It’s not a matter of deciding whether to celebrate Giorgio Vasari’s 500th birthday, but where to start. The author of the Vite de’ più eccellenti Pittori, Scultori e Architettori traversed the entire Italian peninsula researching his literary masterpiece, so there are many possibilities. Perhaps the most appropriate site is the Florentine Palazzo Vecchio, for it was there that Vasari made a triumphal return after two of his staunchest supporters in the city were murdered in 1530. Not until Duke Cosimo I invited him back in 1554 to decorate apartments begun by Battista del Tasso was Vasari vindicated. In typical fashion, he immediately altered Tasso’s plans, raising the ceilings to make room for imaginative frescoes based on the plan of humanist scholar Cosimo Bartoli. With the help of an eager crew of collaborators, Vasari completed the project in less than three years.
The southeast wing of his extension is comprised of the sumptuously frescoed Apartments of the Elements. These were designed to pair thematically with rooms directly below dedicated to members of the Medici dynasty. The central room celebrates the seed sprung from Uranus and scattered by Saturn which gave rise to the family of deities. The adjoining rooms are dedicated to the descendents of Saturn and Ops. Vasari relied heavily on the collaboration of Cristofano Gherardi for the painting of the frescoes and Marco Marchetti for the grotesques. The room dedicated to Ops is directly situated above the one dedicated to Lorenzo the Magnificent and alludes to his interest in culture, politics, and patronage of the arts. To the west is the room of Ceres, Jupiter’s sister. The ceiling shows the goddess riding a chariot in search of her daughter Propsepina, an episode that recalls Cosimo the Elder’s constant solicitude for his family’s wellbeing. The room of Jupiter, above that in honor of Duke Cosimo, shows the deity as an infant suckling at the udder of the goat Amalthea. Cosimo was similarly “nursed” at the breast of divine virtue after having been born under the sign of Capricorn. The room of Hercules, situated above that of Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, shows the god as a boy crushing two serpents inflicted upon him by Juno, envious that the child was born of Alcmene, wife of Amphitryon and lover of her husband Jupiter. Each room is copiously covered with grotesques, lunettes, and decorative friezes employing robust colors to create an air of nobility. The overall effect accords with the apotheosis conceived by Bartoli.
To the west are the private quarters of Eleonora of Toledo, Cosimo’s beloved wife. These were primarily executed by Vasari’s Flemish collaborator Giovanni Stradano (Jan van der Straet/Johannes Stradanus), whose hand is especially evident in the Intervention of the Sabine Women, though Vasari was wholly responsible for the preparatory cartoon. Other collaborators included Mariotto di Francesco, Marco Paganelli, Santi Buglioni, as well as later arrivals Giovanni Battista Naldini, Jacopo Zucchi, and Battista Botticelli.
Overshadowing these rooms is, of course, Vasari’s more famous contribution to the Palazzo Vecchio: the Salone dei Cinquecento. This great hall has repeatedly made the news not so much for what Vasari did in it as for what Vasari hid in it. Commissioned to overhaul the space in 1563, Vasari presumably covered Leonardo Da Vinci’s unfinished mural La Battaglia di Anghiari, though it is unclear whether he preserved or destroyed it.
Maurizio Seracini, Director of the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture, and Archeology at the University of California, San Diego, is betting that the great historian of art did not—indeed, could not—destroy Leonardo’s fresco if he really revered his predecessors as much as the Lives indicates. He and Carlo Pedretti, an expert scholar of Leonardo, are placing their bets on a cryptic clue emblazoned on a green standard appearing in Vasari’s mammoth “Capture of Siena”: cerca trova (“seek and find”).
The financial backing of three American foundations (the Armand Hammer Foundation, Kress Foundation and Smithsonian Institute) allowed Seracini and Pedretti to begin their search with the help of ultrasound technology. Twenty years later the hunt was resumed with the aid of heat spectrum analysis funded by the Kalpa group of Loel Guinness. This led to the discovery of the original location of the doors and windows prior to Vasari’s remodeling. The team reconstructed a blueprint which, together with 16th-century documents, enabled them to zero in on the spot painted by Leonardo. It also gave rise to a hypothesis as to why Michelangelo produced nothing more than a sketch of a mural scheduled to appear on the same wall as Leonardo’s: apparently the natural light on the latter’s side was far superior.
A third stage of the search was launched in 2005 thanks to the interest of the then-President of the Province, Matteo Renzi (currently mayor of Florence). Now that the team has mapped every millimeter of the wall with lasers, radar, and ultraviolet light, Seracini wants to build a machine that will spray neutrons onto the wall, generating gamma rays that will indicate traces of mercury, tin, and lead. These could easily be matched to the composition of Leonardo’s pigments, since, after his poor experience with the Last Supper, the artist left behind a virtual shopping list of colors and recipes used to make them. The only problem is that the machine must be made from scratch, tested, and installed at an estimated cost of 2 to 3 million dollars. If the plan is ever realized, it would at least make possible a point-by-point reconstruction of La Battaglia di Anghiari, seeing as a full recovery is nearly unfeasible.
All the effort expended thus far has been justified by a gap which has been detected between Vasari’s wall and the preexisting wall, suggesting that the master may have tried to preserve the work of The Master. Whether anything is left on that underlying wall is another question. The data of the latest analysis, which reads as a sort of topographical CAT scan, was presented by the National Geographic Society on September 17th.
Seracini complains of working in a country that is entirely disinterested in finding a work by Leonardo. There are, however, peaks of interest that typically tilt toward the sensational. At the instigation of Francesco Rutelli and then-mayor Leonardo Domenici, the Beni Culturali, Comune, and Fondazione Giunti were entrusted in 2007 with assembling a commission to get to the bottom of La Battaglia di Anghiari. The august members boldly announced that they would reveal the “secret” of La Battaglia within 365 days. Little came of it. Nevertheless, Seracini is encouraged by the fact that there is no definitive proof that the La Battaglia di Anghiari is not there.
If the mural is there, its relative importance remains debatable. Leonardo abandoned the project in 1506 even though he had taken steps to improve his mural technique since executing the Last Supper. Unfortunately, his oil-based paints refused to adhere to the thick undercoat intended to preserve the brilliance of the colors. Leonardo was constantly devising ways to control the flow of the excess paint. Uneven drying finally led to despair, and he only completed the three horsemen engaged in a fierce battle of “capture the flag” (lotta per lo stendardo). The composition was immediately hailed as a revolution in anatomy and motion. The study by Peter Paul Rubens, likely based on Leonardo’s original cartoon (now lost), is perhaps the most famous reproduction.
Perhaps the value of any eventual discovery lies in its worth as a document for art history. Vasari describes at great length the techniques of the masters, but a full understanding only comes by comparing his words to the artworks themselves. Only then will we get a glimpse of the way the Renaissance described itself. We will also better perceive its prejudices and its expectations of future artists.
Cellini labeled the murals by Michelangelo and Leonardo in the Salone as the “school of the world. ”The Battle of Anghiari was conceived as a quasi-natural phenomenon, a whirlwind of energy exploding so violently that the figures are virtually indistinguishable. Michelangelo, on the other hand, captures the movement from a sense of security to the ferocious clash between Florentine and Pisan troops on the Arno. The similarities and contrasts between these two murals make their appearance in the existing frescoes by Vasari and apprentices. Though they may be hiding the work of two geniuses underneath, their vision of that work is there for all to see. Cerca trova.