Does Leonardo da Vinci’s Missing Masterpiece Actually Exist?

New research suggests the artist completed preparatory work for “The Battle of Anghiari” but failed to finish the painting

Ruben's Sketch of <em>The Battle of Anghiari</em>
Peter Paul Rubens' sketch of The Battle of Anghiari, c. 1603 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Art historians have long debated the fate of the lost Leonardo da Vinci painting The Battle of Anghiari. Popular lore suggests the early 16th-century work is hidden behind a wall in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, but as the Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata (ANSA) reports, a group of prominent scholars recently cast doubt on this theory, arguing at an October 8 roundtable that the Renaissance artist never actually completed his creation.

Commissioned to adorn Florence’s seat of government around 1503, The Battle of Anghiari—known today through Leonardo’s cartoons, or preparatory drawings, as well as later copies by such artists as Peter Paul Rubens and Gérard Edelinck—depicts an epic 1440 clash between Florence and Milan. It uses complex compositional techniques and emotionally charged depictions of frenzied soldiers and horses to tell a compelling story about war.

Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini called Leonardo’s commission a “ground-breaking masterpiece” and suggested that other artists should study it, according to ANSA. Giorgio Vasari, a Renaissance artist widely considered to be the first art historian, similarly praised the painting; tasked with redesigning the Palazzo Vecchio’s main hall in the early 1560s, Vasari reportedly saved Leonardo’s battle scene from destruction by hiding it behind a fresco of his own—or so the theory goes.

The newly detailed argument centers on an inconsistency in Leonardo’s creative process. Per ARTnews’ Alex Greenberger, the artist hoped to prepare a wall in the government building for the painting by layering gesso and oil on it. But this combination would have made it impossible for paint to stick to the wall’s surface.

“Since the process to prepare the wall was not successful, Leonardo never painted on it,” art historian Francesca Fiorani, author of The Shadow Drawing: How Science Taught Leonardo to Paint, tells ARTnews. “This means that Leonardo’s battle existed only as a cartoon, never as paint on a wall.”

Records dated to between 1503 and 1506 also support the historians’ findings. As Nick Squires reports for the Telegraph, the documents show that Leonardo purchased large quantities of gypsum and other supplies needed for preparatory work—but no paint.

Sketch of Riders on Horseback
A preliminary sketch that Leonardo may have made for the painting Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Some art historians remain unconvinced by the new research. Chief among them is Maurizio Seracini, who has studied The Battle of Anghiari since 1975 and is a leading proponent of the theory that Vasari secretly preserved the work. In 2011, Seracini and his colleagues received permission to drill six small holes into Vasari’s fresco and retrieve paint samples from a two-inch gap behind the later work.

“No other gaps exist behind the other five massive Vasari frescoes in the high-ceilinged hall,” the team told the Guardian’s Tom Kington in March 2012.

Seracini posited that the existing mural could be covering the lost Leonardo fresco—an argument seemingly supported by similarities between the black pigment recovered and pigments used to render the Mona Lisa and St. John the Baptist.

“Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa in Florence at the same time,” said Seracini. “It appears to be a pigment used by [him] and not by other artists.”

Fiorani, however, refutes Seracini’s assertion, noting that the black pigment was widely used by Leonardo’s contemporaries and cannot be definitively linked to The Battle of Anghiari, per ARTnews.

A number of art historians and conservators openly objected to Seracini’s original search. As Elisabetta Povoledo reported for the New York Times in September 2012, the decision to drill holes into Vasari’s fresco proved particularly controversial. Local authorities later suspended the project after Seracini requested to drill additional holes into the painting.

If historians ever successfully locate one of Leonardo’s lost works, the find will likely have a significant impact on art history. Just 24 paintings are indisputably attributed to the Old Master; in 2017, a rediscovered da Vinci titled Salvator Mundi sold at auction for $450 million despite doubts regarding its authenticity.

Until scholars find definitive evidence of The Battle of Anghiari’s existence (or lack thereof), Seracini says he will continue to search for the lost painting.

“What’s wrong with looking for an incredible masterpiece, and why can’t we use science to get a final answer?” he asks ARTnews. “Why not continue using non-invasive science until we have final proof?”

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