Human Journey

In Search of Leonardo’s Lost Painting

By Tom O’Neill, National Geographic Magazine

Florence, Italy — Around midnight, the narrow streets and broad squares of central Florence empty except for a few carousers, lights flicker in the windows of an upper floor windows of the Palazzo Vecchio, the imposing stone-fronted building that serves as City Hall. Inside some two dozen people, chiefly scientists and engineers from the University of California at San Diego, Italian art conservators, and members of a National Geographic Television crew, are moving up and down a four-story scaffolding erected in the grand Salone de Cinquecento, the Hall of Five Hundred.  The scaffolding faces a large mural of clashing soldiers painted in 1563 by Giorgio Vasari, a favorite son of Florence who redesigned the Palazzo and painted the huge patriotic frescoes that line its upper walls. However, it’s what might lie hidden behind the Vasari mural that is causing all the middle-of-the-night commotion.

It’s chilly inside the grand hall, but hardly anyone notices. Every night this week, a kind of slow-motion, yet fevered search unfolds, the culmination of a years-long effort to determine if Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Battle of Anghiari,” last seen some 450 years ago, is hidden behind the Vasari fresco.  Principal investigator Maurizio Seracini and his UCSD troops, a collection of mostly grad students clad in white lab coats and versed in high-tech imagery and material analysis, are huddled around a small hole drilled above the right kneecap of a soldier painted on the wall. Seracini has inserted an endoscope into the roughly six and a half inch long space and now an amazingly clear image appears on a small monitor. The fiber-optic probe seems to fly through space as it passes clouds of puffy mortar and comes to rest on a hard white space, as pocked as the moon. Dust particles fly about. Seracini keeps pointing out those floating wisps. TV director Max Salomon and his crew press close.  From the image Seracini, as excitable as the patrician, white-haired Florentine native seems to get, announces in a level voice that the image proves a gap truly exists between the Vasari wall and the building’s outer wall, in this case, only a fraction of an inch, but wide enough to accommodate the Leonardo mural. Radar and thermographic surveys done in previous years had shown a gap, the only one in the hall and one possibly constructed by Vasari to protect the Leonardo mural. Now a high-resolution fiber optic image appears to confirm it.


Dr. Maurizio Seracini, scientific director of the search for Leonardo da Vinci's "The Battle of Anghiari" project, is pictured in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio. The project is led by the National Geographic Society and University of California San Diego's Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), in cooperation with the City of Florence. Photo © David Yoder/National Geographic


Work on the search for Leonardo da Vinci's "The Battle of Anghiari" project, conducted in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio. The project is led by the National Geographic Society and University of California San Diego's Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), in cooperation with the City of Florence. © David Yoder/National Geographic


Close-up of Giorgio Vasari's painting in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio. "Cerca Trova"--seek and you shall find--is too small to be seen from the floor of the Hall of 500. Researchers believe this may be a clue to finding Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, "The Battle of Anghiari." The search for this painting is led by the National Geographic Society and University of California San Diego's Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), in cooperation with the City of Florence. © David Yoder/National Geographic


If everything goes to plan—no sure thing given the constant negotiations over where to insert the probes, the mounting fatigue of the participants who are working long hours, from morning to well past midnight, and the tensions and excitement of the investigation—the hope is that at least one new hole will be opened.  Conservators from the famed Opficio delle Pietre Dure, a public institute specializing in art restoration, are being very cautious in giving approval to entry points. Their duty, affirmed by Seracini and the National Geographic, is to protect the Vasari fresco, a historic artwork in its own right, and to this point they are allowing drilling only on previously damaged or pigment-free spots. Seracini and his team are also collecting samples from the entry points. Any sign of organic material, like wax or pitch or linseed oil, could indicate the prepared surface of the Leonardo mural. Of course, what everyone wants to see is a hint of pigment.

The analysis will be slow in coming, as Seracini’s engineers and scientists are as cautious and painstaking in their work as the conservators. In the meantime another night approaches and with it the prospect of another entry point and images that will attract yet again a hushed midnight crowd on the scaffolding.

The statues beneath the Vasari fresco are draped for protection as work begins in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. The search for Leonardo da Vinci's "The Battle of Anghiari" project is led by the National Geographic Society and University of California San Diego's Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), in cooperation with the City of Florence. ©Shannon Jensen/National Geographic


As work begins in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, a significant gap is set up between the scaffolding structure and the Vasari fresco in order to ensure safety of the Vasari. The search for Leonardo da Vinci's "The Battle of Anghiari" project is led by the National Geographic Society and University of California San Diego's Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), in cooperation with the City of Florence. ©Shannon Jensen/National Geographic


Scaffolding stands in front of the Vasari painting as work begins in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio on the search for Leonardo da Vinci's "The Battle of Anghiari" project. The project is led by the National Geographic Society and University of California San Diego's Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), in cooperation with the City of Florence. ©Shannon Jensen/National Geographic


This project is funded in part by the National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Council. The entire process is being documented for a National Geographic documentary premiering globally on National Geographic Channels worldwide beginning in mid-January. National Geographic magazine will also be reporting on the project.

Tom O'Neill is a senior writer for National Geographic Magazine.
  • Hello David,
    Complemented by National Geographic Society’s unrivaled photos, this is a highly informative account of Maurizio Seracini’s quest to uncover Leonardo’s lost mural, “The Battle of Anghiari.” The original commission from the City Fathers, the Signoria, had pitted Leonardo against Michelangelo in a head-to-head contest of the two titans of the Italian High Renaissance. (The latter was to paint the Battle of Cascina, and had not progressed as far as Leonardo’s when he had to abandon it, in order to work on the Pope’s Tomb.)

    I am personally optimistic that the remnants of Leonardo’s efforts are still there, behind a false wall erected by Vasari. Bulent

  • Paul Stanton

    I for one would much rather see remnants of the Leonardo’s “Battle” fresco than Vasari’s second rate work!

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  • Davide

    Nice Discovery! Unfortunately seems like Leonardo painted the Anghiari’s Battle with the tecnique of ENCAUSTO,which lead to believe that not much to see was left after the experiment failed. ;(. But good luck anyway..hope to see a Discovery

  • doug l

    Very excited about this project. I’ve been intrigued by the possibility throughout my lifelong fascination with DaVinci and his enigmatic life. During my brief stay in Florence years ago I spent several hours in that hall and dreamed of what it would have looked like. If Vasari, whose work I admire and whose writing I find so interesting, was as conscientious as I feel he was, perhaps this dream will come true. it’s worth noting that the technique called ‘encaustic’ which uses colored waxes to achieve remarkable brilliance and depth and which Leonardo used instead of the traditional plaster based fresco, has lately entered the mainstream with the making of materials and techniques widely available at art supply stores. I’m inspired to give it a try. Thanks for this informative article. Cheers.

  • […] Sometime around October 1503, Leonardo was commissioned to paint the mural of ‘The Battle of Anghiari’, for the Sala del Gran Consiglio, the recently rebuilt Great Council Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, during the first years of the city’s republican government.… […]

  • Roy Cox

    What will be done if Leonardo’s work is revealed?

  • […]… Art, architecture, design & decoAnghiari, Art, Battle, Leonardo Da Vinci ← Kaiser Idell Luxus lamp – Republic of Fritz Hansen […]

  • Mercier

    bonjour, j’aime beaucoup votre site mais une traduction automatique en français de votre page serait un plus… mon anglais étant ce qu’il est…. celle ci par exemple je suis certaine de ne pas avoir tout compris et pourtant elle m’intéresse réellement !!
    Bonne continuation

  • […] In Search of Leonardo’s Lost Painting Dec, 2, 2011 (10) News Watch » […]

  • Joel

    Awesome! Feels like a real-life The Da Vinci Code. Will they uncover the secret map to the tomb of Mary Magdalene??

  • Vladimir Tamari

    If there is a gap of 2 cm behind the wall, why not investigate not by vertical drilling through the existing painting, but edgewise, drilling down from the framed “windows” on top. A 45 degree mirror can be attached to the endoscope and it can be lowered straight down between the two walls without injuring the Vasari further.

  • Debbie Webb

    Fascinating. I can’t wait for more news. I recommend the BBC documentary drama about Leonardo’s Life. Shown on TV last week it is still available on

  • Mario Valdes

    The following is from an article written some thirty two years ago in which the scholar describes the various banners and flags in Vasari’s fresco of the Battle of Marciano, he explains the one on which Seracini has bet the house:

    “Numerous others are green, and as we have seen, were those of the Florentine anti-Medici exiles. These green flags also appear in the great fresco by Vasari, but instead of LIBERTAS SPQF which should be apparent, one of them (the very last towards the far left next to Strozzi’s) is inscribed with heavy irony, CHI CERCA TROVA, alluding to the false search of the exiles for freedom that has become strangely instrumental in finding their just punishment.”

    From “Un inedito dello Stradano: la “rotella” Odescalchi” by Lionello G. Boccia which was published in L’Arte, Vol 5, 1969, pp. 95-116.

    Hope this doesn’t bear true for Seracini – and those involved, as well.

  • Mario Valdes

    Even if Maurizio Seracini does discover the ruined remains of the fresco depicting the Battle of Anghiari da Vinci attempted, the find simply cannot compete with the importance of Vasari’s artistic program concerning Alessandro de’ Medici, the First Duke of Florence. As ancestor to so many of Europe’s most titled families, the fact that his mother was a black slave has been “the” Dan Brown type secret of the Palazzo Vecchio – visible only to those who know where to look for it.

    Of course a “lost” da Vinci will make headlines; for a few more days at most since it has already been responsible for so many. But the ceiling paintings in the Sala Clemente VII which was only opened to the public a few years ago and is right there adjoining the Salone dei Cinquecento, would reverberate throughout the media and the hallowed halls of academia for months afterwards, indeed, years.

    Giorgio Vasari, the artist who executed them is, of course, the one to whom we owe the possible preservation of Da Vinci’s ruined fresco. Any press on the significance of his own work with regards the racial problems it was hoped Obama’s election could help solve, would, therefore, make a perfect addendum to the news being generated by the retrieval of this da Vinci fragment.

    It is all too obvious that, considering any sense of entitlement or legal precedence the revelation of Alessandro’s ethnicity would give the African population in Italy, the subject has become “verboten.” Because of how this genealogical information could affect the situation there on the ground, it is my hope that the media will be able to do something on the subject to help lift the embargo on this still suppressed chapter of Florentine history. With the mounting anxiety over the rise of African refugees / immigrants in Italy as a result of the present situation along the southern coast of the Mediterranean, cannot help but think a story on Alessandro de’ Medici could be more timely.

    I find it difficult to believe, for instance, that the murder of the Sengalese merchants in Florence earlier this month could have occurred had the public at least been aware of him – the first black head of state in modern Western history.

    Since the following PBS website is, for the time being, the most in depth on “Il Duca Moro,” I hope it helps.

  • raven

    that is sooooooooooooo cool

  • Anna Hall

    My comments are for the TV documentary specifically. I was very disappointed by the method and direction of this documentary. Rather than moving like a genuine educational documentary, intended to enlighten and engage, this program presented little more than trumped up drama and suspense leading to a disappointing anti-climax. The melodramatic soundtrack, the frantic editing, and sudden, shocked expressions of the subjects reminded me of virtually every trashy reality TV drama. Was this a documentary or an episode of Mob Wives? How I long for the days when documentaries had little to no soundtrack and were narrated by sedate experts who actually sought to inform rather than entice. Shock and suspense belong in a James Bond film, not an art documentary.

  • Marco

    The writing CERCA TROVA is really an encrypted message.
    The anagram of the words CERCA TROVA is TORRE VACCA, the ancient name of the tower of Palazzo Vecchio in Firenze, located nearby, just a few meters, very unlikely this anagram is a coincidence, anagrams and rebus were very popular among the collaborators of Giorgio Vasari.
    I solved this anagram in March of 2012.
    The “torre della vacca” ( tower of the cow ) or ” torre dei della Vacca ” or ” torre del vacca ” or simply ” torre vacca ” ( cow tower ) belonged to an ancient and noble family of Florence and was incorporated within the walls of the Palazzo Vecchio around the year 1300 by a decision of its builder, the architect Arnolfo di Cambio.The tower had a great bell that every time we sounded the ancient Florentine said ” the cow is mooing “. ( if you look at the facade of the Palazzo Vecchio, under the clock tower, you see a row of windows closed, that is the ” cow tower ” )
    In 1561, during the great restoration of the Palazzo Vecchio. Giorgio Vasari discovers the walls of the tower and in his book “Lives of the Artists,” ( biography of Arnolfo di Cambio edition 1568 ) writes this:
    “…And they brought it about that the northern aisle of S. Pietro Scheraggio should be thrown to the ground, rather than let him work in the middle of the square with his own measurements; not to mention that they insisted, moreover, that there should be united and incorporated with the Palace the Tower of the Foraboschi, called the “Torre della Vacca,” in height fifty braccia, for the use of the great bell, and together with it some houses bought by the Commune for this edifice. For which reasons no one must marvel if the foundation of the Palace is awry and out of the square, it having been necessary, in order to incorporate the tower in the middle and to render it stronger, to bind it round with the walls of the Palace; which walls, having been laid open in the year i6i [SIC] by Giorgio Vasari, painter and architect, were found excellent. Arnolfo, then, having filled up the said tower with good material, it was afterwards easy for other masters to make thereon the very high campanile that is to be seen there today; for within the limits of two years he finished only the Palace, which has subsequently received from time to time those improvements which give it today that greatness and majesty that are to be seen..”
    The tower was filled with solid material.
    “Storia del Palazzo vecchio in Firenze” ( is a book written by Aurelio Gotti, a cultured man of letters, which tells the story of the Palace from 1300 until the date of publication of the book in 1889.
    Aurelio Gotti does some research and he writes that another architect, surname Del Rosso, while some work in 1814 found the walls of the torre della vacca but this tower is completely empty until under the floor.
    Aurelio Gotti assumed that the true tower is elsewhere in the building and the tower has a strong symbolic value.

  • Gramaw

    In response to: Vladimir Tamari (who posted about entering the cavity via window framing above the mural) … If only it were that simple, right?! The construction of the wall is unlike modern building techniques where it is relatively easy to enter a wall cavity from the framing around a door or window. I can only guess that there is a significant wall header (beneath the windows) made of brick. And while drilling through brick is “easy” enough, there is a significant distance from the top of the wall / bottom of the window to the actual cavity behind the mural — a distance that is too long to drill through (I presume). However, I wonder if they couldn’t access it via the door which is to the right of the mural, or even perhaps from one of the earlier doors which were plastered over during the remodeling? I can’t remember if one of those hidden doors is below the mural, but it would certainly be closer to the cavity than the top windows. Dr. Seracini discovered all of the hidden doors and windows decades ago, and one can only assume that these brilliant people (especially Seracini, an engineer) have considered ALL of the possible entry points.

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