This Week @ UCSD
divider
divider
divider
divider
divider
divider
divider
divider
divider
Top Stories Print this story Print Forward to a Friend Forward

Da Vinci Detective

By Maureen Curran | May 22, 2006

Da Vinci Detective
UCSD alumnus Maurizio Seracini unveiled hidden drawings in Leonardo Da Vinci's "Adoration of the Magi" during a talk Wednesday at Calit2.

On Friday, “The Da Vinci Code” opened simultaneously in theaters around the world, taking in more than $224 million at the international box office in just three days -- the second-highest opening gross in movie history. The adaptation of Dan Brown’s bestseller has revived interest in the work of UCSD bioengineering alumnus Maurizio Seracini, ’73, an art ‘diagnostician’ who uses modern imaging technologies to uncover the hidden history of major works of art, including several Leonardo masterpieces.

Seracini -- one of the only real, living people mentioned in the Dan Brown book – was in San Diego last week and gave a talk about this work Wednesday at UCSD. He told an audience of more than 200 at Atkinson Hall that his own work should not be confused with the artist’s.

“’The Da Vinci Code’ is a work of fiction,” Seracini pointed out.  “By contrast, I am interested in facts -- using scientific techniques to discover objective knowledge about a work of art and, in the process, uncovering a hidden treasure beyond imagination.”

One of the hidden treasures in question went unseen for 500 years until the Uffizi Gallery in Florence invited Seracini to analyze Da Vinci’s largest painting (excluding murals such as “The Last Supper”). He scanned the “Adoration of the Magi” with a variety of non-invasive, non-destructive imaging technologies to determine its history, including the techniques and materials used and its state of conservation. 

Da Vinci Detective
The Adoration of the Magi, by Leonardo Da Vinci.

What he discovered after running the scans set the art world abuzz. According to Seracini, much of the brown pigment brushed onto the painting was put there by someone else many years after Leonardo worked on the painting, in many cases obscuring the artist’s intent. To the naked eye, the work that hangs in the Uffizi Gallery appears less impressive than Da Vinci’s original drawings, which remain relatively unscathed beneath the pigment.

Those under-drawings are invisible to the naked eye, but can be rendered stunningly in infrared light. To reveal them, Seracini used an earth observation software program, which Calit2 researcher John Graham adapted for his data. Wednesday, Seracini took his UCSD audience on a tour of the painting, first as it looks in visible light, then dipping beneath the surface of the painting to the original drawings as seen in infrared light. They include multiple revisions of the best position for many of the painting’s nearly 70 figures. The revisions also highlight Da Vinci’s desire to portray motion – one of the first Renaissance artists to do so.

"So we see Leonardo at work for the first time," noted Seracini. "This is a very big revelation."

Hopping from one part of the painting to another and shifting from the surface to what’s underneath, Seracini pointed out some of the details that were lost when paint was added to Da Vinci’s work. An elephant in the distance, completely covered over by brown paint, shows that Leonardo was drawing in three dimensions. (It is also the only elephant ever painted by Da Vinci.) What looks on the surface like two horses rearing up turns out to be part of a powerful battle scene involving death and destruction – this, in a painting about the birth of Jesus. The paint and decay also obscure the true meaning of a pagan temple in the background: on the surface it appears as ruins, but the original drawing clearly shows the temple being rebuilt.

One of the most spectacular scenes is a masterful set of figures, a layout of faces, each portrait a work of art on its own. Seracini presented this image for the first time in the world to a packed audience at UCSD last February. The rapt crowd burst into applause when it was unveiled.

Da Vinci Detective
A detail of the Adoration of the Magi. The top picture shows how the painting looks to the naked eye. The bottom picture shows hidden drawings that Seracini uncovered using a wide range of technical tools.

This time Seracini was at UCSD at the invitation of Calit2 to discuss how the institute could collaborate with him on the development of new imaging technologies for art and structural analysis. "When we learned of Maurizio's work, many of us began to sense that he and Calit2 were made for each other,” said Ramesh Rao, director of the institute’s division at UCSD. “His techniques make him look like an engineer and a data analyst to many, but the object of his inquiry is art and architecture, which is an unusual combination."

The much-anticipated opening of “The Da Vinci Code” in theaters has kept Seracini busy. His work on the “Adoration” is part of a major new exhibition at Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, “The Mind of Leonardo,” which opened on March 28 to critical acclaim. One day after the movie came out, Britain’s Channel 4 premiered “The Da Vinci Detective,” a two-hour documentary about Seracini. The program calls him “a 21st century Renaissance man” who has “made his name by ingeniously adapting the latest medical and military technology to reveal the secrets of great artistic masterpieces.” For the documentary, a camera crew trailed the UCSD alum around the world for 18 months for what the TV network calls “the real Leonardo thriller.”

At a press conference following Seracini’s seminar last week at Calit2, crews from several San Diego TV stations were on hand to chronicle what the UCSD alum has learned about Leonardo and his art. He said he was impressed with the visualization technologies that Calit2 harnessed to help him show off his work to the UCSD audience. Speaking about the high-definition fly-through of the painting, Seracini pointed out that Calit2 "is probably the only place in the world where you can see this with such quality."

As he told the UCSD audience, Seracini believes Da Vinci – an artist and a scientist – would be among the first to appreciate scientific analysis in the cause of understanding art.

"We do justice to Leonardo,” concluded Seracini. “We are using technology to understand his masterpieces. I think he would have been happy about that."  

 

Related Links

“The Da Vinci Detective,” Channel 4 (UK) http://www.channel4.com/culture/microsites/D/da_vinci_detective/The Mind of Leonardo:

Scientific Analysis of the Adoration of the Magi
http://brunelleschi.imss.fi.it/menteleonardo/emdl.asp?c=13419&k=1470&rif=14071&xsl=1

Video of entire talk [ram] : http://rpvss.ucsd.edu:8080/ramgen/calit2/seracini.rm

Short video [ram] : http://rpvss.ucsd.edu:8080/ramgen/calit2/seracinipresser.rm

 

spacer
Subscribe Contact Us Got News UCSD News
spacer

UCSD University Communications

9500 Gilman Drive MC0938
La Jolla, CA 92093-0938
858-534-3120

Email: thisweek@ucsd.edu