“Why don’t you just drill a hole?”

The other night I was put to the most common question I get on this project: Why don’t we just drill a hole in the Vasari mural to stick in a tiny camera, or take out a brick, and look for the da Vinci painting like that?

Apart from the fact that the city currently won’t allow it, drilling holes in the Vasari frescos would be unscientific, unethical, destructive, uncouth in a myriad of ways, and if that doesn’t already cover everything, just wrong. Moreover, the gamma ray analysis–is better for this task; it is non-destructive, safe, it can be applied anywhere in the great hall, and it would be far more conclusive in determining wether the painting survives.

Still, it’s a legitimate question. In fact, it has already been tried.

For many decades, perhaps even a couple of centuries or so, art historians have debated the possibility that the painting is still somewhere in the Hall of 500. Core samples have been removed from the Vasari fresco, and in the 1980’s the city even removed a chunk of the Vasari that was measurable in square meters(!). The painting was not found.

(When you walk into the Hall of 500, immediately after you pass through the doorway and surrender your admission ticket, look sharply up over your right shoulder, and you can quite easily see an exposed edge where a chunk of the Vasari was clumsily excised in the attempt)

Why wasn’t anything discovered? They dug into the west wall of the Hall of 500, where it was believed da Vinci had painted his battle scene. The location of the painting is still a matter of debate, but the scientific reconstruction by Maurizio Seracini of the physical nature of the hall in the 1500’s, coupled with the historical research by a handful of dedicated scholars including Rab Hatfield and those working with Friends of Florence, has recently given us a much better estimation of where the painting must have been located.

The city had most likely dug into the wrong wall. And even if they had dug into the east wall, on the opposite side, they still wouldn’t have found anything–they were apparently unaware that Vasari had received delivery of more than 29,000 bricks to build another wall in front of the original stone wall. They did not look behind the bricks.

So why not use a tiny camera, behind the brick wall, within the gap found by radar scans?

Dr. Seracini points out that the gap is inconsistent, and it is likely that when the bricks were placed, mortar would have been pushed into that gap, making exploration of the thin space problematic. Additionally, we don’t know exactly where the painting was, or what condition it was in, or whether Vasari was able to preserve all of it. Before the first hole is drilled, one must ask how many holes would be allowed to determine whether the painting is there. If one or more holes are drilled and nothing is found, that would not rule out the existence of the painting. What if Vasari applied a protective coating or whitewash to the painting, rendering the technique useless? Even if pigments were found, it would be very incomplete information.

Using the non-destructive gamma ray technology, we can tell whether there is paint behind the brick wall, how much of it is there, where the borders are, and then use the gamma camera to create images that would confirm whether the newly discovered painting is consistent with the numerous surviving copies we can use for reference. If we find nothing in the suspected area using this technology, we can then look for it in other locations, which would be unlikely to be permitted drilling holes.

If the gamma ray technology shows no evidence of pigment anywhere in the great hall, we cannot say with absolute certainty the painting isn’t there; but we can say there is less than (xx) amount of paint per square meter, or a similar measurement, which would effectively rule out the possibility of its survival. Clearly, our way is better.

When I was a boy, I found a pickaxe in our basement in Goshen, Indiana, and goaded my brothers into digging through the wall in search of buried treasure. We dug until we hit dirt but found only a tangle of roots, and our spirit of exploration was rewarded with an impressive spanking. It would be a stretch to equate that youthful misadventure to drilling holes in the Vasari, but I hope the days of that destructive game of pin the tail on the donkey are behind us. To look  deeper into the past, and find the truth about the lost da Vinci, let’s step into the future.

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Front Page of the IHT!

(This was supposed to have published last Tuesday… It apparently didn’t post due to the technical difficulty of not having clicked on the “publish” button)

Another step forward! Today the International Herald Tribune ran last Saturday’s NYT story on our search for the lost Leonardo. Very good play–it appeared on the front page, with a nice bit of space for the photo.

We’re almost ready to break the $10K barrier. Thanks to everyone who has pledged, as well as everyone who has helped to spread the word about this effort by email, liking, sharing, and tweeting. Please keep it up, there is a long way to go, but we can do it.

I will be at the photojournalism festival Visa Pour l’Image in Perpignan, France, for the rest of this week, and will work on the effort from here.

Also, I fear that perhaps my last blog post reflected my fatigue from recent traveling and gave the impression I was irked with Dr. Smither– that couldn’t be further from the truth! An attempt at humor, no more.

And finally, for today, I welcome all suggestions you can offer on how to grow as large a following as possible for this project (please bear in mind that despite the National Geographic affiliation, in reality I’m a single freelance photographer with little social media experience and no budget, trying to drive this ambitious fundraising effort, so suggestions that demand a massive amount of man-hours or fundraising expertise are problematic). The outreach won’t end when the Kickstarter effort ends, regardless of the outcome, but the window of opportunity to find the painting is finite. Everyone involved feels the same way as Mayor Matteo Renzi–it’s time to make this happen.


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A Visit to the Bob Smither Lab

Yesterday, armed with my trusty little Canon G11, I took a day out of my family visit in Indiana and drove to Argonne National Laboratory to spend the day with Bob Smither, the physicist I’m working with on the gamma camera we hope will be able to image the da Vinci painting (There is actually more than one gamma camera design possibility now, but I won’t go into that in this post). Here is my little photo field-trip:

(Below) In his lab: The big cylindrical shiny thing on the left is the housing of a gamma camera, perhaps one of the models we’ll end up using for the imaging in the Hall of 500.

(Below) Another view of the gamma camera Smither invented. The copper crystal lens is placed in the center of the structure, the Germanium crystal detector would be positioned at the top end of the cylinder, and the aperture is where his hand is on the bottom. The copper crystal lens would go into the center of the housing, positioned to diffract the particular gamma ray being sought at an angle that would redirect it toward the Ge detector in the back. The result is a low background noise device that collects a large number of gamma rays from a small point. The image would be accrued through a scanning process.

(Below) A gamma ray lens on Smither’s desk. This may or may not be the kind we will use. There are two discs with bits of copper crystal (copper specially grown as a crystal) arranged in a way that, with the two layers are on top of each other, fill the gaps between the rings of the other disc to diffract most of the gamma rays that pass through it.

(Below) The two layers of a copper crystal mosaic gamma ray lens unstacked.

(Below) Another style of gamma ray lens, without the thin strips of crystal that would be used in it. This lens had originally be intended to be used for nuclear treaty verification.

(Below) Another experiment he’s working on, a small part of a larger NIST experiment (National Institute of Standards and Technology) to measure the electric dipole moment of a neutron, in part using crystal diffraction. The bigger project, if successful, has Nobel potential. The silver cylinder on the right is a Ge detector, similar to the one we will use to look for gamma ray evidence of Leonardo’s paints–the main difference being we would need one that is electrically cooled rather than nitrogen cooled as this one is. Naturally, the electrically cooled model is significantly more expensive.

Afterward we had dinner with his wife Carol, who make an excellent chicken mole, and spent the evening discussing the project, kicking around thoughts on what the gamma rays coming out of the east wall of the Hall of 500 might someday reveal.

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Why I Think it’s (probably) There–


In the earliest days of trying to wrap my head around this project, even before I had proposed documenting the search to National Geographic Magazine, I was skeptical that the painting is likely to still survive behind the Vasari. My disposition wasn’t based on any particular evidence, or on cynicism–I just thought the “too good to be true” bar was pretty high.

After all, the thought that a lost da Vinci masterpiece, one that is said to have changed the course of the Renaissance, could still be sitting just a few inches out of reach strains credulity. The so-called clues that it may yet survive are tantalizing, or at the very least curious, yet they don’t go anywhere close to making it a comfortable bet.

I decided, however, that even a five percent chance of finding it was worth pursuing. Even then, I believed the odds exceeded that.

To me, there are too many curiosities surrounding that part of the wall, and it is the thought of it all being coincidence that strains credulity.

Even if the Dan Brown-like “Cerca Trova” was the the motto of a particular army of the day, as Dr. Carlo Pedretti suggests it may have been, why is it only painted on one of the flags? And why are the letters crudely scrawled over the flag, and not painted into the folds of the flags, as any good artist would have done? And finally, is it inconceivable that is could have been intended as a double entendre? Let’s put that aside for now. I think the “Cerca Trova” is the weakest of the clues.

The ground penetrating radar study of the wall, showing an incongruous thin air gap behind the Vasari brick wall and mural, is already well noted. What is more compelling is that it does not appear to exist anywhere else in the great hall.

Even less discussed is the apparent instability in the wall over that area, not evident anywhere else in the hall, expressed by a large crack in the overlying brick wall (and not, apparently in the underlying original stone wall) running from the lower right of Vasari’s stone frame, where it originates, and ending in the general area where the painting is believed to be hidden. I’m neither engineer or architect, but I would think it could suggest the brick wall is poorly attached to the underlying stone wall in that area.

A little-known oddity is revealed only by thermal imaging. Over that same area of interest, there are four evenly spaced square gaps in Vasari’s brick, on a level plane, filled only with mortar. The holes in the wall lacking brick were obviously deliberately made. Why? Seracini thinks they were possibly left to allow the humidity in the mortar to ventilate while the mortar in the wall dried, to avoid trapping moisture in the gap between the brick and stone wall. Perhaps they could also be the positions of anchors set to attach the brick wall to the stone wall.

All of that is engaging enough to stir the imagination. Add the historical research that also points toward that area of that wall as the likely location where Leonardo painted, such as can be found in the excellent (if not light-reading) ‘Finding Leonardo: the Case for Recovering The Battle of Anghiari’,  by Rab Hatfield, professor at Syracuse University in Florence, and it’s time to ask: How many more of these curiosities can we handle before they ruin the suspense?

I have frequently fretted over whether I’m tilting at windmills, whether the risk is worth the time, effort, and neglect of other responsibilities. The exact moment I surrendered my angst, however, was over a dinner with a friend who had recently survived an exhausting struggle with cancer.

“Dave, Vasari would never have destroyed that painting.” she calmly said. “Of course it’s there.”

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It doesn’t matter how much you may know about Leonardo da Vinci, art, or science, to come along for this ride; I certainly am not an expert in any of those areas. Indeed, four years ago I would have been hard pressed to tell the difference between a Leonardo and a Michelangelo. But now I’m in a position to witness the search for da Vinci’s lost painting “The Battle of Anghiari,” which I will document and chronicle here.

The scientific team, led by National Geographic fellow Dr. Maurizio Seracini, expects to be back in the Hall of 500 next February to conduct the final round of scans to determine whether Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari still survives beneath the Vasari mural. February may seem like a long way off, but from my perspective, it’s already a mad rush. Equipment needs to be ordered, which will take months to receive, and then testing, engineering, and other time consuming tasks need to be completed before we can start work to answer one of the art world’s great mysteries.

I am a photojournalist by trade, on assignment for National Geographic Magazine covering this search, but I got a little sidetracked onto he scientific side of the project when I decided I needed to get a picture of the painting while it’s still behind the wall. I’ll write more about that later, but in the meantime, since it’s an “eat what you kill” world, I need to help find the necessary resources for that little sub-project. National Geographic has supported the overall project financially, but due to numerous other scientific obligations they can’t carry the whole amount. , So, there are current efforts, including one initiated by me which should launch within days on the Kickstarter website, which we hope will help resolve the funding hurdle in time to meet our window of opportunity in the Palazzo Vecchio.

I will be updating here on the progress. Please come back often.


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