Work of Art

Art and science don’t usually mix, but — thanks to the revolutionary work of UCSD professor and alumnus Mauricio Seracini — art history and engineering may soon find some common ground. For 35 years, Seracini has used infrared technology and ultrasounds to develop a technique for finding the hidden histories of famous pieces of art — specifically, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Battle of Anghari,” which has been lost for over 500 years. The doctor has examined over 2000 paintings using his methods, though his biggest endeavor still eludes him. If all goes well, Seracini hopes to uncover the missing painting by the end of next year.

“You should have a way to be able to tell the story behind the painting,” Seracini said. “There is more than just looking at the surface. Technology should help find ways to interact and connect the viewer with the painting.”

Seracini acts as director for UCSD’s Center for Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), which was launched in 2007 at Warren College’s Atkinson Hall. When he’s not running the department, he searches for the aforementioned painting in the Hall of the 500, at Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy.

Seracini joined the search for the da Vinci mural in 1975. He began to suspect that the painting was located in Palazzo Vecchio after numerous clues pointed to the Italian room as the painting’s location: A small flag in the background of Battle Fresco that reads “seek and you shall find” in Latin, an air pocket in the wall where the painting could be and letters (among other literature) that referenced that spot as the painting’s location.  The wall in question is  part of a series of paintings that adorn the Hall of 500, and each wall depicts Florence’s history. Work has been tedious — the Hall of 500 is huge, and was once a gathering place for Florence’s 500-man city council assembly (hence the name).

Searching through destroyed and aging paintings is tricky work; conservation is a constant issue, and even touching a painting can cause damage to an old piece of art (skin oils have proven to be harmful). To search for the lost painting, Seracini used a multi-spectral scanner placed in front of Palazzo Vecchio’s wall, which uses different wavelengths to scan the mural’s contents. The wavelengths each use a different laser, which passes through the top layer of paint, but bounces off a certain under-layer, revealing the paint below the surface. Meanwhile, a separate head on the scanner runs a chemical analysis for the structure of colors used on the canvas, and can detect anything from the combination of colors used to where the paint was erased — all without ever physically touching the painting.

From there, Seracini explains, the data is filtered into a virtual container that holds “the clinical chart of a work of art,” creating a high-definition 3-D image, that determines approximately when the layers were painted (think carbon dating, but for paintings).

“It’s like slicing the painting in a way, using different wavelengths to make a 3-D model,” Seracini said.

Seracini happened upon his methods by chance -— out of curiousity, he took an ultrasound to a canvas to see what the machinery would detect in the painting. He was surprised to see that the ultrasound was capable of piercing through layers of paint.

This isn’t Seracini’s first project — back in 2005, The Guardian (UK) reported that Seracini had made an artistic breakthrough using a thermo-camera (which forms images using infrared radiation), the multi spectral scanner and modified military and medical technology.

These uncovered that da Vinci’s “The Adoration Of Magi” had a plethora of layers under it’s top-coat veneer — most of which had very little to do with the nativity scene, the main subject of the painting.

In one corner of the undercoat, there was a depiction of horsemen fighting, in the other, a ruined building. The usual staples of a manger and farm animals (the oxen and donkey) were, notably, absent in the lower layers.

“The amount of brainstorming going on underneath the painting is remarkable,” Seracini said in The Guardian (UK) interview.

Seracini describes paintings in a museum like patients in a hospital — each one needs to be tended to and cared for and, of course, examined closely. But his work has been slow to catch on. According to Seracini, most museums were uninterested in using scientists among their ranks to fix decaying paintings. Instead, they opted to use members from their own staff. Despite being 30 years in the making, Seracini’s methods are still criticized as unorthodox by art historians.

“The eye can be misled, a blue can be made with two colors and it may seem like one,” Seracini said.  “Just looking at the surface is not enough. You can’t trust your eyes; color is subjective.”

Though most museums haven’t been able to implement Seracini’s techniques due to a lack of funding, all the hard work is, paying off — two years ago, Seracini was featured on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and was honored as a National Geographic fellow.

Not that Seracini always had a burning passion to put masterpieces under a microscope. A native Italian, Seracini came to UCSD in 1973 to purse a bioengineering major with a minor in art.

It wasn’t until his return to Italy, after graduation, that Seracini’s interest in the “Battle of Anghari” began.

During his time there, he met a man in a bar who mentioned that he was in town to finish up some research on the lost da Vinci painting.

When Seracini explained that he was an engineering major, the man asked if he knew of any technology that could help them determine if the painting was still in Italy.

Though Seracini had no answers at the time, he left the bar inspired and went home to write a proposal for him.

Or as Seracini succinctly puts it, “It all began in bar.” The rest, as they say, is history.

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