at the Louvre), and were The Battle of Anghiari to be found, it could have major implications for scholarship about the artist. While art historians now believe there is little evidence that the painting was ever realized, that is unlikely to stop people from trying to find it. “The attraction to ‘discover’ a new Leonardo is immense, considering that he painted very little,” Fiorani said.
As for Seracini, he plans to continue his quest to uncover new secrets about The Battle of Anghiari. He said, “What’s wrong with looking for an incredible masterpiece, and why can’t we use science to get a final answer? Why not continue using non-invasive science until we have final proof?”