Two American Art Sleuths May Have Solved the Case of the Missing Da Vinci Mural
In 1504 Da Vinci, then in his artistic prime, won a commission through his friend Machiavelli, the political philosopher. It was to decorate a wall in the Palazzo Vecchio, the city hall of Florence, Italy. Da Vinci's rival, Michelangelo, was hired to do another. Leonardo painted one scene of what was to be a 13½-by-70-foot mural. Then, for reasons still unknown, he abandoned the project (Michelangelo never finished his either).
One report said Da Vinci quit because he disapproved of the quality of linseed oil given him for mixing with his paint. "Leonardo was a strange fellow," Spencer says. "Once he figured out in his mind what he was going to do, he generally lost interest." Still, the painter finished enough of the Battle of Anghiari, which depicts a 1440 skirmish between the Florentines and Milanese, to inspire contemporaries like Raphael and later artists like Rubens to copy it.
In 1563 Giorgio Vasari, an artist who was also Leonardo's biographer, was commissioned to paint his own mural on the wall. "I can just imagine Vasari standing there looking at the Leonardo and saying, 'How in hell am I going to get this thing off the wall?' " chuckles Spencer. He believes Vasari decided simply to paint over the Leonardo.
Over the centuries art historians believed that Da Vinci's mural was on the east wall of the Palazzo's main chamber. In 1975 Newton, an art restoration graduate student on a Fulbright, began testing that wall with heat-and sound-sensitive devices that measure the density of the layers of paint. He was still at it a year later—and about to give up. One morning at 4 o'clock, he recalls, "I said to myself I couldn't close up shop without checking the west wall. I moved the scaffolding over and five minutes later I had no doubt the Leonardo was there." Newton persuaded Italian officials to drill two small core samples from the wall. The pigments removed from the underlying layers corresponded exactly to those used by Da Vinci in several other works.
Newton wanted more corroboration. In early 1978 he called on Spencer, a Moline, Ill. minister's son and World War II bombardier, who was then director of the museum program for the National Endowment for the Arts. He is now chairman of Duke University's art department.
After working together by mail and phone most of 1978, the two men met in Florence last summer. Spencer's conclusion, based on ancient documents, was that a long-honored text about the hall's construction included a misreading of Vasari's notes—"east" for "west." That helped validate Newton's theory.
Together the two Americans convinced Italian officials to begin peeling back the Vasari mural in mid-September. The process, known as strappo, involves applying layers of glue, gauze, more glue and finally canvas to the outer layer. When the glue dries, the top mural will come off more or less intact.
Not everyone is sure Spencer and Newton are right. David Brown, curator of early Italian paintings at the National Gallery in Washington, told the Washington Post, "There's no question Da Vinci painted a picture called Battle of Anghiari. The question is whether Vasari destroyed it or painted over it."
If the Da Vinci mural is there, Spencer estimates uncovering it completely could take as long as two years. Doubts have been raised as to what condition it might be in. Spencer seems unconcerned. "Some people say it will be a ruin," he says, "to which I reply, 'It may be a ruin, yes, but it will be a magnificent ruin.' "