Recently discovered rooms at the Santissima Annunziata, Florence
Before news of another ‘lost Leonardo’ dissipates into www oblivion, a record of recent events may be in order. It is early to judge all results of the Santissima Annunziata discovery, though it already has the underpinnings of what many might want of a Leonardo mystery: an exhumation of his lost places and things, of a secret stairway, a secret room for human dissections, and a ghost image imprinted on a wall. To this form of story we might attribute traditional cravings for Leonardo mysteries. Would it matter as much – for example, if a lost Michelangelo were found? As Leonardo frequently appears and disappears in the news, a note of his latest ‘ghosts’ is worthwhile whilst they linger. Articles and photographs at the web sites numbered and addressed herein were online as of 25th February 2005.
The popularity of Leonardo da Vinci has never been greater, especially for the wrong reasons. In forty-two countries, purchasers of eighteen million copies (at last count) of The Da Vinci Code have been apparently curious about Dan Brown’s approach to Leonardo; and many have noted that this is not because of its fictions, but because of its supposed facts. To think of Leonardo’s association with ancient conspiracies adds quasi-historical legitimacy to the unfolding of a present-day story that could overturn fundamental principles of two millennia of Christian tradition. What fun. Of course the enjoyment of such ideas occasionally involves the suspension of disbelief …to believe in da Vinci’s codes. This undoubtedly sold the book, and many of us.
We know very little about Leonardo’s personal life, though we have a great legacy of his work. His writings show an almost Tacitean ability to get a lot of information into just a few statements or sketches. Does any of his work suggest that he tried to hide ancient secrets? No – on the contrary, his work reveals his obsession with methods of direct communication. What would Leonardo want us to have of his? Presumably, the kind of material that he left behind will do (or so one would think).
Why, then, the tendency to jump to conclusions with the possible discovery of something ‘Leonardo’ related? As proven by The Da Vinci Code, even false conclusions can gross £140 million in book sales. Certain associations with Leonardo can offer lucrative results.
On Monday, 10th January 2005, the Military Geographical Institute (IGM) in Florence issued a statement and photographs about the discovery of ‘lost’ rooms and a ‘secret stairwell’ that were presumably used and partially painted by Leonardo. General Renato De Filippis, Commander of the IGM, reported on behalf of an IGM appointed research team: Alessandro Del Meglio, Roberto Manescalchi, and Maria Carchio. The demolition of walls during a renovation of the IGM revealed the location of the ‘lost’ rooms, situated at a top floor, between the IGM and the Santissima Annunziata monastery.
The first online report was at adnkronos.com on the day of the announcement. According to the site, General De Filippis made this announcement “during the presentation” of the exhibition, Leonardo, i giochi e lo sport, (Leonardo, the games and sports). The Regional Council of Tuscany had this exhibition installed at the Palazzo Panciatichi, Florence, just for the period of 10th - 20th January.
Curated by the Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci (Vinci, Italy), the exhibition was sponsored by the Fondazione Monte dei Paschi di Siena in celebration of Italian successes in the Athens Olympics and Paralympics of 2004, and possibly in anticipation of 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin, as well as the Milan bid for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Journalists were allowed a special viewing of the exhibition at 11:30am on the 10th, the day of General De Filippis’ press conference. The 2006 Olympic torch was unveiled in Milan on the 20th, the final day of the show. Also opening on the 10th was an exhibition of Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus and reconstructed ‘inventions’ at the Palazzo Corsini, Rome, in place until 28th February. The exhibitions were well timed.
On Wednesday, 12th January, Rome correspondent Richard Owen reported for The Times: “Found: the studio where Leonardo met Mona Lisa.” The analogy for such a claim?: for all or part of the period between April 1500 and mid 1502, evidence suggests that Leonardo stayed at the Santissima Annunziata church complex; he could have used the recently discovered rooms as his studio spaces; the family of Francesco del Giocondo – husband of Lisa Gherardini (a.k.a. Mona Lisa) – happened to have a chapel at the monastery; therefore Leonardo could have met Lisa Gherardini at Santissima Annunziata. (Perhaps visions of the two of them – eyes meeting at the church and then off to share a bottle of chianti at a local trattoria – come to mind, though it could never have happened.) At best, Francesco del Giocondo and Leonardo knew one another through contact with the Medici. The most surprising detail, however, is that of the discovered rooms – small spaces with tiny windows, being used previously as studio spaces. Moreover, there was the suggestion that Leonardo possibly helped paint the rooms’ frescoes.
The day after, on 13th January, the Regional Council of Tuscany announced three meetings at the Palazzo Panciatichi on the 14th, 17th, and 19th, addressing the following topics, respectively: “Leonardo: vero o falso,” “Leonardo all’Annunziata, tra il convento dei Servi di Maria e l’Istituto Geografico Militare,” and “Arte e design, giochi e sport dall’Etruria alla Firenze medicea.” Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Museo Ideale di Vinci, directed the first discussion; Maria Carchio, Alesandro Del Meglio and Roberto Maniscalchi directed the second meeting; and the third arrangement was a round-table discussion with Paola Cassinelli Lazzeri, Guiseppina Carlotta Cianferoni, Yoritsugu Katagiri, Massimo Ricci, and Alessandro Vezzosi. Thanks to these ongoing discussions, whilst the jury convened – so to speak, little or no fresh news about the discovery appeared online.
Enter Associated Press writers Marina Sapia, with the help of Aiden Lewis, and Francis D’Emilio, who produced a detailed report on 21st January, compiled with the help of interviews and press conferences during the previous eleven days. This is the version of the story to which most readers and viewers had access in the following weeks, as it formed the basis of this topic on the most web sites. Exhibit ‘A’ for the story was a photo, released on the 10th – though not published by international news media until the 21st, of a fresco with decorative swirling tracery, two simple birds and an angel’s face – with wings attached – at the centre. At issue: “…that the rooms served as a studio for Leonardo and his pupils has grabbed the imaginations of many. If they worked in the convent, might not they have done the frescoes, including one depicting birds – a motif that tickled Leonardo’s fancy.” James Beck is quoted as saying that “there is no real evidence.” Vezzosi refers to the various possible links to Leonardo, his pupils and Lisa Ghirardini. Manescalchi notes that the “birds… remind us of the study done by Leonardo of birds in flight.” Colin Eisler reminds us that the birds are not ‘unique’ for the time in which they were likely painted. The article also considers an attribution of certain monastery frescoes to Vittorio da Feltre, who visited Florence in the early 1500s, according to Vasari, specifically to meet Leonardo and Michelangelo.
Also on the 21st, the Associated Press released a short video of a tour of the Santissima Annunziata’s newly discovered rooms. This was available at the AP.org site, as well as re-edited by CBS and made available at cbsnews.com. The tour begins at a doorway in the Santissima Annunziata, continues up the recently discovered ‘secret stairway’, and ends at a corner room thought to have been Leonardo’s personal studio, or ‘secret room’. Included in the video is a view of the outline of a kneeling angel, chipped away from the surrounding fresco (as a planned addition to or a sign of removal from the wall), thought to be similar in profile to that of Leonardo’s Annunciation – as noted in Sapia’s AP report. A comparison of these two examples suggests otherwise.
For Discovery News (discoverychannel.com), Rosella Lorenzi reported on the 21st the details of the Military Geographical Institute’s recent press conference. She notes relevant points noted above, along with further historical information about the church complex, and that Leonardo possibly had an interest in the monastery’s collection of 5000 manuscripts. Especially useful at the web site is the first international online publication of five photograph details (around 540 x 380 pixels in size), showing a floor plan of the rooms and ‘secret stairwell’, fresco details of birds in flight, frescoes in the secret stairwell, and an exterior view of the monastery. This was an opportunity for readers to see what might or might not have been Leonardesque about the bird paintings, and to get a three-dimensional sense of the discovered rooms with the help of a floor plan.
That Sunday, the 23rd, RedNova (rednova.com) uploaded an update to the Associated Press story, inserting at the beginning, “One of the world’s leading specialists on Leonardo da Vinci cast doubt Saturday that fading frescoes… might be the work of the Renaissance master or one of his pupils.” This and the three other additions to the AP report are thanks to an interview with Martin Kemp and his studies of high-quality photos of the frescoes in question. He informs me that his original advice on this was that: “They look like absolutely standard 1480-ish frescoes and the birds are not notably Leonardesque.”
Thus, lost rooms, secret stairwells, Vasari’s travelling painter reference, and quasi proto-Leonardesque birds do not locate a Leonardo studio. The story lacks a smoking gun – some form of direct proof. After two days of relative silence on the matter, on 25th January, Phil Stewart (from Rome) republished the story for Reuters (reuters.com): “Da Vinci workshop discovered in Italy.” Two relatively macabre elements emerge with the story: the idea that Leonardo used one of the discovered chambers as “a secret room to dissect human cadavers” and that the fresco silhouette of an angel is “the ghost” of Leonardo’s previous interest in a fresco painting of the archangel Gabriel. Stewart attributes these ideas to a slide presentation by Manescalchi. About the angel’s ‘ghost’ and Leonardo’s Annunciation, I have commented above. About the dissections, I would have to say that such ideas would only put nails in the coffin of this mysterious discovery. Institutions could only very rarely get permission for dissections from the Pope, and the order of the Servi di Maria (Servants of Mary) would have been actively against such a practice especially at the Annunziata church complex.
“We are researching,” said Manescalchi, referring to the ongoing search for documentation among the monastery’s records for evidence that Leonardo may have stayed there in the early 1500s. This is at least encouraging, as further documentation, or even discoveries of Leonardo’s marginalia in the monastery’s previous manuscripts, might attest to the idea that the newly discovered rooms are of an age when rooms of this kind at the monastery had boarders such as Leonardo. What the news media and press conferences make of all this is another story. For example, Stewart may or may not have quoted the following statements in context: ‘“It’s easy to say ‘It’s not true’,” [Manescalchi] said. “I didn’t paint the Angel’s ghost.”’. In any event, I have my doubts about this angel’s ghost, though not about the periodic passing of Leonardo’s.
Sources (as of 25th February 2005):
And here: http://sciencenews.orb6.com/stories/nm/