by Mail Guardian OnLine
20 September 2005
Amid the obsessive scholars and scheming prelates who inhabit Dan
Brownís global blockbuster The Da Vinci Code, there is a
Maurizio Seracini works in a high-ceilinged, colorfully
frescoed palazzo just across the river from the Uffizi gallery in
Florence, Italy. His premises are packed with machines that look as
if they belong in a hospital or laboratory.
Brown calls him an "art diagnostician", which is not a bad
description for someone who probes paintings with state-of-the-art
technology, often to advise museums, dealers and collectors on their
The Da Vinci Code revolves around the contention that
Leonardo da Vinciís paintings are full of symbolic allusions to
a secret claimed to have been preserved by successors of the defunct
medieval order of Knights Templar -- that Christ
married Mary Magdalene and had a family whose descendants are alive
today. What attracted Brown to Seracini was his epic
investigation into what lies below the surface of The Adoration
of the Magi, a work the art detective believes was sketched by
Da Vinci, but painted over by someone else.
As Brown related, infrared photography has revealed many
differences between the painting and the under-drawing. These, he
"to subvert Da Vinciís true
intention". He added: "Whatever the true nature of the
under-drawing, it has yet to be made public."
Now it can be. Seracini, who
could finish his four-year investigation this week, has given The
Guardian an exclusive preview of the results. He provided a
glimpse three years ago to The New York Times and since then,
he said, he has revealed his incomplete findings to only four
experts not directly involved.
Seracini has examined the painting minutely using a technique
that exploits the fact that infrared light passes through paint but
reflects off the under-drawing.
As the photographs show, he and his team have conjured from below
the amber-brown layer with which much of the panel is covered a
collection of Da Vinciís drawings that were hidden for
more than five centuries. They contain numerous previously invisible
-- or barely discernible -- details. Some will electrify
Playground for semiologists
The Adoration of the Magi could have been dreamed up as a
playground for semiologists. Even the visible work is packed with
figures, faces, beasts, buildings, foliage and an extraordinary
amount of activity, much of which bears no relation to the biblical
account of the three kingsí visit to the Virgin Mary and her newborn
There is a ruminating figure in the foreground surrounded by a sea
of faces. Behind Mary on one side, there is an oddly shaped,
incomplete structure that is sometimes taken for a ruined palace. On
the other side, horsemen can just be made out engaged in a struggle.
Missing from the scene are elements you would expect. There is no
stable, no manger, no oxen, not even a donkey.
Seraciniís investigation has been funded by the
Swiss-based Kalpa group, a non-profit organization that supports
scholars and their research. Three assistants have worked full-time
for almost a year in the final phase, enhancing and assembling 2 400
Whether covered up by Da Vinci or someone else, Seracini
said he has found "a whole new world" under the surface that no one
disputes was created by Da Vinci. There is ample documentary
evidence that he was commissioned to paint an Adoration of the Magi
and that he completed at least part of the work.
"You get a wonderful sense of
Leonardoís creative ferment," said Martin Kemp, an
art-history professor at Oxford University and one of the few
experts who has seen the partial results of Seraciniís work.
"The amount of brainstorming going on underneath the painting is
On the right, a finely depicted ox and
donkey emerge from 500-odd years of invisibility, along with part of
the roof of the missing stable. The misanthropic king scowling over
Maryís right shoulder is revealed as a figure of composure and
majesty. A host of masterfully sketched faces emerges in the lower
Perhaps the most important discovery for
critics and historians is that the two horsemen in the upper
right corner are just one small part of what was originally a
full-blown battle scene. The violence and horror are almost
palpable: men flinch as they parry blows with their raised arms;
they writhe under rearing horses. Visible through the struggle are
more battling men and horses at a distance.
One question raised by Seraciniís painstaking investigation
is why Da Vinci wanted to include such a bloody scene in a
nativity painting, and why he -- or someone else -- thought
better of it.
But another question, and the one that will fascinate the Dan Brown
fans, is what Da Vinci was up to on the other side of the
painting in the last area of the panel to be fully rendered by
The traditional interpretation is that the building is a ruin
symbolizing the decay of the old, pre-Christian order. Seraciniís
examination has confirmed the structure is not Christian.
Da Vinci did not turn to the Classical Roman architecture that
was all around him.
"This is a lotus capital," said
Seracini, pointing to the top of a column. "I was very
surprised when I saw this."
The capital, the upper portion of a
column, offers one of the main clues to the age and style of a
building. Capitals modelled on the lotus flower are
characteristic of ancient Egypt.
Parts of the building are ruined and neglected. Another recent
discovery, made just a few days ago, is that there is a tree growing
out of the stonework. Yet there are people -- apparently labourers
and craftsmen -- clambering all over it. Seracini believes
the building is a pagan temple, and that Leonardo originally
intended to show it being rebuilt.
This is unusual in a nativity scene, but it does not take a huge
leap of the imagination to see in it, as Da Vinci Code fans
no doubt will, an allusion to the bookís pivotal claim: that, after
the dissolution of the Knights Templar, the order was
surreptitiously reconstructed so its secret could be preserved.
Seracini, who claims never to have read Brownís book, is
reluctant to enter into such speculation.
But he is convinced that he has discovered the "true" adoration
and that what we have all been looking at for centuries is a
distortion created by a "very minor hand". Sitting beside him as he
summons details from the under-drawing on to a large computer
screen, it is not hard to see why.
Physical details that are exquisitely rendered in the original
design become deformed by the application of the top layer, which is
a mixture of pine resin, shellac, carbon and bitumen.
Seracini believes this upper layer was applied a half-century
or more after Da Vinci. But most art historians remain
Some have argued the work was never intended to be seen in its
current form; that the orange-brown mixture was intended merely as
under-paint. Just as controversial is the question of Da Vinciís
Seracini said Da Vinci created the under-drawing as an
under-painting because he used a brush and a mixture of lampblack
and watery glue.
"Otherwise it would just have
faded," he added.
Was he saying that Leonardo might
have suspected his work would not stay the way he intended it, and
may have deliberately preserved it that way?
"Iím not going to speculate on
that," Seracini replied briskly. "Thatís for art
historians to do. But I cannot rule it out." --