July 02, 2007 12:00 PM

Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio houses one of that city’s fine collections of Renaissance art—even though it boasts no works by Italy’s most famous artist, Leonardo da Vinci. Or does it? According to high-tech art sleuth Maurizio Seracini, a masterpiece by Leonardo titled The Battle of Anghiari that disappeared from public view more than 500 years ago may still be in the building, secretly preserved behind another painting. The original, a phalanx of warriors and horses, says Seracini, 60, “was considered the highest expression of Renaissance art.”

Known today from copies by later admirers like Rubens, Leonardo’s work was commissioned by the Republic of Florence to decorate the Palazzo Vecchio, now the town hall. Seracini, a Florentine native, has long been convinced the Leonardo had survived. Thirty-two years ago he spotted an early Italian motto—”Seek and you shall find”—painted onto a fresco of the Battle of Scannagallo by Giorgio Vasari, a known fan of Leonardo’s. “It jumped out at me,” says Seracini. Using radar, in 2002 he discovered a narrow void behind the painting, perhaps created by Vasari to preserve Leonardo’s treasure when he was hired to redecorate the palace.

Though his work earned Seracini a mention in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Italian authorities, concerned about damage, blocked further exploration—until this spring, when the Ministry of Culture okayed Seracini to begin his quest in earnest. Now Seracini must develop equipment to complete his work. Whether the fragile painting has survived remains to be seen. Because of the decay of Leonardo’s Last Supper, art critic Vittorio Sgarbi suspects little of the fresco will be left: “What he’ll find is a ghost … a few traces, but not much more.” That would be enough for Seracini, who has spent half his life cracking this real-life da Vinci code. “Finding a square centimeter would be a great achievement,” he says.

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