When Daniel Gallagher began his 500th birthday tribute to Giorgio Vasari in late September with an article on the Salone del Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, he had little idea that the investigation into the survival and location of the remains of a lost wall painting by Leonardo da Vinci, about which he wrote so benignly, would lead to the sudden storm of protest which has now brought the work to a halt.
Monsignor Gallagher chose to begin his series there, because the decoration of the Salone del Cinquecento, the largest state room in the world at the time, marked a high point in his career, as his work for Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici reached its grandest scale. This included six monumental frescoes, groups of three on the east and west walls, illustrating the military victories of Florence which led to its rule of all of Tuscany. Today thousands of exhausted tourists slog through the Salone, where heads of state used to approach the government of Florence and the Medici Dukes, most probably with little notion of why their guides have led them there or of what is to be made of the huge frescoes, which most likely impress them as particularly hideous. Hardly a one bothers to raise his or her point-and-shoot aloft to view the frescoes on their illuminated screens—which now seems to be the only way to look at art, at least abroad. While Giorgio Vasari was a man of an extraordinarily broad range of powerful capabilities, ranging from drawing to management and politics, the individual manifestations of his talent still appeal to a rather small group of enthusiasts and scholars, beginning with a renaissance of Vasarian studies in the 1960s. To my mind his greatest achievements are in his drawings, the Uffizi Palace, and the splendid designs he created to decorate his collection of drawings. From this core, I have learned to appreciate his panel paintings and frescoes. Still, it is hard to overcome the wish that S. Croce and Sta. Maria Novella still looked as they did in…say…1530, before Vasari’s renovations. The splendid exhibitions you have read about on the Review, thanks to Dan Gallagher, have done much to counteract the attitude I have just described, and I only wish I could have been there myself to see them. There is no doubt that in this year, Giorgio is recovering much of the luster his achievement deserves.
The Salone, however, was the site of an earlier event, an abortive project, the results of which are invisible today, but which may resound more vividly in the sleepy minds of those busloads than Vasari’s triumph, at least while the tour guides enthuse about that event through the new electronic devices they use to spread their wisdom. In October 1503, Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned to paint one of the battles for the Salone, the Battle of Anghiari. The following year Michelangelo received a commission to paint another one, the Battle of Cascina. The relationship between the two artists was competitive and unpleasant, and the outcome can hardly be called a triumph. Leonardo, who disliked the discipline of painting in fresco, adopted a technique which he intended to be an improvement on the disastrous methods he employed for the Last Supper in Milan, but which apparently refused to dry and ran down the surface of the wall. He only got as far as the central group, and his work came to an end. Michelangelo never finished his contribution either, but his cartoon, which he exhibited, attracted as much admiration as Leonardo’s fragment and proved even more influential. We can’t really imagine the High Renaissance without their work and the impression it made on other artists. The encounter of those great figures became legendary, largely through Vasari’s account of it in his Lives. Today Leonardo, who was never without a larger than life reputation, is surrounded by a mythical aura, which even goes beyond that of a generation ago, thanks to Dan Brown.
Maurizio Seracini, an adjunct professor of engineering at the University of California at San Diego, who heads the university’s Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), is the director of the current project in the Salone, in which he is attempting to find Leonardo’s fragment on the east wall, using an endoscope inserted through a number of holes he has or is planning to drill through Vasari’s overlying fresco. He describes himself as a “diagnostician” of artworks. He is also owner of a small private company, based in Florence, Editech s.r.l., which conducts scientific examinations of works or art. He founded it in 1977, after leaving a team from UC San Diego, who, under the direction of the Leonardo specialist Carlo Pedretti, were conducting an earlier search for the Battle of Anghiari from 1975 to 1977. From Seracini’s online c. v., it seems that he has conducted many such examinations over the years and would be well-known in Florence. On the other hand it is strange that an engineer would be in charge of a project of this nature, much less one which involved destructive intervention. It is the usual procedure in developed countries for such projects to be carried out by a team led by an art historian and a conservator, who would make decisions involving any physical contact with the art work. Neither is the art historian purely decorative—although many of them tend to be natty dressers, if nothing like Robert Langdon. This specialist would, one hopes, understand the historical background of the investigation and the history of previous efforts, if relevant. Often art historians initiate technical examinations, in fact.
The project is officially designated as “led by the National Geographic Society and University of California San Diego’s Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), in cooperation with the City of Florence.” According to the Mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, as quoted in La Repubblica, the National Geographic Society, which has partially funded the project, has given the City of Florence $250,000 in return for the right to publish the results. A National Geographic television special is scheduled for mid-January of next year, although the results of Seracini’s investigation are not yet known. The tight schedule to which Seracini has committed himself is another curiosity in this story. It takes time to collect and analyze data, and even more time to prepare it for publication in a peer-reviewed journal where research should be published before it reaches the media. In addition to oil binders and organic pigments Seracini is looking for, one might well find other kinds of organic matter within the walls of a 700-year-old Italian town hall.
The ingegnere had already begun to bore into Vasari’s Battle of Battle of Marciano in Val di Chiano (also known as the Battle of Scannagallo), when Cecilia Frosinini, who is in charge of wall paintings at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the official conservation institute in Florence, voiced her conscientious objection, after being overridden by her superior, Cristina Acidini, the Superintendent of the Polo Museale Fiorentino, by refusing to supervise the work. She was immediately replaced. Following this, Tomaso Montanari, a Florentine art historian who teaches at Naples, circulated among leading art historians and intellectuals a petition addressed to Acidini and Renzi, which has been taken up by Italia Nostra, the principal organization supporting the preservation of the environment, architecture, and art in Italy. The signatures have multiplied incrementally. (You can sign the petition here.) (1) Alessandra Mottola Molfino, its President, also submitted a formal complaint to the Procura at Florence, which made criminal allegations. Within a day or two, the petition brought results. Carabinieri appeared in the Salone to find out what was going on, have met with Signora Acidini, and are carrying on with their investigation. The following day, the Minstero per i Beni e Attività Culturali (Mibac), under which the Pietre Dure operates, ordered an immediate stop to Seracini’s work.
This all seems straightforward. Montanari has made several compelling points, including the scarcity of funds for the maintenance and restoration of works of art in Italy and his comment (quoted in English by the Guardian), “We don’t have external controls on the work any more, and that is what we want restored.” This refers specifically to Cecilia Frosinini’s situation. It seems that, in what at the time and still is Berlusconi’s Italy, or the result of it, a foreign organization can buy out the normal controls which assure the safety of the nations’s artistic patrimony. It is unacceptable in any country that this should happen, especially for a project which has not been justified among art historians or conservators by a peer-reviewed publication explaining its premises, or even a press release. Several signers of the petition have observed that it is unlikely that Seracini will find any traces of Leonardo’s painting, since it was left unfinished because of the inherent vice of his technique. What’s more, according to the current state of research, the west wall, not the east wall, where Seracini, his team of San Diego graduate students, and National Geographic and RAI television crews are working. That is what is meant when he is accused of being ignorant of art history. Seemingly ignoring literature published in major journals in the early 1980s (about which more below), Seracini decided where to bore his holes because of the words painted on an ensign in the Battle of Marciano, which says “CERCA TROVA” (Seek [and] find.” This has been in the literature for many years.), and because, using what is vaguely described in the journalistic reports as “radar,” he found a second space of 2 cm behind the fresco.
Now many of his critics have brushed off his assertion that this is just the sort of thing one would expect to find if Vasari were painting over a renowned work of an artist he especially admired, but that is in fact supported by the way in which Vasari preserved frescoes by Giotto and Masaccio when he was redecorating Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce. Vasari was passionate about the art of the past. In fact his awareness of artistic tradition—art history—is one of his great legacies. It is also debatable whether the discovery of what Leonardo painted of his battle scene would be worthless. Even if it were not in a state fit to display to the public, or totally illegible, it would be a valuable object for study by the a team of qualified specialists. The results of a technical analysis could be compared with the “shopping list” of materials Leonardo prepared following his difficulties in the Last Supper. But is this worth the destructive treatment of an important work of art that is layered over it? Of course not, but definitions about what is destructive and what not have changed over the years and vary from place to place. Italy may be tragically short of funds to preserve and maintain its vast artistic heritage, the greatest in the world, but at least Italy has a bureaucratic system to exercise control over the treatment of these works. The bureaucracy exercises some inertia of its own, and this finds its center of gravity on caution—which is for the better. On the other hand the system operates within national, regional, and civic politics, and, as the present situation shows, it is not immune to influence. When the governent of Berlusconi has not been actively destructive towards culture, it has exercised a decaying force through lack of support. The present situation reveals the fault lines quite clearly.
Matteo Renzi has made a name for himself as a critic of Berlusconi’s government. He has demanded that people in office retire after twenty years of service. He may well be one of the bright younger figures in Italian politics. From the reports that have appeared so far, the Battle of Anghiari has been a hobby-horse of his for quite a while, well before he became mayor of Florence. An article in La Repubblica reports that his relationship with Seracini goes back some years, and that he regarded him as a useful ally in his cause, just as Seracini saw an opportunity in him. According to the information I have as of now, Renzi is as keen on the discovery of Anghiari as Seracini is, calling it “the greatest mystery in art,” bathing it in his own Brownian aura. In addition to his own personal engagement, Renzi has also been an opponent of national controls on artistic patrimony. According to reports in La Repubblica, Seracini has encountered resistance among the official bodies in charge of art and difficulty in finding more than sporadic financial support. When he came through with National Geographic’s support, the restraints were gone. This has led to the present collision with the usual authorities. Montanari in an article in Il Fatto Quotidiano, has said that the Soprindente is in a somewhat ambiguous position, more vulnerable to political influence than a functionary of the Beni Culturali or Pietre Dure. As of now, the Soprindente, Signora Acidini, has refused to speak publicly.
One can hardly blame a mayor for looking for a financial advantage for his city. We have discussed the appetite of Italian mayors for corporate money in the Review’s article on the huge, tasteless billboards that deface Venice and Rome, and in the present economy, it is not surprising. Both phenomena are characteristic of Italy’s conflicted attitude towards its artistic patrimony. Funds for its upkeep are scarce, but it is exploited to the fullest in the tourist industry, one of Italy’s most important sources of revenue. While artworks crumble or are rained on through leaky roofs, substantial outside funds are dedicated to an enterprise which is nothing more than a publicity stunt. Signora Molfino’s complaint makes this clear.
The purple (or should I say “Brown”) prose and insinuational logic of National Geographic’s recent article is highly amusing:
The fiber-optic probe seems to fly through space as it passes clouds of puffy mortar and comes to rest on a hard white space, as pocked as the moon. Dust particles fly about. Seracini keeps pointing out those floating wisps. TV director Max Salomon and his crew press close. From the image Seracini, as excitable as the patrician, white-haired Florentine native seems to get, announces in a level voice that the image proves a gap truly exists between the Vasari wall and the building’s outer wall, in this case, only a fraction of an inch, but wide enough to accommodate the Leonardo mural. Radar and thermographic surveys done in previous years had shown a gap, the only one in the hall and one possibly constructed by Vasari to protect the Leonardo mural. Now a high-resolution fiber optic image appears to confirm it.
This article is nothing more than a build-up for the tv show. It seems like a reminiscence of familiar Titanic footage. In any case the author has labored manfully to make the small space between the inner and outer wall seem more interesting that what a proctologist commonly observes with the same instrument.
I know of cases when art historians have spoken to the press—usually in a respectable publication like The New York Times—before they have published their findings to a professional audience, and they have lived to regret it. Seracini seems not to be concerned about his reputation. He merely berates his opponents for their short-sightedness and warns them that they will be a laughing-stock—and indeed his behavior seems rather arrogant. Renzi, a consummate politician, will shake this off as well. The art historian, Cristina Acidini, on the other hand, may be more vulnerable. Could she possibly lose her job over this?
It is striking that opposition has arisen so rapidly—if late in the process, since the nature of National Geographic’s project has been known for some time. All it took was Frosinini’s refusal to cooperate, Montanari’s petition, and Molfino’s readiness to act. I find it interesting to contrast the current faccenda with the controversy over the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In that case, the opposition, led by the art historian James Beck and a group of personalities in the New York art scene, some of them prominent artists, smacked more of the publicity stunt, while the Vatican carried out its work in exactly the right way. Art historians and conservators prepared the campaign in advance through thorough research, and the professional world and the public were kept informed, not only by press agents, but by reputable scholars. Interested qualified people were invited to mount the scaffold and look at the work themselves. What was interesting back then were the peripheral issues which inspired resentment against the cleaning of the frescoes: attachment to the familiar look of images one has grown up with and resentment against commercial exploitation—apparent or real—initiated by foreign investment, as well as a new, foreign Pope, who was attuned to modern media and not squeamish about using it in his outreach. At that time Nippon Television helped the Vatican out with a $3 million donation in exchange for the exclusive rights to film and photograph the work, just as National Geographic have done today. Few people realized that Nippon Television is the network of the Christian minority in Japan and that their involvement was something more than pure show. The British journalist, Waldemar Januszczak, presented this in an interesting little book, Sayonara Michelangelo: The Sistine Chapel Restored and Repackaged, which should nonetheless be read critically, with Martin Kemp’s and my own critiques in mind. (2) People only saw the matter as the exploitation of the Sistine Chapel on television, not as an attempt to further the cause of Christianity in Japan, where it is something of a delicate plant in the country’s luxuriant postwar religious life—or seething religious marketplace, one might say.
The project in the Sistine Chapel was a legitimate conservation campaign conducted by professionals of international reputation, and it was intended to preserve a great work of art and to make it available to all as it looked in the artist’s lifetime, or at least in the few years after it was painted—before the many candles in use in the Chapel left their mark on it. The finding and uncovering of the Battle of Anghiari, on the other hand, serves a more limited purpose. Since we know if was in bad shape from the beginning, it is unlikely to tell us much more than we already know from its early copies, any more than the Last Supper in its present state resembles the work as it was when Leonardo finished it. It will be most valuable in expanding our knowledge of an unsuccessful technique Leonardo employed only that once. Leonardo’s composition is alive in the modern psyche more through its myriad copies and imitations than it is in its material existence as an art object. Just as we may venerate the most risible travesty of the Last Supper with the full validity of faith, standing in front of the wreck of Leonardo’s famous painting may be a rewarding pilgrimage for believers in art. Having the flakes and smears of Leonardo’s renowned misadventure may also be of some value and even use—that is, if it can be obtained without harming another work of singular importance. On the other hand the goals and methods of the National Geographic project have never been set forth in any serious way. In fact, they have only been presented as a sensationalistic exercise in Dan Brownism, a kind of treasure hunt, like the ongoing explorations of the Titanic—a performance Seracini and Renzi have participated in with considerable zest. If Seracini fails in the tv episode slated for January, there can be ominous intimations of a future expedition.
If Italian intellectuals and the art historical community at large have had enough of the commercial exploitation of cultural treasures, we can only applaud them. Their present uprising has something of the “Occupy” Movement about it. While they are informed people and have plenty of solid reasons for their stance, the spontaneous explosion of support indicates that these people have just had enough of the crass exploitation of the best our culture has left behind. In this sentence I have perhaps said more than I have intended…but I believe it to be true that our culture has “left itself behind.” The Da Vinci Code, which I found unreadable, has done as much harm to our reading life as it has to Leonardo’s legacy. Tour companies, second-rate galleries in Italy, even museums have tried to tag along with the craze, in order to get a few more bodies through the door. It was a dark day when cultural institutions got the idea that something had to grab the attention of hundreds of thousands or millions of people to be worthwhile. Hence the blockbuster exhibition, Venice’s eight million yearly visitors, and Peter Gelb’s Metropolitan Opera. I have only just learned that Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, the current exhibition at the National Gallery in London, will be shown as an HD experience in cinemas across Europe and the Western Hemisphere. While there’s no reason to think that this exhibition is anything other than a serious initiative, it will be a lucrative one for the National Gallery (Who can complain, if it helps pay for Diana and Actaeon?) and the scalpers lurking about Trafalgar Square. I’m sure Matteo Renzi, just having received $250,000 down, eagerly envisions endless queues of tourists snaking about the Piazza della Signoria with twenty euro bills in hand to buy their tickets to see “Da Vinci’s” great masterpiece. It all bring Billy Wilder’s great film Ace in the Hole to mind. In the early twentieth centuries, some people were converted to Baconianism or Oxfordianism by their sheer disgust with the Stratford cult, its own tourist industry—minuscule in comparison to what we know today—and the traffic in quaint gewgaws purported to have belonged to the poet or at least to be an approved replica of one of his possessions. (Like Henry James, I will not mention his name.) Sometimes one might even wish that Leonardo da Vinci would just go away, the his oeuvre could be proven to be the work of a committee or a random lot of forgers!
When the earlier search for the painting took place between 1975 and 1977, the New World of art had not yet been discovered, but the endeavor was sensational enough to find a good deal of coverage in the press. The present campaign is linked with it. Carlo Pedretti, now 83, who was never shy about showmanship, was in charge of the project, and today Seracini claims him as a mentor. With all its attendant publicity, the project was taken seriously by art historians and the informed public. Two of my own professors, Sydney Freedberg and Konrad Oberhuber, had no objections. Core samples were taken, a more radical invasion of Vasari’s frescoes than the present holes, but they were taken from Vasari’s Presa della torre di San Vincenzo on the west wall. It had become apparent that Johannes Wilde, who had written a classic article on the Salone during the war years, when he couldn’t visit the spot to orientate himself, had confused the directions indicated in the documents. After the project came to an end, H. Travers Newton, a young conservator, and art historian John R. Spencer collaborated on work published in both Prospettiva and The Art Bulletin. (3) I have read only the latter, longer article, and it seems well-documented and convincing. I have not found any publication justifying a return to Wilde’s interpretation of the evidence. Their conclusions, in fact, were taken up by both the Florentine authorities and the Ministry in Rome, who
authorized that portions of the Vasari murals be removed by nondestructive means. Removal of portions of the “Presa della torre di San Vincenzo” began in September, 1979. This is the area where we obtained our most positive soundings, as indicated in the lefthand portion of Fig. 1. Many more square meters of this mural have subsequently been removed by the “strappo” technique. We recognize the informed decision of the Belle Arti in Florence and Rome to remove sections of the Vasari murals, and await the results of their efforts with anticipation.
This may have seemed exciting but reasonable at the time. After the recent events, it reads like science fiction. After all, the Florence flood of 1966 was not so far in the past that the radical techniques which were absolutely necessary to save flooded frescoes and panel paintings seemed easy to hand. Today, the removal of an important fresco by “strappo” for any other reason than its preservation would be hard to justify. No one would call it nondestructive. It is also hard to imagine that Seracini is unaware of all that was learned from the earlier work, but he has never explained himself other than to promote his project. A New York Times piece of 2009 told the story of his years of frustration in securing local support for his project. At that point Renzi had just been elected and had spoken favorably of the search for Anghiari during his campaign. It seems as if the writer, John Tierney, was impressed by an arranged press event. Perhaps Seracini, from his years of work on art in Florence and his desire to keep his hard-won project on track, he saw no reason, or thought it more expedient, not to offer explanations. Perhaps he, in his way, had had enough. Perhaps he has been feeling a bit cocky with his American money and mayoral protection. He is the only real person mentioned in The Da Vinci Code, and perhaps that has gone to his head. If a certain functionary in the Pietre Dure hadn’t balked at what certainly seems to have been political pressure, this outcry might never have occurred. It is necessary, urgently so, that the investigation into Maurizio Seracini and his activities be pursued to the very end, so that his role and that of his sponsors, above all National Geographic, be clarified, as well as the fault lines in the Italian system, so that the Italian art treasures are never vulnerable to interventions by unqualified persons again. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask, since the system has worked rather well under difficult circumstance for years.
It is clear enough that Maurizio Seracini is no art historian. If he were, he would have realized, as Keith Christiansen, one of his strongest critics, has said, that it is “bad idea at the wrong time.” Indeed, Giorgio Vasari’s 500th birth year is a very bad time to be drilling holes in one of his most celebrated works. It has been said that his now empty scaffold may be opened to tourists, so that they can see the Battle of Marciano up close. Perhaps some will climb up merely to be close to Leonardo’s lost masterwork, to pause in silence, and to feel his presence.
1. The Italian text of the petition:
Desideriamo esprimere la nostra grande preoccupazione per la sorte dell’affresco di Giorgio Vasari in Palazzo Vecchio a Firenze che in questi giorni viene bucato a più riprese nel tentativo di rintracciare quel che potrebbe rimanere della Battaglia di Anghiari di Leonardo.
La dissociazione della dottoressa Frosinini, responsabile del settore pitture murarie presso l’Opificio delle Pietre Dure, ha mostrato che all’interno dell’Opificio stesso non c’è accordo sulla natura e sui rischi di questi interventi.
Riteniamo del tutto improbabile che Vasari abbia sigillato qualcosa di ancora leggibile sotto un muro, e ci preoccupa che siano stati a dir poco sottovalutati i più attendibili risultati della ricerca storico-artistica, i quali mostrano che la Battaglia era con ogni verosimiglianza sulla parete opposta a quella che ora si sta forando.
Condividiamo dunque le ragioni dell’esposto presentato da Italia Nostra alla Procura della Repubblica di Firenze, e chiediamo alla Soprintendente Cristina Acidini e al Sindaco Matteo Renzi di fermare i lavori, e di non riprenderli senza aver insediato un osservatorio terzo, formato da autorevoli specialisti di storia dell’arte del Rinascimento.
2. Martin Kemp, “Authentically dirty pictures : Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling and the new pious vandalism.” Times Literary Supplement, issue 4598 (17 May 1991); Michael Miller, “The Sistine Restoration and its Critics,” Bostonia, Winter, 1991-92, pp. 27ff.
3. Spenser, John R. and Newton, H. Travers, “On the location of Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari,” Art Bulletin LXIV/1 (Mar 1982), pp. 44-52.