Could a 21st-century scientist at Chicago’s famed Argonne National Laboratory help find a missing masterpiece painted by Leonardo da Vinci more than 500 years ago?
Dr. Robert Smither thinks he can.
The painting, da Vinci’s "Battle of Anghiari," was started in 1505. It would have been Leonardo’s largest work, if it was ever completed.
But da Vinci abandoned the giant work in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio when duty called at the Vatican and it was never completed. The painting remained on the wall, unfinished, for another 60 years, until Italian master Giorgio Vasari was commissioned to redecorate the space.
It is believed he erected a giant wall in front of Leonardo’s incomplete painting, applying his own enormous frescoes which exist to this day.
But is Leonardo’s missing treasure still there?
"They never quite mentioned where it was," Smither laughed. "So part of the mystery, is finding it."
Working with the National Geographic Society, Smither said he believes he can beam neutrons through Vasari’s frescoes to the second wall behind. If there is paint on that wall, the particle beams would excite the atoms in that paint, sending gamma rays back through the wall.
Every color of paint, says Smither, contains its own distinctive metals, and their isotopes would be easily identified.
"If you see a 158.573 kilovolt gamma ray, you’ve got red paint," he says. And if that comes back, it means there is another painting on the hidden wall.
Leonardo’s missing masterpiece.
"For the art world, this would be the sensation of the century," said Smither.
As with all science, funding is key. The endeavor will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars which is still being raised. But Smither, a 55-year veteran of Argonne, said he hopes the work can begin sometime next year.