A freelance photographer based in Milan, Dave Yoder has an ambitious fund-raising goal for an equally ambitious project: raising over 250,000 U.S. dollars to build a super high-tech camera that can ‘see' Leonardo da Vinci's fabled painting The Battle of Anghiari in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio. Depicting the famous battle, in its time the painting was heralded as the greatest masterwork by the era's greatest master. Historical documents suggest it was visible for some 40 years, a period in which two generations of artists flocked to Florence to study the immense, unfinished mural said to be the ‘school of the world.' Many of these artists were so taken with its expressive force that they copied it. In 1563, it was allegedly covered up when another Renaissance master, Giorgio Vasari, produced (and completed) the larger mural that still decorates one wall of Palazzo Vecchio's Salone dei Cinquecento. Some art historians posit that the words Cerca Trova in Vasari's painting were left as a clue to the place where he sealed in Leonardo's work. Researchers from around the world have argued the painting's existence and, led by Dr. Maurizio Seracini (see an interview with Dr. Seracini in TF 43), have followed the decades-long search to find the masterpiece. Yoder may have finally found a way to prove its existence, but he needs the world's help. Below he tells TF why.
How does a freelance photographer from Indiana get involved in finding one of the greatest Renaissance masterworks of all time?
Years ago, I saw a small press article on Dr. Maurizio Seracini. Then, about four years ago, I pitched the story to National Geographic magazine, and they eagerly accepted it. Then the whole National Geographic Society (NGS) became involved, including TV. NGS supports hundreds of missions a year, and this one particularly caught its interest.
A team of international scientists, led by Dr. Seracini, has been looking for the fabled fresco for decades. One of the major obstacles is, of course, the 12-centimetre-thick wall decorated with murals by Giorgio Vasari. Clearly, damaging the Vasari mural is out of the question. What kind of technology have they used so far and why has it not been enough to prove the fresco's existence? You, however, have found a solution by uniting photography and nuclear physics.
I cannot take credit for finding the solution or technology-it has always been a team effort: if the painting is found, it will have been through the combined work of several people over many years, foremost among them Dr. Seracini. At the very most, I will have helped in the effort, but there are a number of scientists who will be far more deserving of recognition and credit for discovery of the painting. Much was owed to luck in finding Dr. Smither and the gamma camera technology, which has shown in tests to be the best bet for finding the painting. There are also two other pieces of technology being held in reserve in case the gamma camera technology does not work. I believe all of Dr. Seracini's 35 years of work has led to this day, when we finally have the means to solve the mystery, and that before now there had been no expectation of being able to detect the painting. I should mention that The Battle of Anghiari was not a fresco: it was a painting done on the wall in oils. If it had been a fresco, we would not be able to use gamma-ray technology to find it.
What will the gamma ray camera do and how can it definitively prove the painting's existence?
A small particle accelerator will be used to activate the wall with neutrons. At the levels we will use, this will be a very safe, strictly controlled procedure. If there are paint pigments behind the wall, the metals in the pigments will emit gamma rays that can be detected and measured.
Our tests at the ENEA facility in Frascati showed that this technique will almost certainly work. The gamma rays from the paint samples we tested passed through original bricks from the Palazzo Vecchio in sufficient numbers to be detected. The pigments have metals, and once we have evidence of gamma rays that can be linked to pigments, we will build a special lens out of copper crystals which will be used in the gamma camera to map a rough image of parts, or all, of the surviving painting.