The contentious and apparently endless search for Leonardo’s lost masterpiece
Author Noah Charney Illustration Luci Gutiérrez
FLORENCE – Maurizio Seracini leans in to examine a detail of the fresco that covers the enormous Hall of 500 in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. The 67-year-old “art diagnostician,” clad in an immaculate lab coat, has been staring at the same spot for the better part of an hour.
The fresco—painted five centuries ago by Giorgio Vasari—has become an obsession for Seracini. Specifically, he is interested in a tiny inscription in a far corner of the hall: Cerca trova, “Seek and you shall find.” He discovered the inscription by chance in the mid-1970s and has been searching for its meaning ever since.
Seracini’s conclusions are both radical and hugely controversial. He believes that Vasari painted those words as a clue, and that his fresco is covering up a lost masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci. The problem is, how do you prove such an idea? Seracini’s critics, and there are many, claim that he intends to damage or even destroy Vasari’s work to get at the Leonardo—if, indeed, it is even there.
The controversy came to a head a few years ago, when researchers drilled holes in the fresco, which was likened to an act of vandalism. Seracini insists the drilling was done sensitively and suspects there is an effort underway to discredit him. “Why are they so antagonized that we are looking for this?” he says.
The government here has responded to the furor by putting Seracini’s project on hold. “After 40 years,” he says, “I’m still struggling to get an answer.” The toughest thing for Seracini is his belief that he is a heartbeat away from making the biggest discovery in art history. After all, he says, “historians have not produced a single document stating the work is not there.”