Leonardo da Vinci is not known for his drawings of elephants. But when art diagnostician Maurizio Seracini examined the artist’s “Adoration of the Magi” with an infrared camera, that’s precisely what he found: a sketch of a solitary animal lurking under layers of paint.
Uncovering such buried treasures is part of Seracini’s job: he has also used X-rays to discover that Raphael’s “Portrait of Young Woman with Unicorn” was originally “Young Woman with Puppy”. And this year he made headlines for work supporting his claim that Da Vinci’s lost masterpiece “The Battle of Anghiari” is hidden behind a wall of Vasari murals in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio.
Seracini, an engineer by training, views every artwork’s past, present and future through the prism of science. Within minutes of our meeting, he starts telling me why Michelangelo’s “David” needs shock absorbers installed immediately. “The centre of gravity has shifted by quite a few centimetres,” he says. “He is a patient at risk in the case of an earthquake.”
Yet while the fast-talking, energetic 65-year-old academic may court controversy, he is also the evangelist for a new movement of cultural heritage engineers.
Italian by birth, Seracini first found himself caught between the arts and the sciences while studying at the University of California, San Diego – now his professional home – in the 1970s. Despite majoring in bioengineering, he would commute over to UCLA a couple of times a week to take Renaissance art history classes. “That is where I met my professor, and then, really, my destiny,” he says. That professor was Da Vinci scholar Carlo Pedretti, who suggested that Seracini apply his technological skills to the hunt for the lost mural.
Today, Seracini has studied more than 2,500 historic buildings and works of art, drawing on his engineering knowledge to offer a new perspective or advice on conservation. He is founding director of CISA-3 at UCSD, a centre that develops tools specifically for art and archaeological analysis. From hunting for the lost tomb of Genghis Khan in Mongolia to fieldwork in Jordan, CISA-3 teams are active worldwide. “[There is] a great need for this figure who is not yet there,” says Seracini. “We are way, way behind in generating objective data and therefore generating true knowledge.” He tells students it’s up to them “to prove how essential, how important, how meaningful their work should be”.
The toolkit of these cultural engineers has a make-do-and-mend feel, with much of it adapted from more standard scientific hardware in the Californian laboratory. “We have to modify or recycle existing technology,” says Seracini, who works with multi-spectral imaging, radar and endoscopy.
In Florence, Seracini and his team guided fibre-optic probes through holes in the Vasari mural to take samples of the paint underneath. “It sounds straightforward … but I can assure you it’s no joke,” he says of trying to thread equipment through a 6mm hole.
Despite Seracini’s establishment credentials, his methods have often been opposed by art historians as intrusive, or as deluded quests based on little more than hunches. The fact that Dan Brown mentioned him in his blockbuster book The Da Vinci Code may not have helped. “They see me as an outsider,” he says. “They do not feel comfortable to have science moving in because, basically, they could not control it.”
His work in Florence has stalled – after discovering paint traces that matched other samples used by Da Vinci, Seracini has not been allowed to move forward with further tests. His big concern is that the authorities will take down the scaffolding before his team can finish.
After 37 years of work in his field, Seracini remains frustrated: “I’ve just touched the very, very, very tip of the iceberg of how much needs to be done,” he says. He is not finished with his homeland and there are plans to establish a CISA-3 branch in Florence next year. The ultimate aim is to train art students in the sciences and science students in the arts: creating a new generation of art historians who have traditional and modern techniques at their fingertips.
But Seracini doesn’t plan to let the general public off either: he is particularly excited about developing an augmented reality app that can show children what lies behind a masterpiece – both literally and historically – by allowing them to wipe off the painting and go back in history. They could recreate the wonder that he felt when he saw the lost sketches of Da Vinci rising from the “Adoration of the Magi”. “I was so lucky,” he says. “I’d like to show it to everybody.”
Alice Fishburn is deputy editor of FT Weekend Magazine