NEW: Read the New York Times article on this project:
Looking for Leonardo, with Camera in Hand
And the NYT Lens Blog
“And having climbed the stairs of the Great Hall, diligently take a look at a group of horses and men, a battle piece by Leonardo da Vinci, which will strike you as a miraculous thing.”--Anton Francesco Doni (1549)
We photojournalists often say good photography is about the photographer, not the camera. I enthusiastically agree – except for when it’s not. Every once in a while you really do need the right tool for the job. I find myself in that situation now, needing a very special camera to help locate and photograph a unique subject. Over the last four years the search for that subject, and a camera capable of revealing it, have become the most captivating assignment of my life.
The Legend of the Painting
In 1505, Leonardo da Vinci began painting a vast mural in the Hall of Five Hundred in the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall of Renaissance Florence. Although he never finished the work, some modern art historians consider the part he did paint, a larger-than-life clash of horsemen now referred to as The Battle of Anghiari, to be a turning point in Renaissance art. The painting was visible for more than 40 years, and two generations of artists admired and copied its unprecedented expression of form and fury.
In 1563, however, the hall underwent sweeping renovations, during which its walls were frescoed by the artist Giorgio Vasari, covering Leonardo’s masterpiece. The painting vanished from history, and no known records explain its fate. Many prominent art historians believe that Vasari would not have destroyed a masterpiece by the legendary Leonardo, whom he admired greatly, and that he may have found some way of preserving it behind his own fresco (in fact, on at least two occasions when Vasari covered masterworks by Giotto and Masaccio elsewhere in Florence with his own work, he left the underlying art intact). What’s more, within his own battle scene in the Hall of 500, and over the approximate area where Leonardo’s masterpiece is believed to lie, Vasari painted the only words in all of his vast frescoes covering the walls; “Cerca Trova”—“Seek and you will find.” The purpose of this exhortation is unknown.
The Art Detective
Thirty-five years ago, Dr. Maurizio Seracini noticed these words and accepted Vasari’s challenge. Ever since, this Florentine medical engineer turned art detective, National Geographic Society fellow, and head of University of California in San Diego’s CISA3 program, has searched for a way to reveal Leonardo’s hidden painting. His story has been widely told – on 60 Minutes, in The New York Times, and in scores of other publications and television programs.
Leading an international team of researchers, he has assembled clues which suggest that The Battle of Anghiari may still exist behind Vasari’s frescoes. Using ground-penetrating radar to scan the east wall, Seracini discovered a thin gap between the wall of Renaissance brick that Vasari built and the original stone wall where Leonardo is believed to have painted The Battle of Anghiari – a gap that exists nowhere else in the great hall.
I first met Seracini in 2007, and soon began photographing his quest for National Geographic Magazine. It was a compelling project, but had one significant problem from my point of view as a photographer; the technology to be used would not produce an image of the hidden painting. I needed some way to take a “picture” of it through Vasari’s wall. So with Seracini’s blessing, I began looking for a way to capture an image from a thin layer of pigments hidden behind five and a half inches of brick and plaster.
The Gamma Camera
Trouble is, I’m not a physicist. For the next several months I looked for a solution, testing the patience of numerous scientists with my rookie questions. Finally, while searching for a suitable way to focus trace amounts of gamma rays, I met Dr. Robert Smither, a distinguished senior physicist from Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Photon Source, and learned of his invention, the copper-crystal mosaic gamma ray diffraction lens. When I described the challenge to him—to photograph a painting through a wall of solid brick—he chuckled. “The difficult we can do today,” he said, “The impossible, well, that might take a little while.”
Smither was optimistic that his technology, a particular kind of gamma camera that he is developing for medical use in high-definition tumor imaging, could work for this application. He and I travelled to Frascati, the location of the Italian research center ENEA, where in cooperation with a team of Italian physicists, we tested the technique. Using a particle accelerator straight out of a science fiction movie, the scientists recorded gamma ray signatures emitted from pigment samples that penetrated through the original bricks we had brought from the Palazzo Vecchio.
The results were very encouraging; Smither’s technology should work well to detect, and even image, the painting, even through Vasari's brick wall. Because we know from copies what the painting looked like, having an image could not only help positively identify the painting, should it survive, but could also offer information about its condition.
Your Place in the Quest
Invasive exploration of the wall that might damage the Vasari mural is forbidden, so finding the painting will require development and use of this expensive scanning technology. National Geographic Society has already funded the project extensively, and will continue to do so, but they can’t fund it all; this is just one of hundreds of deserving scientific research projects and expeditions that the Society supports every year.
I'm launching this Kickstarter fundraising campaign to fund the scientific part of the project I'm involved in, the gamma ray camera technology, which the scientific team and I believe will determine whether the painting survives. This fundraising effort is a critical and urgent undertaking; the equipment needs to be ordered months in advance, and tested, in order to be ready by February, 2012, for the work in the hall. In reality, time is already very short.
It is, admittedly, an ambitious fundraising goal, but it is the bare minimum that will allow us to have the key technology ready on time. Two rather expensive pieces of equipment--a portable particle accelerator and a germanium crystal detector--make up most of the cost, and both are necessary in order to search for the gamma rays we hope, and expect, will reveal da Vinci's painting. The budget has been scrutinized by professionals at National Geographic Society who oversee their scientific expeditions. But ultimately this is my effort, and I don't feel it would be appropriate to ask for less, and then collect donations knowing it is not enough to advance the project.
As with all Kickstarter fundraisers, this is an all-or-nothing scenario. If the total goal is not reached, your card will not be charged and no funds will be collected.
All donations, which can be tax deductible, will go directly to National Geographic Society, into a fund earmarked for this project. The Society will manage and oversee the expenditure of all funds.
Please join us on this quest to solve one of the world’s great art mysteries. I will chronicle the journey online so you can follow the progress of the search. Of course, there are no guarantees that the painting is there—this is a journey of exploration, an expedition 12 centimeters into the heart of Florence—and like any adventure, there is uncertainty. But it represents a tantalizing possibility to return to the the city of Florence, and the world, a long-lost da Vinci masterpiece.
I think Leonardo would have approved.
Photo essay on the project: Here
Follow the Search:
The New York Times: Looking for Leonardo, with Camera in Hand
60 Minutes, CBS News: The Lost Leonardo
My Blog: search4davinci
National Geographic: Seracini
DeviantArt: Search4DaVinci Group