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.