Long-lost Da Vinci found - sleuths
Florence - Art sleuths said on Monday they believe they have found traces of a Leonardo Da Vinci masterpiece on a hidden wall in a palace in Florence that has not been seen in over four centuries.
The traces were collected using tiny probes introduced into a wall covering the original surface in a lavish hall in the Palazzo Vecchio and contained a black pigment also used in the Mona Lisa, historians and officials said.
The research is the result of a decades-long quest by San Diego University art history professor Maurizio Seracini, who was featured in Dan Brown's bestseller The Da Vinci Code, and used cutting-edge technology in the project.
"The composition of manganese and iron found in the black pigment has been identified exclusively on Leonardo's paintings," Seracini, whose methods have also drawn controversy from the art world, told reporters in the Italian city.
Seracini pointed out that Leonardo had painted the Mona Lisa at around the same time as the long-lost fresco, The Battle of Anghiari, but said the research was "not conclusive" and would have to be continued.
"Although we are still in the preliminary stages of the research and there is still a lot of work to be done to solve this mystery, the evidence does suggest that we are searching in the right place," Seracini said.
The probes also discovered red lacquer and brown pigment on the hidden wall and an air gap between the old wall and the new wall built in front of it.
Da Vinci (1452-1519) began his painting of the battle in 1440 between Milanese and Florentine forces in a hall in Florence's traditional seat of government in 1505 but never finished it because the colours began to run.
The fresco was nevertheless praised by Da Vinci's contemporaries for what art historian and fellow painter Giorgio Vasari called its "graceful beauty" and Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens drew a famous copy of it.
The Rubens sketch shows a bloody scene of horsemen battling with swords drawn and trampling over infantry men - their faces contorted with rage and their muscled horses entwined with eyes bulging out with fear.
Some historians believe Vasari built a wall in front of the fresco so as to preserve Da Vinci's efforts out of respect for the renowned master and then painted his own work, The Battle of Marciano, on the new wall in 1563.
"The data from chemical analysis, while not conclusive, suggest the possibility that the da Vinci painting, long assumed to have been destroyed in the mid-16th century... might exist behind the Vasari," organisers said.
Seracini said Vasari himself left a tantalising clue on his painting about the hidden Leonardo with an inscription on a flag held up by one of the soldiers in the battle that reads "Cerca Trova" ["Seek and You Shall Find"].
The research has been partly funded by National Geographic and the US organisation's executive vice president Terry Garcia told reporters at a press conference: "I am convinced that it is there."
Florence mayor Matteo Renzi said: "This is very exciting, very emotional and very important for the future of our city.
"This is not a crusade by some crazy guy in love with some mystery but a crucial issue for cultural policy in our country," he said.
Renzi said he had also asked the Italian government for permission to carry out further probes through the Vasari painting in over a dozen areas where the original no longer exists and had been touched up in subsequent centuries.
"We have to work out how much is left of the painting. We are proposing to the ministry to remove the areas where there has been restoration," he said.
The research in Florence has been controversial however and has been even investigated by art police because the researchers had to bore six small holes into Vasari's work out of the 14 they had requested to reach the hidden wall.
The technology used in the project was developed by a senior US nuclear physicist, Robert Smither, who came up with a special camera to generate high-resolution images of a cancer's location in the human body.
Da Vinci was a Renaissance polymath and the author of what has become the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa. But very few of his works survive and there are frequent attempts to find traces of his documented work.
International art world scholars last year signed a petition complaining that the search was nothing more than a "Dan-Brown style" publicity stunt which risked damaging Vasari's fresco.