Planet Earth

Hidden in Plain Sight

By Jessa Forte NettingApr 28, 2005 5:00 AM


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Part I: An astronomer armed with some equations and an Indiana Jones thirst for lost treasures has found an ancient star map where no one thought to look: on public display in a museum.

Bradley Schaefer of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge determined that a seven-foot statue at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy, contains a long-lost map of the heavens created by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus 21 centuries ago. The statue, a Roman copy of a much older Greek work, depicts Atlas holding the heavens aloft in the form of a globe. Art historians always knew the figures snaking their way around the sphere represented constellations, says Schaefer, but he is the first to attempt a careful astronomical analysis of it.

He dated the map by measuring 70 points on the globe that match particular stars and then calculated how the constellations had shifted position over the centuries. The results showed the globe reflects the night sky as it would have appeared above Greece around 125 B.C., just when Hipparchus was working. No one else of his era had this depth of knowledge, Schaefer says. He speculates that the sculptor copied the constellations from small globes Hipparchus is known to have made.

The find may help settle a dispute over whether another great Greek astronomer, Ptolemy, borrowed from Hipparchus when he created his own star map more than two centuries later.

Part II: A sharp-eyed cartographer believes he has discovered a lost studio and laboratory of Leonardo da Vinci’s, after connecting a pair of deteriorating frescoes on the walls of adjoining buildings in Florence.

Roberto Manescalchi, of the Italian city’s Military Institute of Geography, and two art historians there speculate that Leonardo lived, painted, and conducted dissections in the rooms, which were long ago divided between the institute and a neighboring monastery. Five centuries ago they were both part of the Santissima Annunziata Church complex, where Leonardo is said to have lived. At the time, the family of Lisa Gherardini, widely believed to be the model for the Mona Lisa, attended mass there.

Manescalchi made the connection between the nearly forgotten rooms when he happened across a mural at the base of a stairwell while visiting the monastery. He realized the wall of what had become a storage closet matched a wall at the institute bearing a fresco of whirling birds (inset), indicating that a single room had been split into two. The frescoes closely resemble other works by Leonardo.

Some historians are skeptical. Martin Kemp, an art historian at Oxford University and the author of a recent biography of Leonardo, says he doesn’t think the rooms have an obvious connection to the Renaissance master. And physicist and Leonardo historian Bulent Atalay of the University of Mary Washington in Virginia doubts that Leonardo could have carried out dissections on human cadavers in a convent. “He was probably paying people to let him cut up bodies in fetid morgues,” he says, since the practice of human autopsy without a license was then a highly secretive business.

Still, Atalay finds the murals intriguing. “Leonardo was consumed by the dynamics of flight,” he says, speculating that Leonardo’s drawings suggest he possessed “preternatural vision” that allowed him to see birds “as we would in slowing down a fast film to a flicker.”

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