Restoring art to give a future to the past: Maurizio Seracini at TEDGlobal 2012

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Maurizio Seracini

In 1975, Maurizio Seracini met an art professor who asked him if he could help find a lost masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci — the mural Battle of Anghiari, missing for five centuries. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of oportunity for a bioengineer in art, but he decided to take on the project. He began looking in the Hall of 500 in Florence, Italy, where legend had it the image was hidden under a mural by Giorgio Vasari. But the research quickly ground to a halt.

It wasn’t until the year 2000 that he took up the quest again. This time, he and his team decided to use 3D laser scanning to build a model of how the Hall of 500 looked five centuries ago. They found hidden windows, and reconstructed the entire layout of the hall as it had been.

Now, they knew that that around the same time, many a masterpiece had been saved from over-eager remodelers by simply a brick wall in front of it and leaving a small air gap. Maybe the same had been done with the lost da Vinci. So they used radar scanning to probe the walls and search for an air vent. In the east wall, they found an air gap. They were close to the Battle of Anghari, but in 2004 the work again was halted, this time for political reasons. Cue a very Italian shake of the head.

So Seracini went back to his alma mater, the University of California at San Diego, and proposed a research center for cultural heritage — one that would combine art appreciation and science. In 2007 they created CISA3, the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art. “Students started to flow in, and we started to build technologies and do field work.”

With the help of community sponsors and the mayor of Florence they returned again to the Hall of 500 in 2011. By that time, says Seracini, “We knew where to look, but we wanted to see if there was something left.” So they sent a 4mm camera behind the wall, which was, he deadpans, “not very easy.” They found some tantalizing fragments of reddish, black, and beige.

“if we go on as we hope, we are in something very important. searching for the most highly praised work of art of mankind,” says Seracini. “Because this was by far the most important commission Leonardo ever had.”

Maurizio Seracini

Even though that work isn’t finished yet, Seracini has been privileged to work on several other masterpieces. For Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair, he was able to see retouching with ultraviolet light. More excitingly, by looking at his Lady with the Unicorn under an x-ray, he and his team saw that the unicorn “becomes a puppy dog.” And indeed, an image shows that underpainted beneath the unicorn is a winsome little pup with a spot over one eye. This research was stunning, because it indicated that Raphael did not actually paint the mysterious, oddly symbolic unicorn. Further research indicated that, in fact, he did not paint the puppy dog either. So “all this writing about the significance of the unicorn to Raphael is not really reliable.”

“The masterpiece that really caught my imagination,” he says, was Da Vinci’s The Adoration of the Magi. By looking at it with an IR camera, they could see through a brown layer that had apparently been added later, not by da Vinci. What they saw was extraordinary. It revealed “wonderful images of faces no one has seen for five centuries.” In another part of image, they found another surprise: an elephant!

On seeing those images revealed, Seracini realized that the painting was not just an image but “a story in time and space and much more elaborate than we see today.”

This sparked a wonderful new idea: an augmented reality application. In an onstage demo, Seracini aimed a tablet at a painting set up on stage. The tablet captured the image, then downloaded data from the internet. He wiped off the overpainted image with a finger, and shows us what’s beneath.

“This changes not just the iconography,” says Seracini, “but the meaning of the painting. This is an easy way for people to become more of a protagonist for their own discovery, and not just be passive as we move through museums.” This, he says, should be the first step to doing real conservation.

He closes with the vision of CISA3. “To rediscover the spirit of the Rennaisance, creating a new discipline: Engineering for Cultural Heritage.” This is important, “To give a future to our past in order to have a future.”

Photos: James Duncan Davidson