With the Year of Leonardo da Vinci upon us, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone with more interest invested in the Renaissance master than Maurizio Seracini, a born-and-bred Florentine and a biomedical engineer who has made a career out of blending science and cultural heritage in the pursuit of conservation. Between teaching at the University of California San Diego and working with the international art market through his company Editech, Seracini has also been behind studies of Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari, Adoration of the Magi and The Last Supper. The engineer spoke with The Florentine about his experiences with the great artist’s works and the benefits of allowing science and cultural heritage to work hand-in-hand.
Samantha Vaughn: You’re a bioengineer by trade. Did you always envision you would direct your studies towards the arts?
Maurizio Seracini: Associating engineering with cultural heritage is quite difficult. When I was a student at the University of California San Diego, it was hard for me to think that this was going to be everyday life, just science and more science. I needed a balance. If you limit your curiosity and knowledge to just one field, you might find it hard to find answers. But if you check what else is out there, what else you can learn, then you start seeing that combining engineering and cultural heritage is not crazy. There is so much science can do for cultural heritage that is hardly being done and very few people with a scientific background are working in cultural heritage.
When you scrape the surface of conservation, you can see that it’s restoration. When we talk about conservation [in art], it’s not exactly the same idea as in medicine, where conservation stands for keeping a patient in good health. If we were to use the same parameters, then what we do would seem crazy. We shouldn’t touch a work of art unless we’ve done full diagnostics, to understand the pathology, the relationship between causes and effects and what we should do to slow down the decay process. Unfortunately, that does not happen. The decision-making process is in the hands of the curator and restorer.
SV: Can you explain your work with Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari?
MS: During my research in 1975-77, I started with photogrammetry and ultrasounds, the latter because they make a sort of cross-section view of the layers of plaster behind the surface. There was no indication that there was another fresco, an additional layer of plaster, on the west wall, and I typed three volumes of the results of the investigation. Then, starting in 2000, we managed to reconstruct the Salone dei Cinquecento during Leonardo’s lifetime: the height of the ceiling, the original windows, the staircase leading to the hall. This was essential for understanding where he painted the fresco, which no one has ever known for sure. I was able to prove that the entire east wall was free to paint on. In 2012, we got all the permissions to set up a scaffold.
I was supposed to bring a prototype that I made together with several scientists from the US, Holland, Italy and Russia, which would scan the wall to see if there was something left behind Vasari’s paintings. When we were ready to move in, I was stopped and told I wasn’t allowed to do it. They were afraid of radioactivity because we were going to use a neutron source that scared them off. I tried to explain that everything was under control, everything was scrutinized, but they didn’t want it.
There was an agreement between the city, the superintendencies, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, MiBACT and National Geographic, which gave money to the Opificio so that they could bring restorers onto the scaffoldings to drill holes, and then I would be called in to use an endoscope. Days later, I got a warning from the mayor saying that I had to dismantle everything because a petition was sent out saying that I was putting the Vasari paintings in danger. The six holes were only 8mm and they were in places where there wasn’t even paint! I did find tiny speckles, a fraction of a millimeter, red, white, beige and black. No one is saying that the masterpiece was located because we found some speckles of paint. But to me, it was enough to at least justify not to be shut down.
SV: And the master’s Adoration of the Magi?
MS: In 2001, I was given the privilege to study the Adoration of the Magi, and at the end of a six-month study, it came out that most, if not all, of the brown colour that covered the surface was not contemporary to the artwork. The true, incredible masterpiece by Leonardo was underneath. Unfortunately, that was a slap in the face to the world of art historians. In 2013, the Opificio brought in the Adoration to restore it. Until then, they were among those who said that [my findings] were impossible, that everything was done by Leonardo. When they finally got the painting, they kept the same story that everything was authentic, because they hadn’t started cleaning it yet. Then they started to clean it and a lot of [the monochrome] was removed. But they didn’t explain that there was a time when someone said that the coating was not by Leonardo. They said it was such a great discovery after the cleaning.
SV: You also worked on Leonardo’s Last Supper in Milan.
MS: For the duration of the 20-year restoration, the restorer was basically left alone to decide what was Leonardo and leave it, and what was added and take it away. I tried many times to say that we didn’t know enough, that we should give science a chance before we even touch it. Maybe we could have found the best way to at least guide the restorer. I would like to see the day that there is a scientist next to the restorer, continuously checking what’s being done, how much is being removed, why it’s being removed, checking if any sort of damage can be done, and evaluating to which extent it should be removed. It isn’t an alternative, it’s not working against anybody; it’s simply paving the way to know what to do, how to do it and if to do it.
SV: Research into Leonardo’s works is still strong and interesting information continues to be discovered. Why do you think scholars are still so invested in a figure as famous and exhaustively researched as Leonardo?
MS: When we talk about scholars, we should also say scientists. Two, maybe three, paintings of all the ones that have been attributed to Leonardo have been fully studied scientifically. And it’s a pity because the best tribute we could pay to Leonardo this year is to use science to rediscover him. With today’s science and technology, there could be so many ways to exploit our understanding of him and make it available to the greater public. And then maybe, this added knowledge could be supplemented with a much more in-depth and objective study by an art historian. Science and art history should go hand-in-hand. The best tribute we could pay to Leonardo this year is to use science to rediscover him.
THE PRIVATE TOUR
Meet Maurizio Seracini on an ArtViva experience of Florence. Join him on a visit through a world-heritage listed landmark while learning about his work to solve the last truly great art mystery: the search for Leonardo Da Vinci’s greatest missing masterpiece.