While the Battle of Anghiari was one of the most talked about and frequently represented battles of its era, it was also one of the strangest. Yet Leonardo da Vinci's famed depiction of the battle has itself been wrapped in mystery for centuries.
In 1440 on the plain below Anghiari, a striking hill town 30 km from Arezzo, over 8,500 troops (the Milanese mercenaries vs. the Italian League led by the Republic of Florence) met to battle over domination of central Italy. As Niccolò Machiavelli relates, four hours of skirmishes later only a single death had occurred and that man reportedly fell off his horse - one must wonder if foot soldiers were tallied. Seems mercenaries would happily rattle armor for pay, but had no motive to seriously put themselves in danger for victory.
Florence was eventually declared the victor and Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned to paint a huge depiction of the battle to hang in Palazzo Vecchio's 'Hall of the Five Hundred'. Despite the experimental techniques which eventually caused him to abandon the project, Leonardo did create a painting that was considered a marvel for its anatomical mastery of the human and animal form; it was copied by many artists of the day, including Peter Paul Rubens whose copy at now hangs in the Louvre. Yet for those who come looking, the original seems to have been ‘lost’.
What happened to it? Fifty years after Leonardo left Florence the walls of the large hall were covered by frescoes depicting the Battle of Marciano by architect and painter Giorgio Vasari. One might assume that was the end of Leonardo's masterpiece - yet art historians and restorationists do not give up that easily. In the late 1960s art historian Carlo Pedretti called attention to the fact that Vasari had previously protected original works when hired to replace them. His assistant Maurizio Seracini felt the solitary 'Cerca trova' (seek and you shall find) inscription was a telling message from Vasari. Yet with Vasari's painting itself a Renaissance treasure, many were hesitant to destroy one work in hopes of finding another and by the late 1970, the search stalled.
Fast forward to recent decades, when new technologies such as thermal imaging, laser scanning and endoscopic surgeries have provided new detection instruments and when institutions such as the National Geographic Society have been willing to underwrite costly investigation. By 2011 it had been discovered that indeed a half-inch air gap exists between a newer and an older wall.
Florence authorities allowed seven tiny holes to be made in areas where the painting was being repaired, and while one of them did retrieve pigments which Leonardo is known to have used in his paintings of the Mona Lisa and St. John the Baptist, further investigation is considered too invasive or controversial to proceed. Aided by future technology, the public may one day have answers; for now Leonardo's famous battle scene is blanketed by another.