Art TEDTalks

That unicorn is really a lap dog: The secret details in 4 classic paintings revealed

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

How, exactly, does a Leonardo da Vinci mural believed to be three times the width of The Last Supper get lost? This is a mystery that Maurizio Seracini has been trying to solve since 1975.

After graduating with a degree in engineering from the University of California San Diego, Seracini was approached about a project in his hometown of Florence. The mission: to search for da Vinci’s unfinished fresco, The Battle of Anghiari. While several artists of da Vinci’s time refer to the work — and a letter from 1549 places it atop a grand staircase in the Palazzo Vecchio — the piece has been lost to modern audiences. It is believed that when Giorgio Vasari renovated the Palazzo Vecchio’s Hall of 500 in 1560, he might have covered da Vinci’s fresco with his own, The Battle of Marciano. While Vasari is known to have preserved the works underneath his own by leaving a gap in the wall, it is nearly impossible to prove without damaging Vasari’s fresco, now more than four centuries old itself.

In this fascinating talk from TEDGlobal, Seracini explains how he and his teams have approached finding da Vinci’s lost mural over the years — by constructing 3D models of the hall before its renovation, and using lasers and radar to chart the gaps in the walls. But beyond that, Seracini shares how the search for the mural opened up a new application of his engineering skills — using tools like multispectral imaging, sonogram and x-ray to study and restore art.

As Seracini shares in this talk, many famous pieces of art have secrets laying just below their visible layers — unseen sketches, details changed over time, proof that artists other than those credited were actually the ones who put paint to canvas.

“Technology has helped to write news pages of art history — or at least update them,” says Seracini, who hopes museumgoers will someday get to see these hidden layers through an augmented reality app. “This is what we’re trying to do — we’re trying to give a future to our past.”

To hear more about Seracini’s quest for The Battle of Anghiari, and about the other art mysteries he’s unraveled along the way, listen to his incredible talk. Below, check out some details you’d never know were behind these classic paintings.

As Seracini notes in his talk, much has been written about the symbolism of the tiny unicorn in Raphael’s Lady with the Unicorn. However, x-rays of the painting show that the unicorn was originally a dog. In fact, Raphael likely painted the woman without anything in her hands at all — the dog and unicorn were likely added by other artists. []

Underneath the varnish of Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi lay a slew of sketches that haven’t been seen for 500 years. Da Vinci sketched out a large number of faces that were left unpainted, as well as a group of horses. He even sketched out a tiny elephant. While da Vinci appears to have drawn all these sketches, it is possible that someone else painted the final work. []

Boticelli’s Allegory of Spring shows a classical composition of mythological figures in a garden. But deeper analysis shows that many of the figures — including the three Graces dancing in the circle in the foreground — were shifted from how the artist originally sketched the work. []

Leonardo da Vinci’s The Annunciation shows Archangel Gabriel appearing before the Virgin Mary. But apparently, the piece was a joint effort between Leonardo and his mentor, Andrea del Verrocchio. While Leonardo painted Gabriel and the background, Verocchio is believed to have painted the rest of the work. The difference between the two artists is clear under an x-ray, as Verocchio used lead-based paint while da Vinci did not. []


Check out these articles in UCSD Magazine, The New York Times and National Geographic, which give more information about Seracini’s quest for The Battle of Anghiari. And head to the website for Seracini’s Center for Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3) to find out more about what he is working on now.

Comments (9)

  • Pingback: Hidden Treasures | SDWAC

  • commented on Oct 24 2012

    This is just awesome! Almost sci-fi

  • Pingback: That unicorn is really a lap dog: The secret details in 4 classic paintings revealed | The Digital Humanities Centre

  • commented on Oct 14 2012

    Reblogged this on Mark Geoffrey Kirshner.

  • Pingback: Art Links – 13 October 2012 « Forsyth Center Galleries

  • commented on Oct 13 2012

    Reblogged this on Art History Ramblings.

  • Edward Denison commented on Oct 12 2012

    All fantastic stuff, but that implementation of the tablet app is terrible. If, instead, you held it up to the painting and it shows you on the screen what’s underneath, like some sort of handheld instantaneous x-ray, then you’d have something useful (you don’t need to see the painting on the app because the painting is right in front of you). Otherwise you remove the whole point of putting it on a portable device and you’re needlessly playing up to the touch screen gimmick.

    • David Vanoni commented on Oct 13 2012

      Hi Edward,

      I am one of the graduate students working with Seracini at UC San Diego and am responsible for the development of the app. I appreciate your interest in Seracini’s work and your feedback on the app itself. I wanted to let you know that the app does in fact allow the user to do exactly what you described. Once a painting is recognized by the app, the user can select from any of the available multispectral layers to overlay onto the live camera view of the painting in real time. As such, all of the available data can be viewed without having to use the touch screen interaction as Seracini demonstrated. However, the touch interaction enables the user to investigate specific areas of the data while maintaining the context of the surrounding area.

      Please let me know if you have any additional comments or questions.

      David Vanoni

      • Edward Denison commented on Oct 14 2012

        Good to know that people are actually putting some thought into the UX. Not being an art historian and not having used the app I couldn’t really comment further though I would’ve thought that pinching to draw a box or drawing an outline of the area you want uncovered would normally be a more effective way of seeing what’s underneath (and perhaps not mutually exclusive to the rubbing method)