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Art sleuth: an expert uses high-tech tools to try to solve the mystery of a missing masterpiece.


Four hundred fifty years ago, one of the world's greatest masterpieces vanished. Leonardo da Vinci had painted a huge mural, The Battle of Anghiari, in 1505 to commemorate a military victory of the government of Florence, Italy. Even though Leonardo never completed the mural, experts who saw the painting considered it his most impressive work--far more important than his Mona Lisa. The scene of two armies meeting, with clashing horses and soldiers, stretched across a wall in the Hall of the 500, where Florence's political leaders used to gather.


In 1563, a new ruler--who wasn't crazy about a mural that honored the previous government--commissioned architect Giorgio Vasari to give the hall a makeover. When Vasari covered the walls with six new scenes, The Battle of Anghiari disappeared, seemingly painted over or destroyed. But Maurizio Seracini, an engineer and art detective at the University of California, San Diego, believes Vasari secretly saved Leonardo's mural. New technology is uncovering clues to the fate of the missing masterpiece.


Vasari had a history of secretly protecting paintings. When remodeling a church in Florence, he made its artwork seemingly disappear. Three hundred years later, however, workers accidentally found it. Vasari had built a wall in front of the painting to preserve it. Seracini thought, "Maybe he did the same this time to save such an important masterpiece."

Seracini set up scaffolding to examine the east wall in the Hall of the 500 to search for hints of the missing Leonardo mural. It was then that he spotted the Italian words "cerca trova," meaning "seek, and you shall find," painted on a green flag. These were the only words on any of Vasari's murals in the vast hall, and they weren't visible from the floor. "And so I wondered, 'why on Earth would somebody write words that nobody could read?'" Seracini says. He couldn't shake the feeling that the phrase was a clue from Vasari.

No one knew exactly where in the hall Leonardo had painted his mural. So Seracini used a thermal imaging camera that detects heat energy to create infrared images of the hall. Since different materials--such as bricks, stones, and plaster--give off different amounts of infrared radiation, the images revealed the changes Vasari had made to the hall's structure. Seracini explains, "We managed to discover the original windows, the original doors, and the height of the ceiling, and therefore exactly the architectural layout as Leonardo saw it when he started to paint." This evidence, along with details from eyewitness accounts, led experts to conclude that The Battle of Anghiari had covered part of the east wall--right below where the words "cerca trova" now appear.


Using portable radar equipment, Seracini next sent microwaves into the wall. Like infrared radiation, microwaves are electromagnetic radiation--but with longer wavelengths (distance between a wave's peaks). "The [microwaves] bounce back, just like an echo," explains Raymond DuVarney, a physicist at Emory University in Georgia. "The longer it takes to get back, the farther away the surface is." The radar revealed an air gap behind the east wall, with a second wall behind the gap. None of the other walls i concealed a similar gap (see Nuts & Bolts, p. 10).

Seracini hypothesizes that Vasari had left the gap in front of Leonardo's mural to preserve it. He wanted to test his theory, but without damaging Vasari's mural, which is also a masterpiece, when it seemed that the search had reached a dead end, Seracini spoke at a physics conference. DuVarney was there and heard him challenge the audience by asking, "Can you come up with some way that I can see behind this wall?" No one could. But the next morning, DuVarney woke up with an idea.


The key to DuVarney's plan: The pigments in the missing mural's paints got their colors from different chemical elements. For instance, a list of Leonardo's materials reveals that he used white paint containing lead and bright red paint containing mercury. If researchers could tell which elements were on the hidden wall, they would know which colors were painted there and could make out the design. DuVarney wanted to "activate" these elements so they would give themselves away. "What you're trying to do is to get the mural behind the wall to shine back at you," he says.

To accomplish this, DuVarney proposed shooting a beam of neutrons--uncharged particles--through the outer wall. If Leonardo's mural really is on the inner wall, then the nuclei, or centers, of the paint's atoms will absorb these neutrons. This makes the atoms unstable, so they break down and give off gamma rays--a type of high energy electromagnetic radiation. Each chemical element emits gamma rays of a different energy, so this would reveal the identities of the elements in the paint. "And that would give you the color and the structure," DuVarney says. "And you could see if it matched anything that might resemble The Battle of Anghiari."


Seracini has already tested the new technology on mock walls painted with the types of pigments Leonardo used. The final step is to build a portable machine to take to Florence to scan the real thing. Seracini hopes to solve the mystery by the end of this year, but he doesn't plan to stop there. He says, "Once we have built this portable unit, we use this technology to search for hundreds of other murals hidden everywhere on the planet."

nut & bolts


Scientist Maurizio Seracini thinks a lost Leonardo mural may be hidden behind a famous painting by Vasari in the Hall of the 500 in Florence, Italy. Seracini is using technology to see what lies behind Vasari's mural. Here are the clues he has found so far, and what he makes of them.



By aiming a radar beam at Vasari's mural, Seracini was able to detect a possible air pocket about six inches behind it.



Seracini suspects that Vasari built a brick wall in front of Leonardo's painting, leaving a small gap between the old and new walls.



Leonardo likely covered the original wall with materials like resin and lead primer before applying pigments mixed with linseed and walnut oil.



Seracini hopes to fire a beam of neutrons through the brick wall to try to reveal specific chemical elements used by Leonardo. The neutrons might bounce off hydrogen-rich organic materials or cause heavier elements like lead to release measurable gamma rays.


* What do you know about Leonardo da Vinci?

* How might a scientist go about looking for a painting hidden behind another artwork without ruining either piece?

* What are some types of electromagnetic radiation that can be used to see through objects?


* Although Leonardo da Vinci is considered one of the world's greatest artists, he completed fewer than 30 paintings.

* Not only was Leonardo a master painter, but he also studied a variety of sciences, including anatomy, astronomy botany, chemistry, engineering, geology, mathematics, and physics.

* Gamma rays easily pass through the human body or a thin wall, but they are almost completely blocked by several centimeters of lead.


* Was Giorgio Vasari right or wrong to have purposefully hidden Leonardo's masterpiece rather than painting over it? if you were in his place, would you paint a new painting over one of Leonardo (da Vinci's or try to save the original? Explain your reasoning.


HEALTH: The different elements in early pigments gave paints their unique colors but also made them toxic. Long-term exposure to certain heavy metals, such as mercury ill red paint, cadmium in yellow paint, copper in green paint, cobalt in blue paint, and lead in white paint, could be life threatening. Use the Centers for Disease Control's Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry to learn about the risk from overexposure to the reel als found in those historical paints (, and list the symptoms an artist might experience after long-term exposure.


You can access these Web links at

* Read about the search for Leonardo's missing mural and Seracini's other projects at:

* Check out the Museum of Science in Boston's Web site that accompanied their exhibit about the life, art, and science of Leonardo da Vinci:

* Learn more about Leonardo's painting Madonna of the Yarnwinder by using this interactive Web site to see what a comprehensive scientific analysis reveals about the painting:


DIRECTIONS: Fill in the blanks to complete the following sentences.

1. Florence's Hall of the 500 currently has a mural by the artist Scientists think that he secretly saved a masterpiece by that previously adorned the wall.

2. The first clue to the missing masterpiece that Seracini found were the Italian words--painted on a green flag.

3. Seracini used a -- camera that detects heat energy to create --images of the hall.

4. -- in the missing mural get their colors from different elements. For example, the white in the mural would contain -- and bright red would contain --


1. Giorgio Vasari; Leonardo da Vinci

2. cerca trova

3. thermal imaging, infrared

4. Pigments; lead, mercury
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Title Annotation:PHYSICAL: ATOMIC PARTICLES; Maurizio Seracini on discovering Leonardo da Vinci's 'The Battle of Anghiari'
Author:Adams, Jacqueline
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Feb 20, 2010
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