Historians rule “lost” Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece never existed

After a centuries-old hunt, experts at a roundtable declared that a “lost” Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) masterpiece actually does not exist at all. Art historians Roberta Barsanti, Giancula Belli, Emanuela Ferrretti and Cecilia Frosinini presented the controversial findings at the Uffizi Galleries in Florence on 8 October 2020. 

The mystery began in 1503, when it’s believed the Florentine government commissioned Leonardo to paint a vast battle scene called ‘The Battle of Anghiari’. Many of his preparatory drawings for the mural painting, some called cartoons, still exist. They depict the defeat of the Milanese at the hands of the Florentines in 1440 during the Wars of the Lombardy. But Leonardo never completed the painting, and its supposed location became lost in the annals of time.  

For many years, experts believed it was hidden under another fresco in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. This theory gained momentum in 2012, after scientific researcher Maurizio Seracini noticed a concealed air gap between a fresco by Giorgio Vasari (1511 1574) and the original wall. Although lacking conclusive proof, Seracini believed the lost masterpiece had been painted over by Vasari and described it as “one of the most famous discoveries of a century.” 

His theory was debunked last week at the roundtable. “Leonardo never painted that battle on that wall, that is a conclusion,” confirmed Francesca Fiorani, art historian at the University of Virginia. “The prepping of the wall did not go well, and it all stopped there.” 

According to the historians, there is no evidence for the use of gesso and oil to properly prepare any surfaces. “This process, which was always thought to be part of the painting, was instead meant for the preparation of the wall before the paint,” explained Fiorani. “Since the process to prepare the wall was not successful, Leonardo never painted on it. This means that Leonardo’s battle existed only as a cartoon, never as paint on a wall.” 

Seracini had also argued that black pigments found on the wall matched those used by Leonardo to paint the renowned ‘Mona Lisa’, but experts say this is not necessarily the case since the pigment was used by many artists at the time.  

Uncovering a Leonardo is a huge event in the art world; scholars have only been able to attribute two dozen paintings to the Italian master. The recent findings haven’t deterred Seracini, however, who remarked “what’s wrong with looking for an incredible masterpiece, and why can’t we use science to get a final answer? Why not continue using non-invasive science until we have final proof?” 

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