TEDGlobal 2012

Maurizio Seracini: The secret lives of paintings

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Art history is far from set in stone. Engineer Maurizio Seracini spent 30 years searching for Leonardo da Vinci’s lost fresco “The Battle of Anghiari,” and in the process discovered that many paintings have layers of history hidden underneath. Should they be part of the viewing experience too?

- Art diagnostician
Maurizio Seracini uses advanced tools common in engineering and medical labs to unravel centuries-old mysteries of art. Full bio

In 1975, I met in Florence a professor, Carlo Pedretti,
00:16
my former professor of art history, and today
00:20
a world-renowned scholar of Leonardo da Vinci.
00:23
Well, he asked me if I could find some technological way
00:27
to unfold a five-centuries-old mystery related to
00:31
a lost masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci,
00:35
the "Battle of Anghiari," which is supposed to be located
00:38
in the Hall of the 500 in Palazzo Vecchio, in Florence.
00:41
Well, in the mid-'70s, there were not great opportunities
00:44
for a bioengineer like me, especially in Italy, and so
00:47
I decided, with some researchers from the United States
00:51
and the University of Florence, to start probing the murals
00:54
decorated by Vasari on the long walls of the Hall of the 500
00:59
searching for the lost Leonardo.
01:03
Unfortunately, at that time we did not know that
01:05
that was not exactly where we should be looking,
01:09
because we had to go much deeper in, and so the research
01:13
came to a halt, and it was only taken up in 2000
01:17
thanks to the interest and the enthusiasm of the Guinness family.
01:22
Well, this time, we focused on trying to reconstruct
01:26
the way the Hall of the 500 was before the remodeling,
01:29
and the so-called Sala Grande, which was built in 1494,
01:32
and to find out the original doors, windows,
01:36
and in order to do that, we first created a 3D model,
01:39
and then, with thermography, we went on to discover
01:43
hidden windows. These are the original windows of the hall
01:47
of the Sala Grande. We also found out about the height
01:50
of the ceiling, and we managed to reconstruct, therefore,
01:53
all the layout of this original hall
01:57
the way it was before there came Vasari,
01:59
and restructured the whole thing,
02:03
including a staircase that was very important
02:06
in order to precisely place "The Battle of Anghiari"
02:09
on a specific area of one of the two walls.
02:13
Well, we also learned that Vasari, who was commissioned
02:17
to remodel the Hall of the 500 between 1560 and 1574
02:20
by the Grand Duke Cosimo I of the Medici family,
02:25
we have at least two instances when he saved masterpieces
02:29
specifically by placing a brick wall in front of it
02:33
and leaving a small air gap.
02:36
One that we [see] here, Masaccio, the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence,
02:38
so we just said, well maybe, Visari has done something
02:42
like that in the case of this great work of art by Leonardo,
02:45
since he was a great admirer of Leonardo da Vinci.
02:49
And so we built some very sophisticated radio antennas
02:51
just for probing both walls and searching for an air gap.
02:56
And we did find many on the right panel of the east wall,
03:01
an air gap, and that's where
03:06
we believe "The Battle of Anghiari,"
03:08
or at least the part that we know has been painted,
03:10
which is called "The Fight for the Standard," should be located.
03:12
Well, from there, unfortunately,
03:15
in 2004, the project
03:19
came to a halt. Many political reasons.
03:21
So I decided to go back to my alma mater,
03:24
and, at the University of California, San Diego,
03:27
and I proposed to open up a research center
03:29
for engineering sciences for cultural heritage.
03:32
And in 2007, we created CISA3 as a research center
03:35
for cultural heritage, specifically art, architecture
03:39
and archaeology. So students started to flow in,
03:42
and we started to build technologies, because that's
03:45
basically what we also needed in order to move forward
03:47
and go and do fieldwork.
03:50
We came back in the Hall of the 500 in 2011,
03:52
and this time, with a great group of students,
03:57
and my colleague, Professor Falko Kuester,
04:00
who is now the director at CISA3, and we
04:03
came back just since we knew already where to look for
04:05
to find out if there was still something left.
04:10
Well, we were confined though, limited, I should rather say,
04:13
for several reasons that it's not worth explaining,
04:17
to endoscopy only, of the many other options we had,
04:20
and with a 4mm camera attached to it,
04:24
we were successful in documenting and taking
04:27
some fragments of what it turns out to be
04:32
a reddish color, black color, and there is some
04:37
beige fragments that later on
04:40
we ran a much more sophisticated exams,
04:44
XRF, X-ray diffraction, and the results are very positive
04:47
so far. It seems to indicate that indeed
04:52
we have found some pigments, and since we know for sure
04:55
that no other artist has painted on that wall
04:58
before Vasari came in about 60 years later, well,
05:00
those pigments are therefore firmly related to mural painting
05:04
and most likely to Leonardo.
05:07
Well, we are searching for the highest and highly praised
05:09
work of art ever achieved by mankind.
05:14
As a matter of fact, this is by far the most important
05:17
commission that Leonardo has ever had,
05:20
and for doing this great masterpiece, he was named
05:23
the number one artist influence at the time.
05:28
I had also had the privilege since the last 37 years
05:33
to work on several masterpieces as you can see behind me,
05:36
but basically to do what? Well, to assess, for example,
05:40
the state of conservation. See here the face of the
05:43
Madonna of the Chair that when just shining a UV light on it
05:46
you suddenly see another, different lady,
05:50
aged lady, I should rather say.
05:53
There is a lot of varnish still sitting there, several retouches,
05:55
and some over cleaning. It becomes very visible.
05:59
But also, technology has helped to write new pages
06:02
of our history, or at least to update pages of our histories.
06:05
For example, the "Lady with the Unicorn,"
06:08
another painting by Rafael, well, you see the unicorn.
06:11
A lot has been said and written about the unicorn, but
06:13
if you take an X-ray of the unicorn, it becomes a puppy dog.
06:15
And — (Laughter) — no problem, but, unfortunately,
06:19
continuing with the scientific examination of this painting
06:23
came out that Rafael did not paint the unicorn,
06:26
did not paint the puppy dog, actually left the painting
06:29
unfinished, so all this writing about the exotic symbol
06:32
of the unicorn — (Laughter) — unfortunately,
06:37
is not very reliable. (Laughter)
06:40
Well, also, authenticity. Just think for a moment
06:43
if science really could move in the field of authenticity
06:45
of works of art. There would be a cultural revolution
06:49
to say the least, but also, I would say, a market revolution,
06:53
let me add. Take this example:
06:56
Otto Marseus, nice painting, which is "Still Life"
06:58
at the Pitti Gallery, and just have an infrared camera peering through,
07:02
and luckily for art historians, it just was confirmed
07:06
that there is a signature of Otto Marseus. It even says
07:10
when it was made and also the location.
07:12
So that was a good result. Sometimes, it's not that good,
07:15
and so, again, authenticity and science could go together
07:20
and change the way, not attributions being made,
07:25
but at least lay the ground for a more objective,
07:29
or, I should rather say, less subjective attribution,
07:33
as it is done today.
07:37
But I would say the discovery that really caught
07:40
my imagination, my admiration, is the incredibly vivid
07:43
drawing under this layer, brown layer,
07:47
of "The Adoration of the Magi." Here you see
07:51
a handmade setting XYZ scanner with an infrared camera put on it,
07:54
and just peering through this brown layer
07:58
of this masterpiece to reveal
08:02
what could have been underneath.
08:04
Well, this happens to be the most important painting
08:07
we have in Italy by Leonardo da Vinci, and
08:09
look at the wonderful images of faces that nobody has seen
08:12
for five centuries. Look at these portraits.
08:17
They're magnificent. You see Leonardo at work.
08:21
You see the geniality of his creation, right directly
08:23
on the ground layer of the panel, and see
08:27
this cool thing, finding, I should rather say,
08:30
an elephant. (Laughter) Because of this elephant,
08:36
over 70 new images came out, never seen for centuries.
08:39
This was an epiphany. We came to understand
08:43
and to prove that the brown coating that we see today
08:46
was not done by Leonardo da Vinci, which left us
08:50
only the other drawing that for five centuries
08:53
we were not able to see, so thanks only to technology.
08:55
Well, the tablet. Well, we thought, well, if we all have
09:00
this pleasure, this privilege to see all this,
09:05
to find all these discoveries, what about for everybody else?
09:07
So we thought of an augmented reality application
09:11
using a tablet. Let me show you just simulating
09:14
what we could be doing, any of us could be doing,
09:18
in a museum environment.
09:22
So let's say that we go to a museum with a tablet, okay?
09:24
And we just aim the camera of the tablet
09:28
to the painting that we are interested to see, like this.
09:32
Okay? And I will just click on it, we pause,
09:38
and now let me turn to you so the moment the image,
09:44
or, I should say, the camera, has locked in the painting,
09:48
then the images you just saw up there in the drawing
09:51
are being loaded. And so, see.
09:54
We can, as we said, we can zoom in. Then we can scroll.
09:58
Okay? Let's go and find the elephant.
10:01
So all we need is one finger. Just wipe off
10:06
and we see the elephant. (Applause)
10:10
(Applause)
10:14
Okay? And then if we want,
10:18
we can continue the scroll to find out, for example,
10:20
on the staircase, the whole iconography is going
10:23
to be changed. There are a lot of laymen reconstructing
10:27
from the ruins of an old temple a new temple,
10:30
and there are a lot of figures showing up. See?
10:32
This is not just a curiosity, because it changes
10:36
not just the iconography as you see it, but the iconology,
10:39
the meaning of the painting,
10:42
and we believe this is a cool way, easy way,
10:45
that everybody could have access to, to become more
10:47
the protagonist of your own discovery, and not just
10:50
be so passive about it, as we are when we walk through
10:54
endless rooms of museums.
10:57
(Applause)
11:01
Another concept is the digital clinical chart, which sounds
11:06
very obvious if we were to talk about real patients,
11:10
but when we talk about works of art, unfortunately,
11:13
it's never been tapped as an idea.
11:15
Well, we believe, again, that this should be the beginning,
11:17
the very first step, to do real conservation,
11:20
and allowing us to really explore and to understand
11:22
everything related to the state of our conservation,
11:26
the technique, materials, and also if, when, and why
11:28
we should restore, or, rather, to intervene on
11:32
the environment surrounding the painting.
11:36
Well, our vision is to rediscover
11:40
the spirit of the Renaissance, create a new discipline
11:43
where engineering for cultural heritage is actually
11:46
a symbol of blending art and science together.
11:49
We definitely need a new breed of engineers
11:52
that will go out and do this kind of work and
11:54
rediscover for us these values, these cultural values
11:57
that we badly need, especially today.
12:02
And if you want to summarize in one just single word,
12:04
well, this is what we're trying to do.
12:08
We're trying to give a future to our past
12:11
in order to have a future.
12:13
As long as we live a life of curiosity and passion,
12:15
there is a bit of Leonardo in all of us. Thank you. (Applause)
12:18
(Applause)
12:23
Translated by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Thu-Huong Ha

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About the Speaker:

Maurizio Seracini - Art diagnostician
Maurizio Seracini uses advanced tools common in engineering and medical labs to unravel centuries-old mysteries of art.

Why you should listen

It’s surprising to hear of a former engineer and medical student who has dedicated his career to the analysis of more than 2,500 works of art. But Maurizio Seracini is not your typical art connoisseur. He uses technologies from both of his worlds, such as multispectral imaging, sonogram and x-ray, to peer through the layers of paintings and reveal their secrets.

Most famous is Seracini’s more-than-30-year quest to find Leonardo Da Vinci’s missing painting The Battle of Anghiari. Seracini suspects the piece is behind another giant fresco painted by Giorgio Vasari in the Sala dei Cinquecento in Florence, Italy. To find it, Seracini must find a way to look beneath Vasari’s masterpiece while keeping it intact.