Italy tracks down copy of Da Vinci's lost masterpiece

The Doria panel
Image caption The copy is widely known as the Doria panel

Italy's specialist art theft police have tracked down and brought home a 400-year-old copy of a lost Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece - an incomplete fresco painting of the Battle of Anghiari.

It once decorated a wall of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, the Tuscan city's monumental town hall.

The copy is temporarily on show until the New Year at the Quirinal Palace in Rome, the official residence of the president of Italy.

The painting shows a group of men-at-arms and knights on horseback engaged in close combat, fighting for possession of a flag.

The historic battle between Florence and its allies against a numerically superior force from Milan took place in 1440, and the Florentines won.

'Flawed work'

Art historians believe that Leonardo, experimenting with various fresco painting techniques, started painting the battle scene in 1503, using sketches he had been preparing for years.

But he never completed the project. The paint began to drip after he applied colour to the walls.

Trying to save what he could, he applied large charcoal braziers close to the painting. But the colours intermingled and only part of the fresco was completed.

Within a few years, after the fresco had deteriorated, the Hall of the Five Hundred was restructured and Giorgio Vasari was commissioned by the local ruler to paint a different battle scene to replace Leonardo's flawed work.

Vasari, later a biographer of Leonardo, actually saw the cartoon, or preliminary drawing on paper of the battle scene, which he described in glowing terms.

Image caption Peter Paul Rubens' version of the Battle of Anghiari

"It would be impossible to express the inventiveness of Leonardo's design for the soldiers' uniforms, or the crests of the helmets, not to mention the incredible skill he demonstrated in the shape and features of the horses, which Leonardo, better than any other master, created with their boldness, muscles and graceful beauty," he wrote.


So we only have copies to enable us to imagine Leonardo's original design.

Peter Paul Rubens, using an engraving done 50 years after Leonardo started his project, did a masterly drawing of the Battle of Anghiari which is now in the Louvre in Paris.

"The idea that an ancient copy of a lost artwork can be as important as the original is familiar to scholars," says Salvatore Settis, archaeologist and art historian.

"Most important original Greek bronze statues were lost when they were melted down and are known today only through marble copies done by admiring Romans centuries later," he told a packed lecture at which details of the copy of Leonardo's masterpiece were revealed to the public.

The painting - on a small wooden panel measuring 115x86cm (45x34in) - was last seen in public 73 years ago on the eve of World War II, when it was shown at a Leonardo exhibition in Milan.

Then it disappeared.

But the Italian carabinieri police department which specialises in art theft patiently managed to track the clandestine life of the painting - known as the Doria panel from the name of the family in whose art collection it had remained for three centuries.

After being stolen from its owners in Naples, the panel passed into the possession of a Swiss art dealer, was sent to Germany for restoration in the 1960s , then turned up briefly at a New York art gallery in the 1970s before ending up in the collection of a wealthy Japanese art collector in the 1990s.

The painting will be shown at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence during 2013 and will then go on loan for four years back to Japan - under an agreement worked out with the Fuji Art Museum in Tokyo, where it was last exhibited.

Meanwhile, at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, work has been suspended on a project by an Italian engineer Maurizio Seracini who has been trying to prove scientifically by taking microscopic samples of pigment from the wall that Leonardo's lost painting may still be hidden under Giorgio Vasari's later battle scene.

Earlier this year, the mayor of Florence ordered a stop to all invasive technology inside the Hall of the Five Hundred.

So for the moment, the battle between scientists analysing layers of pigment and ancient walls with space age technology, and scholars who insist that they have documentary evidence that Leonardo's original Battle of Anghiari no longer exists has ended in a truce.

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