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Published On: Sat, Jun 16th, 2018

Lost, stolen, blown up and fed to pigs: the greatest missing masterpieces

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Imagine a museum of lost art. It would contain more objects than all of the world’s museums combined. Only a modest percentage of the works created through history survive intact today. For many pre-modern artists, not to mention those of the ancient world, many more works are known of (thanks to references to them in texts or other sources) than are extant.
Some of these vanished masterpieces are definitively gone, their destruction documented: most (but not all) of the seven wonders of the ancient world; Leonardo’s Horse statue (used as target practice by French archers after they took over Milan in 1499), or Rogier van der Weyden’s Justice Cycle (consumed by fire, along with the rest of the Golden Chamber in Brussels). But what really stirs the imagination are not the definitive tragedies of artefacts known to have been ruined, but the stories of artworks that are lost – stolen, mislaid, hidden and forgotten – and might be retrieved.
In art terms, lost could mean for ever, or simply that current whereabouts are unknown. Important works resurface with just enough regularity to inspire hope that lost art may eventually be found. A case in point is , missing for centuries, covered in dirt, misattributed, thought all but worthless and now the world’s most expensive artwork.
The following gallery of lost works is meant for optimistic treasure hunters. It’s festooned with works that are lost but for which there is reasonable hope they remain intact and will be found again. Today we focus on what you should keep an eye out for, should you wish to unleash your inner Indiana Jones …
Painted over
Leonardo da Vinci’s The Battle of Anghiari
In terms of lost art, nothing has received quite the press of Leonardo’s unfinished fresco secco. It was made in 1505 on a wall in the grand meeting hall of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, an intentional artist’s duel with Michelangelo, who was commissioned to illustrate a different battle scene on the opposite wall. But was never finished, and it had been commissioned at a time when the ruling Medici family were ousted from Florence.
When they returned, Duke Cosimo commissioned his architect, Giorgio Vasari, to renovate the room, increasing its size and to paint it with a new fresco cycle showing Medici military victories. But Vasari, the first art historian, was a great admirer of Leonardo and it is unlikely that he willingly painted over the Anghiari fresco. He planted a clue for us to follow: In that immense room, the Salone dei Cinquecento, there are only two words painted in: Cerca trova. Seek and you shall find.
Scholars believe Vasari built a false wall over Leonardo’s painting, to protect it while still fulfilling his commission – a trick he used to successfully preserve Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, one of the most important paintings in history, when he renovated the church of Santa Maria Novella around 1570. The fresco was only rediscovered in 1860. There is hope that Leonardo’s Battle could likewise see the light of day, but its excavation has been tangled for years in the famously convoluted Italian bureaucracy. The story of Battle of Anghiari is told in Jonathan Jones’s fine book, The Lost Battles, and in my last book, Collector of Lives: Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art.

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