Leonardo's Adoration of the Magi: Science and Non-Science

Art lovers as well as art professionals should welcome the role of art diagnostician Maurizio Seracini with respect to the Uffizi Gallery’s Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci. In point of fact, last year a group of forty-five Renaissance art historians from six countries headed by the late Sir Ernst Gombrich publicly called for independent testing prior to the approval of any restoration, due to the fragility of the work. Accordingly, the Superintendent-in-charge postponed the planned intervention while awaiting test results. Officials in the other great museums of the world are urged to follow Florence’s lead by introducing independent, disinterested testing before interventions are contemplated. Habitually, those who assess objects for restorations are the same individuals who eventually carry out the treatment. Hence, the introduction of an outside expert into process can only be beneficial in breaking the circularity.

One also must applaud Dr. Seracini’s deliberate, comprehensive, and unhurried study of the rare object and anxiously await the publication of the final results in a scholarly venue. His own statements quoted in the press (particularly those in an item by Melinda Henneberger in the New York Times Magazine, April 21, 2002) can be regarded as a preview. His findings turn out to be indecisive concerning the authorship of diverse portions of the Adoration, some of which Seracini believes were produced by an artist other than Leonardo.

The Times item emphasized Seracini’s self-proclaimed revelations to the effect that the picture as we know it is not by Leonardo, but is instead a layer overpainted on a drawing by Leonardo. Three intersecting issues emerge: (1) the physical evidence, as demonstrated by tests including X-rays and infrared reflectography; (2) the aesthetic opinion of the scientist who conducted the work; (3) the enduring desires of officials at the Uffizi in seeking for the Adoration what they define as greater legibility.

A central clarification is required: the picture as it now exists is not really a painting at all, but a panel upon which a preparatory layer of transparent, orange-brownish underpainting has been brushed over a drawing. To regard what we have now as a “painting,” as Seracini seems to do, is a fundamental error. Practically no color, which would have explicated the imagery with finality, has been applied to this point in the panel’s truncated evolution.

Before entering into the subtler issues raised by Seracini’s proposal to the effect that what we see is not by Leonardo, it should in all fairness be acknowledged that scientific tests on the work had been undertaken in the past. Elements accentuated in the Times item have been known to specialists for over half a century. For example, the elefantino or “little elephant” was first published in 1951. (For the sake of the record, I reported this fact to the New York Times’s journalist in January [2002] when I faxed her the page in the book by Professor Piero Sanpaolesi which contains it.)

Another study, published only a dozen years ago by Professor Umberto Baldini, revealed findings, including pictorial references to the rampaging horse, which might otherwise seem new. While everyone loves a discovery, like a Michelangelo marble Cupid on Fifth Avenue (another New York Times art scoop of a few years ago, which has properly faded into oblivion), the discoveries implied in the item are not discoveries at all, although presumably they are now revealed with more modern techniques. At this level, at least, the results of the study so far might be summed up by the appropriate Italian saying, that Seracini has “discovered hot water.”

Still, the renewed discussion and evaluation of the Adoration is welcome; after all, an art object of its complexity can never receive too much study.

Seracini’s proposal that what we see and have seen for centuries is not by Leonardo, but the product of unidentified but clumsy painter who applied his brush to the surface over Leonardo’s drawing, is clamorous. While it is always tempting to poke fun at art historians, one must evaluate the evidence that the scientist Seracini brings to the argument, especially because humanists are inevitably awed by the authority of science.

To help his theory, he dates the current surface to from 1530 to 1580, that is, between fifty and one hundred years after Leonardo abandoned the work. How Seracini achieved the dating, always an essential element for an historian, permits an entry into the trenches of connoisseurship. In the London Daily Telegraph of 23 April 2002, Seracini is quoted as saying that ample portions of the surface layer are of a later date. ” How much later, we don’t know. However, it was quite a long time, because Leonardo’s paint had already become damaged in the meantime . . . .” On another occasion, he is cited (in the New York Times) as maintaining that there is cracking on the surface of the drawing layer and that the orange-brown paint seeped into the cracks. “That cracking could only have occurred after a significant period of time . . . anywhere from 50 to 100 years.”

Such is hardly a scientific estimate and is hardly proof of anything. The first layer with the drawing, which is constituted of lampblack mixed with diluted glue, could have cracked the day after Leonardo finished it, or it could have been days, months, or years, depending on diverse factors, including the extent and depth of the cracks and the kind of surface preparation (apparently a lead white primer was brushed on first), as well as the nature of the support. The BBC News of 23 April 2002 reports another speculation by the Seracini to the effect that, “Whoever was the new owner wanted to have a painting, wanted it to look like a painting [rather] than a big drawing on a panel.” Once again the point resonates like the conjecture of an art critic and not a scientist.

Of course, Seracini’s notions are conceivable and as such undermine traditional art historical wisdom, as noted by the Italian news agency ANSA (19 April 2002): “His conclusions, if confirmed, are such as to change the history of art, and the engineer [Seracini] also points out that the painter was not even a good artist [neppure un bravo artista].” The key assumption, which, as already implied, vitiates Seracini’s conclusion about the second layer, is that he regards it as a final layer. This orange-brown application is also underpaint, as it is in Leonardo’s St. Jerome in the Vatican. In other words, what appears now was never intended to be final.

Here lies, for me, a central problem: how much weight does a scientist have when dealing with aesthetic or critical judgements? Seracini singles out what he regards as discrepancies between the underdrawing and the “painted” applications over it. The foot of the Virgin is a particularly troubling element for the diagnostician. For him the underdrawing of the foot by Leonardo is “perfect, rounded,” but the next stage, brushed in orange-brown, shows pointy toes and even a pointed heel, “inconceivable” for Leonardo.

Still more damaging to Seracini’s position is the existence of a large drawing in the Louvre which “copies” the lower left portion of the Adoration. On the basis of style, it should be regarded as dating to the sixteenth century and is surely Florentine. This copy could be by the hand of Francesco Ubertini, known as Bacchiacca (1494-1557), who was a well-known borrower from fellow artists.

The very existence of the Louvre drawing, apparently unknown to Seracini, is evidence that the Adoration was admired sufficiently to be copied in the first half of the sixteenth century and was not a neglected, mistreated, ugly object as Seracini claims. Furthermore, the copy embodies precisely those painted applications over the underdrawing which Seracini denigrates and which he would like to date as late as 1530 to 1580, long after Leonardo’s death.

Actually scholars, including this writer, consider the pointed foot, pointed toes, and pointed hands to be consistent with Leonardo’s drawings from the same period, including preparatory studies for the Adoration.

Following the publication of the results of the testing, an international meeting should be called, probably by the reigning Soprintendente in Florence. Then, and only then, can a decision be made to intervene on the actual surface of the painting. Although the Director of the Uffizi, Annamaria Petrioli Tofani, is convinced that she has enough information to institute a cleaning immediately (as recorded in Il Giornale on 20 April 2002 ), her collaborator, Dr. Antonio Natali, is more cautious. Caution is required, given the mixed messages we now have from Seracini. As Professor Carlo Pedretti of UCLA, the dean of Leonardo specialists, added in a revealing statement left out of the New York Times item: “if matters are actually as described [repainting, oxidized varnish, etc.], one would begin [to clean] without knowning where to stop. One more reason to do nothing.”

What can and should be done is a modern “virtual” restoration/cleaning where various layers and passages can be removed or retained in a facsimile format. This non-invasive alternative to a physical intervention would insure the integrity of the original text, while providing an image that would allow for the discoveries and clarifications so highly desired by museum officials.