Intel Aids Search for Lost DaVinci Masterpiece

In the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy, a feverish search occurs seemingly in slow motion. In order to make progress in the search, a team of researchers from the University of California/San Diego has been inventing a brand new field of work called art forensics. Armed with innovative new portable sensing devices and Intel technology, they are searching for a lost masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci called The Battle of Anghiari. This impressive painting, considered by some to be da Vinci's greatest artistic accomplishment, was lost more than 450 years ago.

Lost: The Masterpiece of the Renaissance

The great mural was painted by da Vinci in 1505 to commemorate a battle in 1440. His artistic rival, Michaelangelo, was commissioned to paint a mural on the opposite side of the hall. (Imagine these two artists in the same room, not just two of their masterpieces in the same room!). Michaelangelo did not finish his project.  He had sketched his painting out, but had just begun the painting when he was invited back to Rome to build the tomb of Pope Julius II. A rival artist, Bartolommeo Bandinelli, destroyed Michaelangelo's sketch in a fit of jealousy in 1512.

The Battle of Anghiari

Da Vinci did not finish his painting either, but he got much further than Michaelangelo. His painting depicted the power, fury, and intense emotions of four horsemen engaged in battle. Always experimenting with new techniques, da Vinci tried to apply oil colors to the wall. The result was less than satisfactory. The paint dripped and only the lower part of the painting could be dried quickly enough to achieve the desired result. Da Vinci subsequently abandoned the project. 

Nevertheless, da Vinci's painting was considered the masterpiece of the Renaissance. Numerous copies of The Battle of Anghiari were made over the course of the next 50 years and others praised the work in commentaries and diaries. Many sketches by da Vinci ("cartoons") that served as studies for the mural still exist. An engraving made in 1553 by Lorenzo Zacchia was used in 1603 by Peter Paul Rubens as the basis for a copy of the central section of the mural. Rubens' second-hand copy  of da Vinci's painting is in the Louvre. 

Eventually, the hall was enlarged and remodeled by Giorgio Vasari and Vasari painted six new murals over the east and west walls of the hall. It is assumed that the famous, unfinished works of da Vinci and Michaelangelo were lost during this process, as they were not seen again.

Seek and Ye Shall Find

Some people, included UCSD's Maurizio Seracini, believe that the da Vinci masterpiece might still exist. Vasari, who painted the murals that now adorn the hall, had high praise for the da Vinci fresco, so Seracini thinks it is unlikely that Vasari destroyed the mural during the hall's renovation. A clue to this effect is in the Vasari mural, 12 meters above the ground. The only text on the entire painting is on a green flag held by a Florentine soldier. The text says "Cerca trova"-"He who seeks, finds."

Seracini has taken this advice to heart. An initial non-destructive 3D survey of the hall used surface penetrating radar and thermographic cameras to create a three-dimensional model of the space. This process led to the discovery of a wall built by Vasari in front of the east wall where The Battle of Anghiari was located. A gap of a couple of centimeters was discovered between the two walls, supporting the theory that the lost masterpiece is still intact and located behind Vasari's mural.

Of course, Vasari's mural is a more-than-400 year-old masterpiece too, so there is understandable reticence by the involved government and cultural agencies to do anything that would cause irreversible damage. This is where the UCSD researchers and Intel technology come into play.

21st Century Technology Aids Search

As part of its Visual Computing Academic Program, Intel's University Program Office supplied 50 quad-core Intel Core i7 Extreme 3.33 GHz processors to Falko Kuester of UCSD. The parallel processing performance of these powerful processors has allowed UCSD to tackle a series of unique and transformative visual computing projects. Kuester's team is currently using these CPUs to "Create (Compute) a Future for the Past" as part of its cultural heritage diagnostics research and its field sites in Italy and Jordan. Multiple nodes loaded with Intel CPUs are on-site in Palazzo Vecchio driving UCSD's visual analytics/visual computing environment. Small holes drilled through the Vasari mural to the back wall have revealed fragments of pigment on the far wall that might be part of the da Vinci mural. The UCSD team is therefore developing new non-invasive sensing and analysis techniques to try to "peer through" the front wall and visualize the surface of the back wall.

The UCSD cultural heritage diagnostics research team
Maurizio Seracini, Falko Kuester, and the other members of the UCSD cultural heritage diagnostics research team on site in Florence, Italy
The National Geographic Society is also sponsoring the search and is documenting the entire process. Our UCSD colleagues indicate that National Geographic will air a documentary on the project on January 15 (but I don't yet see this program on the guide for the National Geographic channel).

The search for a lost da Vinci is a riddle wrapped in an enigma shrouded in mystery. Intel technology is at the heart of the search. And the results will of the search will soon be revealed in a National Geographic TV special.

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