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The Last ‘Last Supper’

Leonardo: The Last Supper

with essays by Pinin Brambilla Barcilon and Pietro C. Marani,translated from the Italian by Harlow Tighe
University of Chicago Press, 440 pp., $95.00

Il Genio e le Passioni: Leonardo e il Cenacolo: Precedenti, innovazioni, riflessi di un capolavoro (The Genius and the Passions: Leonardo and the Last Supper: Precedents, Innovations, Reflections of a Masterpiece)

Catalog of the exhibition edited by Pietro C. Marani, with a preface by Ernst H. Gombrich
an exhibition at Palazzo Reale, Milan, March 21–June 17, 2001
Skira, 474 pp., L120,000

Leonardo da Vinci

by Sherwin B. Nuland
Lipper/Viking, 170 pp., $19.95

Leonardo: The First Scientist

by Michael White
St. Martin’s, 370 pp., $27.95
To be published in paperback in October 2001.


Leonardo belongs to the very small group of painters who are as famous for their personalities or their lives as for their work. The basic elements of the legend are already present in the biography produced by Vasari in 1550: his precocious and prodigious talent, the range of his interests, his extraordinary physical beauty and charm, which could persuade people of his ability to carry out even the most extravagant schemes, his lack of religious belief, his love of animals, his reluctance to follow a conventional career, his unsystematic manner of working, and, finally, his death in the arms of Francis I, King of France. Vasari had much less to say about Leonardo’s works. He provided a long and rather misleading description of the Mona Lisa, which had left Florence well over thirty years before, and shorter references to works in private hands, none of which can now be identified apart from one drawing. But the only picture on public display he mentioned was the Last Supper in the refectory of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, which he praised in enthusiastic terms. At that time Vasari himself had never seen it, but when he did so, sixteen years later, he complained that it was no more than an “indistinct smudge.”

In Vasari’s account Leonardo was the founding father of modern painting, the equal of Raphael and Michelangelo, and other writers of the time were no less laudatory. But for the next three centuries his name was overwhelmingly associated with a single picture, the Last Supper, which was painted shortly before 1500, and which had already begun to deteriorate by 1517, according to a contemporary witness named Antonio de Beatis. The composition was known from numerous copies and prints, and it was universally regarded as one of the supreme masterpieces of Italian painting, even though tragically damaged. Thus at least from the middle of the sixteenth century visitors have always brought to it a mass of expectations and preconceptions, approaching it in much the spirit of pilgrims revering a religious relic. It is indicative of its special status that travelers and connoisseurs paid little attention to a much better preserved work by Leonardo in Milan, the Virgin of the Rocks, now in the National Gallery in London, which for centuries was his only other painting on public display anywhere in Europe.

Admiration for the Last Supper was almost always combined with a sense of disappointment and loss. In 1572 Serafino Razzi called it “half ruined and flaking,” while Gian Paolo Lomazzo, a few years later, again remarked that it was falling off the wall. Francesco Scannelli, who saw it in 1642, reported that by then only a few traces of the figures were preserved, that in large part they were no longer attached to the wall, that areas were exceptionally dark, and in general that one could scarcely make out the subject. Writers of the later seventeenth and early eighteenth century were equally negative about the condition, with Jonathan Richardson Sr., for example, observing in 1722 that in places there remained only bare plaster. Indeed by that period many travelers did not mention Leonardo’s painting at all, presumably because it no longer seemed worth visiting.

The situation changed in 1726, with the first recorded restoration, by a painter named Michelangelo Bellotti. He evidently managed to alter the appearance of the picture dramatically, and although he claimed that this was thanks to a secret method of cleaning, at least one observer, named De la Condamine, who saw it in 1754, concluded that the picture must have been entirely repainted.

Bellotti’s restoration was followed by seven others, and it was probably preceded by limited interventions of which no records have come to light. In almost every case these restorations have been controversial, with some observers claiming that Leonardo’s original had been miraculously recovered, while others deplored the supposedly irreparable damage that had been inflicted on it. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century restorers tended to be secretive in their methods as well as casual about keeping records, so it is difficult to reconstruct exactly what happened, a problem compounded by the nineteenth-century practice of touching up photographs.

It is only for the last two restorations, the first by Mauro Pellicioli, after World War II, and the second by Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, completed after more than twenty years of work in 2000, that adequate records are available. These two restorations were undertaken in very different circumstances and with different intentions. Pellicioli was faced with urgent problems caused by the destruction of the refectory by a bomb. His first priority was to fix the unstable paint surface, which was flaking off the wall. He then cautiously removed overpaint where this seemed to obscure the original pigment; but he left large areas intact, in an attempt to achieve a more or less uniform effect. Barcilon, by contrast, working over a far longer period, tried to remove almost all the work of earlier restorers, except in areas, such as the ceiling, where the original had entirely disappeared, in order to expose as much of Leonardo’s paint as could still be found.

As is abundantly clear from the superb photographs in Leonardo: The Last Supper, which is a report on the restoration along with a short history of the painting, Leonardo’s own work now consists of a mosaic of small fragments, like a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing. Although estimates are necessarily subjective, in total it looks as if only about 20 percent of the original paint still survives; and while critics have claimed, not necessarily correctly, that some of Leonardo’s pigment was itself lost in the latest restoration, it seems beyond dispute that most of it disappeared long ago. If the accounts of the early writers are to be trusted, much of the damage must have occurred well before Bellotti’s restoration of 1726.

What is more, it is evident that even where Leonardo’s paint exists, the upper layers have been lost. The clearest evidence for this is provided by seven strips of blue embroidery at each end of the tablecloth, which seem to include some of the most intact areas of original pigment. In the fifty or so known copies of the Last Supper made before the late eighteenth century, in the form of paintings, drawings, and prints, some of them dating from Leonardo’s own lifetime, only one includes embroidery at all. But this feature is visible in all known copies dating from about 1790 or later. Of the early copies the exception is a picture first recorded at Ecouen outside Paris around 1750, which shows five strips of embroidery, not seven, and these are black, not blue. That all the artists responsible for the other copies would have omitted such a conspicuous feature is not remotely credible, so it would seem either that the embroidery is not original, which is difficult to believe, or that it was eliminated by Leonardo himself and then revealed during one of the two restorations in the eighteenth century, probably the second, undertaken by a painter named Giuseppe Mazza, who worked under the misconception that Leonardo had used fresco.

Presumably the Ecouen copy, which was in the Louvre from just before 1800, was itself restored at some stage, when this feature was added. The upper layer of Leonardo’s paint has also disappeared from the drapery of Simon, the apostle at the extreme right. The early copies show that he had a red robe over his right shoulder, but this is now almost entirely white, because only some of the underpaint has survived.

Since the original surface of Leonardo’s masterpiece is gone, while only patches of the lower layers have been preserved, to all intents and purposes the Last Supper no longer exists and has not existed for centuries. Faced with this problem, Barcilon and her assistants have not tried to conceal the damage, as so many of their predecessors did, but have reconstructed the missing areas in such a way as to make a distinction between what is original and what is new, by indicating the original contours, which can be established with the help of early copies, and filling the spaces between the areas of Leonardo’s paint with watercolor of the same general hue, but lighter in tone. When the latest restoration was begun, the intention was simply to reveal everything by Leo-nardo, eliminating the rest, but so little was preserved that this option turned out to be unrealistic.

It is now possible to see more clearly than before the structure of the painted space, including the floor, as well as the poses of the figures, while the objects on the table have acquired a new precision. But the tonality is certainly much less intense than Leonardo can ever have intended, the range of color much more limited. Nor has any attempt been made to recreate the extreme subtlety of the modeling so evident in the copies and in Leonardo’s surviving paintings. The effect is as if the original picture had faded. This of course is not what happened, but the solution is an ingenious one, and arguably the most intelligent in the circumstances.

It has been pointed out, with some justification, that the result does not look like any Renaissance painting, but before restoration the Last Supper did not look like a Renaissance painting either, and the only way to have given it such an appearance would have been by undertaking a far more radical repainting on the basis of the surviving copies. This could certainly have been done, but it is difficult to believe that it would have met with wide approval or would have served any useful purpose. An alternative would have been to do nothing at all, or at least to have done the bare minimum required to maintain the picture in roughly the state left by Pellicioli. Such a course of action would have saved a great deal of time and labor. It would also have preserved an image which, however false to Leonardo’s intentions, was extraordinarily famous and which, because of its historical associations, had a potency of its own.

But even assuming that the painting itself was stable, which has been denied, the case for keeping a particularly damaged and misleading copy, painted by several artists, apparently from 1726 onward, does not seem strong. The arguments used to justify restorations in the past, after all, have been, first, to prevent further deterioration and, second, to reveal what remained of Leonardo’s own work; and in these respects the present restoration has had similar goals.

It is inevitable that comparisons have been made with another controversial Italian restoration of an equally famous Renaissance masterpiece, Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but the issues involved are quite different. The Sistine ceiling is painted in fresco, that is to say with water-based pigment on plaster. While the restorers left the very durable pigment painted on wet plaster, they removed virtually everything else. What remains is certainly all by Michelangelo; but the question is whether the material that was removed consisted only of dirt and the additions of earlier restorers, or whether it included large areas of pigment applied by Michelangelo to the plaster after it had dried, principally to indicate shadows. Although it was initially claimed that the Sistine ceiling had been repeatedly restored in the past, no significant evidence of this has come to light.

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