For art historians, finding Leonardo’s lost Battle of Anghiari is in the same league as finding the Titanic or the still lost tomb of the Ancient Egyptian architect Imhotep — as big as you can get. The man who believes he is on the verge of this discovery is Maurizio Seracini, now striding towards me in the Piazza della Signoria, home of Italy’s “Louvre” — the Uffizi gallery. But Dr Seracini’s real passion lies not in the square but deep inside the looming shape of the Palazzo Vecchio flanking it. As The Da Vinci Detective, a Channel Four documentary to be aired this week, reveals, he believes that hidden behind a mural in the Sala del Gran Consiglio lies one of the most famous works of art in the world.
The Battle of Anghiari is known through numerous copies produced by admiring artists, and its fame rests on the fact that it was not only one of the greatest tests of Leonardo’s skills and his largest and most substantial work, but also that it was a contender in the most intense art competition of the Renaissance.
Dr Seracini has spent more than 30 years on his quest, and his detective methods have included a combination of the most advanced technologies. But it has earned him calumny and contempt from the scholarly art world and heritage lobby, some of them pursuing rival investigations.
The painting was commissioned in 1504 by Piero Soderini, head of the Republican government of Florence, to commemorate the Republic’s military victory in 1440 over the hated Milanese on the plains of Anghiari. It was intended to stand as a powerful statement of Florentine independence and was to stand opposite another painting, showing the Battle of Cascina, an older Republican triumph, this time over Pisa in 1364. The artist of this work was to be none other than Michelangelo.
The two men had an intense dislike for one another. The person signing Leonardo’s contract was Niccolò Machiavelli, Secretary of the Republic, whose name now stands for political cunning.
When both artists hung up their cartoons — large scale drawings showing the intended scenes — Michelangelo's composition focused on a group of nude soldiers bathing while Leonardo’s centred on a furious battle between horsemen in which the sheer beauty of the horses takes centre stage.
In so doing, he was faithfully following the instruction given to him by his patron to represent a key moment in the Battle of Anghiari, the fierce Fight for the Standard, that witnesses recall as its turning point. Giorgio Vasari’s breathless description of Leonardo’s painting gives a sense of its power: “It would be impossible to express the inventiveness of Leonardo’s design for the soldiers’ uniforms, which he sketched in all their variety, or the crests of the helmets and other ornaments, not to mention the incredible skill he demonstrated in the shape and features of the horses, which Leonardo, better than any other master, created with their boldness, muscles and graceful beauty.”
The great scheme, however, was overtaken by events. In March 1505 Michelangelo left for Rome to work on the tomb of the great art patron Pope Julius II, never to finish the Battle of Cascina. Perhaps sensing that this was now his moment, Leonardo began painting his Battle later that year. Right from the start, however, disaster dogged his efforts.
Dr Seracini opens his briefcase and pulls out a copy of Leonardo’s diary entry for June 6: “Just as I lowered the brush, the weather changed for the worse and the bell started to toll . . . the cartoon was torn, water poured down and . . . it rained very heavily until nightfall and the day was as night.”
Further catastrophe came when Leonardo was using lighted braziers to warm the room to speed the painting’s drying process. As the braziers got hotter, the painting started to drip down the wall. “Vasari says this was because of Leonardo’s technical mistakes,” Dr Seracini explains, “and that he used wax in the paint presumably to create certain effects, but it could also have been that wax was used to seal the plaster underneath the paintings and that this liquidised. But it’s also the case that he was given very cheap materials to work with. We have a list of all his ingredients. I’d like to do a mock up and test what happens.”
When the Republic fell with the return of the Medici, it was Vasari who was commissioned in 1563 to redesign the chamber and to create six murals celebrating Medici military victories to obliterate those commissioned by the Republic. In the process, Dr Seracini believes, Vasari covered up the Battle rather than destroy it out of recognition of its outstanding qualities. “He’d done this before when he altered Sta Maria Novella [a Florentine church] and protected the Holy Trinity by Masaccio from destruction.” As if confirming his hunch, he’s discovered a small inscription written on a flag at the top of one of Vasari’s murals with the words cerca trova — “seek and ye shall find”