The Search for a da Vinci Masterpiece

In the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy, a feverish search occurs seemingly in slow motion. In order to make progress in the search, a team of researchers from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), has been inventing a brand-new field of work called “art forensics.” Armed with innovative new portable sensing devices, they are searching for a lost masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci called “The Battle of Anghiari.”

By Randi Rost

In the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy, a feverish search occurs seemingly in slow motion. In order to make progress in the search, a team of researchers from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), has been inventing a brand-new field of work called “art forensics.” Armed with innovative new portable sensing devices and Intel technology, they are searching for a lost masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci called “The Battle of Anghiari.” [Disclosure: Intel’s Visual Adrenaline magazine is the sponsor of this content.]This impressive painting, considered by some to be da Vinci’s greatest artistic accomplishment, was lost more than 450 years ago.

Lost: “The Battle of Anghiari” This great mural was painted by da Vinci in 1505 to commemorate a battle that took place in 1440. His artistic rival, Michelangelo, was commissioned to paint a mural on the opposite side of the hall. (Imagine these two artists  in the same room, not to mention two of their masterpieces in the same room!) Michelangelo did not finish his project. He had sketched his painting out, but had just begun the work when he was invited back to Rome to build the tomb of Pope Julius II. A rival artist, Bartolommeo Bandinelli, destroyed Michelangelo’s sketch in a fit of jealousy in 1512.

Da Vinci did not finish his painting either, but he did get much further than Michelangelo. His painting depicted the power, fury and intense emotions of four horsemen engaged in battle. Always experimenting with new techniques, da Vinci tried to apply oil colors to the wall. The result was less than satisfactory: The paint dripped and only the lower part of the painting could be dried quickly enough to achieve the desired result. Da Vinci subsequently abandoned the project.

Nevertheless, da Vinci’s painting was considered the masterpiece of the Renaissance. Numerous copies of “The Battle of Anghiari”were made over the course of the next 50 years and others praised the work in commentaries and diaries. Many sketches (“cartoons”) by da Vinci that served as studies for the mural still exist. An engraving made in 1553 by Lorenzo Zacchia was used in 1603 by Peter Paul Rubens as the basis for a copy of the central section of the mural. Rubens’ secondhand copy of da Vinci’s painting is in the Louvre.

Eventually, the hall in which da Vinci’s work lived was enlarged and remodeled by Giorgio Vasari, who painted six new murals over the east and west walls of the hall. It is assumed that the famous unfinished works of da Vinci and Michelangelo were lost during this process, as they were never seen again. “He Who Seeks, Finds” Some people, including UCSD’s Maurizio Seracini, believe that the da Vinci masterpiece might still exist. Vasari, who painted the murals that now adorn the hall, had high praise for the da Vinci fresco, so Seracini thinks it is unlikely that Vasari destroyed the mural during the hall’s renovation. A clue to this effect is in the Vasari mural, 12 meters above the ground. The only text on the entire painting is on a green flag held by a Florentine soldier. The text says “Cerca trova” -- “He who seeks, finds.”

Seracini has taken this advice to heart. An initial nondestructive 3D survey of the hall used surface-penetrating radar and thermographic cameras to create a three-dimensional model of the space. This led to the discovery of a wall built by Vasari in front of the east wall, where “The Battle of Anghiari”was located. A gap of a couple of centimeters was discovered between the two walls, supporting the theory that the lost masterpiece is still intact and located behind Vasari’s mural.

Of course, Vasari’s mural is a more-than-400-year-old masterpiece too, so there is understandable reticence by the involved government and cultural agencies to do anything that would cause irreversible damage. This is where the UCSD researchers and Intel technology come into play. Using New Technology to Hunt for a Masterpiece As part of its Visual Computing Academic Program, Intel's University Program Office supplied 50 quad-core Intel Core i7 Extreme 3.33 GHz processors to Falko Kuester of UCSD. The parallel processing performance of these powerful processors has allowed UCSD to tackle a series of unique and transformative visual computing projects. Kuester's team is currently using these CPUs to "Create (Compute) a Future for the Past" as part of its cultural heritage diagnostics research and its field sites in Italy and Jordan. Multiple nodes loaded with Intel CPUs are on-site in Palazzo Vecchio, driving UCSD's visual analytics and visual computing environment.

Small holes drilled through the Vasari mural to the back wall have revealed fragments of pigment on the far wall that might be part of the da Vinci mural. The UCSD team is now developing new noninvasive sensing and analysis techniques to try to “peer through” the front wall and visualize the surface of the back wall.

The National Geographic Society is also sponsoring the search and is documenting the entire process. The search for this lost da Vinci masterpiece is a riddle wrapped in an enigma shrouded in mystery. Intel technology is at the heart of the search, and the results are being tracked by National Geographic.

--Randi Rost manages Intel’s Consumer Application Planning and Marketing team and runs SSG’s Visual Computing Academic Program. Rost has helped define and deliver key industry standards such as OpenGL and the OpenGL Shading Language, and he was a founding member of the Khronos Group. He is also the author of two technical books.

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