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Maurizio Seracini

Science is not a Fight against History of Art

PROF. MAURIZIO SERACINI USES SCIENTIFIC TECHNIQUES TO AUTHENTICATE PAINTINGS, REVOLUTIONISING OUR UNDERSTANDING OF GREAT WORKS OF ART. SINCE 1977, WHEN HE FOUNDED EDITECH, THE FIRST PRIVATE COMPANY IN ITALY TO OFFER SCIENTIFIC SERVICES TO MUSEUMS AND TO THE ART MARKET, HE HAS STUDIED MORE THAN 4,000 WORKS OF ART. WE MET PROFESSOR MAURIZIO SERACINI IN HIS DIAGNOSTIC CENTRE FOR CULTURAL HERITAGE IN THE ELEGANT 17TH CENTURY PALAZZO TEMPI IN FLORENCE.

What con­di­ti­ons need to be in place to sci­en­ti­fi­cal­ly exami­ne a work of art and deli­ver a pro­fes­sio­nal eva­lua­ti­on to the cli­ent or Institution?

The first step is to defi­ne a pro­per metho­do­lo­gy, then to use sta­te of the art tech­no­lo­gy tog­e­ther with a spe­ci­fic pro­fes­sio­nal exper­ti­se for art authen­ti­ca­ti­on. Sci­ence should pro­vi­de objec­ti­ve data pri­or to any attri­bu­ti­on or eva­lua­ti­on. What sen­se does it make to base a signi­fi­cant­ly finan­cial art invest­ment on an attri­bu­ti­on which, it should be remem­be­red is, in the best sce­n­a­rio, an edu­ca­ted opi­ni­on, if the authen­ti­ci­ty of the arte­fact has not been pro­ved first by sci­ence? The buy­ers should be made awa­re of the risks they are run­ning if they do not rely on objec­ti­ve data that only sci­ence can pro­vi­de. Unfor­tu­n­a­te­ly, that awa­reness isn’t here yet and the art mar­ket doesn’t seem to encou­ra­ge art inves­tors to turn to sci­ence as a man­da­to­ry step pri­or an art purchase.

Do you agree that your sci­en­ti­fic approach has been revolutionary?

It’s too soon to call it revo­lu­tio­na­ry. To do so, it should have an impact on how the con­ser­va­ti­on world and the art mar­ket is being run, but sad­ly, that still hasn’t occurred.

What does the art mar­ket think of sci­en­tists and art diagnosticians?

As I said, the art mar­ket runs basi­cal­ly on attri­bu­ti­ons. We all know that an attri­bu­ti­on is a sub­jec­ti­ve opi­ni­on and is not legal­ly bin­ding. As ever­ything revol­ves around opi­ni­ons, in the art mar­ket the­re is ple­nty of room for spe­cu­la­ti­on and all sort of illi­cit deals. That’s why the art mar­ket is not wel­co­m­ing sci­en­tists to be enga­ged in this field.

Coun­ter­feits have sky­ro­cke­ted in the indus­try: how can inves­tors safe­guard their inte­rests? Does a 100% fool pro­of eva­lua­ti­on exist?

It’s not­hing new under the sun, as for­ge­ries have been around for cen­tu­ries, but today, given the sky­ro­cke­ting value of works of art, making for­ge­ries is beco­m­ing a very attrac­ti­ve and lucra­ti­ve busi­ness com­pa­red to the past. In Chi­na, for examp­le, pro­du­cing fakes has beco­me a real indus­try. A 100% fool pro­of eva­lua­ti­on would requi­re the com­pa­ri­son of sci­en­ti­fic data from a pain­ting with a data­ba­se from works of art that are con­si­de­red abso­lute­ly authen­tic. The pro­blem is crea­ting many data­ba­se, espe­cial­ly for modern and con­tem­pora­ry artists. Unfor­tu­n­a­te­ly, the art mar­ket, for the rea­sons men­tio­ned befo­re, has no real inte­rest in making signi­fi­cant­ly big sci­en­ti­fic data­ba­se. Muse­ums of old mas­ters and of con­tem­pora­ry art ali­ke, should be the first to gene­ra­te their own data­ba­se and make it public.

Attri­bu­ti­on is only an opi­ni­on, but sci­ence pro­vi­des objec­ti­ve data and should come befo­re the attri­bu­ti­on. Unfor­tu­n­a­te­ly inves­tors are not well infor­med about what sci­ence can do for them. 

Which secrets, expe­ri­ence, and pro­found know­ledge can you unveil when ana­ly­sing important works of the old masters?

Stu­dy­ing a work of art of an old mas­ter is a won­der­ful and very chal­len­ging expe­ri­ence. You are try­ing to unveil the gene­sis of a mas­ter­pie­ce, to under­stand how the artist with just a pie­ce of can­vas or wood and some colours was able to express his crea­ti­vi­ty, his genius.Science can show a step-by-step gui­de of how this mas­ter­pie­ce was gene­ra­ted and how the artist was able to achie­ve such peaks of style and beau­ty. Let’s take the examp­le of Raphael’s ‘Lady with a Uni­corn’ in Rome’s Gal­le­ria Borghe­se: we reve­a­led that the­re was no uni­corn in the ori­gi­nal ver­si­on of the pain­ting, though a dog and other fea­tures were added by a second artist. The uni­corn was pain­ted on top of the dog in a later pha­se, and then con­cea­led in the 17th cen­tu­ry when the pain­ting was trans­for­med into a Por­trait of St Cathe­ri­ne. It was only in 1935 that the uni­corn reap­peared when the pain­ting was res­to­red. This is just one examp­le of what sci­ence can do in order to make us redis­co­ver the value of our cul­tu­re. Sci­ence is not com­pe­ting with art his­to­ri­ans. Ins­tead, it pro­vi­des new know­ledge about the ico­no­gra­phy, ico­no­lo­gy, style, pain­ting tech­ni­que of a work of art not other­wi­se obtainable.

Can you give us an examp­le of one of your pro­jects which shook the art world?

In a six-mon­th stu­dy of Leonardo’s ‘Ado­ra­ti­on of the Magi’ in the Uffi­zi Gal­le­ry we unco­ve­r­ed an incredi­ble under­drawing never seen for more than five cen­tu­ries, which show­ed over 70 figu­res, a fier­ce batt­le sce­ne and even an ele­phant. Leo­nar­do left his mas­ter­pie­ce unfi­nis­hed and it was later cove­r­ed with a brow­nish colour by ano­t­her artist. When 15 years ago I show­ed that the mono­chro­me pain­ting was not the work of Leo­nar­do, but rather a later and ugly repaint, the com­mu­ni­ty of art his­to­ri­ans rai­sed in arms and I was hea­vi­ly cri­ti­ci­zed. Now, the Ado­ra­ti­on is going through an exten­si­ve clea­ning which is remo­ving most of the mono­chro­me paint lay­er that was so fier­ce­ly belie­ved to be authen­tic. Sci­ence pro­ved to be right, after all!

How important is the reve­la­ti­on of Leo­nar­do da Vinci’s alle­ged­ly lost mas­ter­pie­ce ‘The Batt­le of Anghiari‘?

I never announ­ced that I found ‘The Batt­le of Anghia­ri’. Very small Frag­ments of colou­red mate­ri­als on a plas­te­red wall behind the Vasa­ri wall were found. Gran­ted that it was not enough to asso­cia­te tho­se frag­ments to ‘The Batt­le of Anghia­ri’, but why was I not allo­wed to con­ti­nue the inves­ti­ga­ti­on? Why was I for­ced to shut down the who­le ope­ra­ti­on? All the finan­cing came from an Eng­lish spon­sor by the name of Lord Guin­ness. It was pro­ved bey­ond any doubt that no dama­ge was done to Vasari’s mural. So, once again, why such ani­mo­si­ty, such ant­ago­nism against the search? Try­ing to unveil the mys­te­ry on the most acc­lai­med mas­ter­pie­ce of Leo­nar­do, cal­led the school of the world by his con­tem­pora­ries, was con­si­de­red an outra­ge to Leonardo’s scho­l­ars and not only? Luck­i­ly, sci­ence main dri­ve has always been the curio­si­ty and the thirst for new know­ledge, other­wi­se we would still be in the Stone Age. Unvei­ling ‘The Batt­le of Anghia­ri’ to the world would be not just the grea­test dis­co­very in art histo­ry but it would reve­al to all of us the hig­hest form of art ever achie­ved by an artist at the peak of the Renais­sance. We should remem­ber that when Leo­nar­do was working on ‘The Batt­le of Anghia­ri’, was also pain­ting the Mona Lisa, today the world icon and the main attrac­tion at the Lou­vre. No docu­ment has ever been found prai­sing this pain­ting, most likely becau­se the Mona Lisa was just a por­trait like any other in Leonardo’s work­shop to make ends meet. So, ima­gi­ne what Impact the dis­co­very of ‘The Batt­le of Anghia­ri’ would have worldwide.

You’ve rai­sed the bar with your work. What is your visi­on and the main goal you want to reach in the next years?

I would be very glad if the pro­fes­sio­nal figu­re of the con­ser­va­ti­on sci­en­tist would be part of the staff in every muse­um and he would be allo­wed to be in char­ge of all the con­ser­va­ti­on issu­es, in addi­ti­on to be part of the decisi­on making pro­cess to res­to­re a work of art. I would also like to see the art mar­ket to intro­du­ce as man­da­to­ry sci­en­ti­fic exams to pro­ve authen­ti­ci­ty befo­re a work of art is put for sale. Per­so­nal­ly, I would like to have the honour to stu­dy other works of Leo­nar­do, sin­ce so few have been exami­ned sci­en­ti­fi­cal­ly. But abo­ve all, my visi­on which I hope more and more peop­le would like to embrace, would be to give a “future to our past”. Sci­ence could be instru­men­tal to reach this goal worldwide..

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