This project is a big one. It's not only ambitious in the financial sense (the goal is $266,500), but it has potential to rock the art world, rock Florence, and rock the socks off of everyone who has spent the last, oh, 500 years wondering: Where is Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, The Battle of Anghiari?
We know that the painting was begun in 1505, in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio, and hung in the Hall of 500, unfinished, until the room was remodeled in 1563 and covered in a Vasari mural. We have Leonardo's sketches, we have glowing notes of praise from artists and historians, and a copy painted by Rubens even hangs in the Louvre. But we don't have the painting.
But we do have some clues. Vasari greatly admired da Vinci's work, and art historians agree it would be strange for him to agree to destroy The Battle of Anghiari to make room for his mural. There is even a clue: the only piece of writing in Vasari's entire room of murals are the words, "Cerca Trova," written on a tiny flag right where the finished part of da Vinci's painting would have hung. In Italian, cerca trova means, roughly, "Seek and you will find."
And seeking is just what Dr. Maurizio Seracini and his team have been doing for the past 35 years, and what Dave has been documenting since 2007. Thanks to all kinds of technology (particle accelerator, guys!), and the help of art historians, physicists, and Florentine officials, everyone is pretty sure the da Vinci is nestled in a small gap left by Vasari, 12 centimeters behind the brick wall.
But they have to be sure before they go about messing with a Vasari. Which is where the project comes in. They're raising money to take a "copper-crystal mosaic gamma ray diffraction lens" (Science!) to the Hall of 500 and see if they can not only detect the painting, but take what is essentially a photograph of the image.
The whole story is irresistibly entangling, and I'd encourage you to watch the project video, read the New York Times article published last week, and maybe even fall down the same Wikipedia rabbit hole I did. It will not only make you nostalgic for art history class, it will make you realize that this project has the exciting potential to contribute to art history itself.
It's a big project.
After becoming so wrapped up in this story, I wanted to reach out to Dave, the project's photographer and the guy responsible for the Kickstarter project, and ask a few questions about how he got involved, what he was feeling about everything, and if he really thinks that painting is behind the wall:
First things first: what's it like being in the same room with a particle accelerator?
That depends on the particle accelerator! The one at ENEA in Frascati was quite impressive, huge, looking like a prop on the set of a large-budget science fiction movie from the 50’s. However, the one we will use in the Hall of 500 will more closely resemble a shoebox, more like a toaster you plug into a wall. In a word—underwhelming.
So how the heck did you get involved with this project? What brought you to it, or it to you? And if you had to do it over again, would you?
I had originally seen a small press article online. I archived it, then forgot about it for a couple years, until I had an assignment in Florence and the opportunity to meet Dr. Seracini. I told him I knew the right people at National Geographic to propose it to, and it really started there. Soon after the proposal was accepted, there was a lot of enthusiasm—TV doc, magazine, books, etc., but when the project stalled--first for politics and then for funding--we lost momentum. But soon, we will know whether our years of work will come to fruition.
This has been a long, angst-ridden haul. It is impossible to completely remove the queasy feeling of uncertainty over whether I have been tilting at windmills rather than putting that energy into my freelance career. But if I were transported back four years and smitten with the curse of clairvoyance, knowing what lay ahead, I would still have to resign myself to doing it all again--because it’s a story like no other. It’s one in ten lifetimes.
Say you find that, yes, the painting is behind the wall. What happens then?
Personally, I will treat myself to the most excessive sushi dinner I’ve ever had. We will know whether the painting is there in the first phase of tests using the raw technology associated with the gamma camera. Using those data gathered in early 2012, providing we find evidence of pigments, we will need a couple months to build a lens optimized for the gamma rays we find, then go back and start imaging part or all of it. Over the longer term, the city will almost certainly temporarily remove the Vasari, excavate the da Vinci, move it, and replace the Vasari.
If it isn't there, what then? Are there other places to look?
The painting can only exist in the Hall of 500. Where it was, though, has been a matter of debate for decades. We feel the current state of historical research coupled with Seracini’s scientific work on the hall gives us a very good indication of where it was. If it is not there, we will look around the hall in other locations. If those efforts do not show anything, we cannot say with certainty the painting isn’t there, but we can say there is less than xx amount of paint per square meter, something like that, which would effectively rule out the possibility of its survival.
You've got a high goal and are just getting started with momentum. How has it all felt? How are you anxiety levels faring? What happens if you don't reach your goal?
The goal is scarily high, but it is the minimum needed to accomplish the stated task and advance the project. Many people said I should ask for less just to increase the odds of it succeeding. I feel that would be wrong. The source and detector are completely dependent on each other to work, and purchasing only one piece of the technology—say, the particle accelerator without the germanium detector—would leave us just as dead in the water as we are now. It wouldn’t be fair to the people who donated if their contributions were collected but they did not actually help.
Obviously, the anxiety is high, but it’s also an interesting experiment. If I don’t reach the goal, on a personal level, it’ll be embarrassing, but at least I will have given it a try. That’s life. I’ll have helped add to the collective wisdom of what can and can’t be done in crowd funding.
In regards to the project, however, it’s a more serious dilemma—we really do need to order the gear soon in order to be ready for when we expect to have our window of opportunity in early 2012. It’s not a marketing gimmick. For that very real problem, I don’t have an answer.
So. You're four years into this. Do you think that painting is behind that wall?
I do believe at least part of it survives behind that wall, and I think probably most or all of what da Vinci painted is still back there. There are too many curiosities, in my mind, surrounding that area of the wall, for all of it to be coincidence.
To me, however, the greatest blessing is that we do not know whether it is there. If we already knew, we would not have this opportunity—there would be only be posturing in closed meeting rooms over how much money can be made from it, and by whom. There would be no scientific exploration, no mystery, and no journey. Not knowing whether the painting is there is the best part of all.