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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.