One of the most studied and respected pieces of art in the western world is in danger of disappearing – and this is not new news to art lovers and historians of the past five centuries. The famed Last Supper, considered by many as the ultimate stroke of artistic genius by none other than the great Leonardo da Vinci himself, is literally deteriorating, has been for quite some time, and has recently been resurfacing again in the press as a Must See Before It Disappears Spot in 2013.
The painting itself, an impressive 29 x 15 feet in size, came about when the Duke Ludovico Sforza commissioned the architect Donato Bramante to turn the recently built church of Santa Maria delle Grazie into a mausoleum. He also sought out Leonardo Da Vinci and asked that he deck the walls with images of Christ. And adorn the walls, Leo did, with the world’s most recognized piece of art (in addition to a piece of the Crucifixion into which Sforza and his family are inserted). The painting took three years to finish for a less-than-dependable Leonardo, who was rumored to periodically disappear for lengthy periods of time before reappearing with renewed vigor, some days working on the painting nonstop with no breaks for food or sleep. The painting also served as a testament to Leonardo’s creative inventiveness, who experimented with his paints, and, although succeeded in many other endeavors during his lifetime, failed miserably at finding a mixture that would stand the trials of time.
…Or even the trials of a few years, for the painting did not even hold up for all of Leonardo’s lifetime. The transformation of the church itself into a mausoleum was never completed, and it soon after became assumed by the adjoining Dominican monastery, whose monks used it as a dining hall. The painting began deteriorating almost immediately – by the mid 1550’s (not even a century after the work was complete), Leonardo’s biographer described the painting as “ruined,” and by the time that the door was carved out of the place formerly occupied by Jesus’ feet in 1652, the scene was unrecognizable. Further damage ensued when a curtain was hung over the painting for “protection,” trapping moisture and flaking the paint at every touch.
Since these initial destructive 250 years, there have been multiple restorations (the first being in the early 18th century), during which the painting was for all intents and purposes completely repainted over, stripped, wrongly treated as a fresco, glued, and mended with stucco. The room was also used as an armory during the times of Napoleon and struck by a bomb during WWII. In the 1970’s Pinin Brambilla Barcilon undertook a massive restoration project, stabilizing the painting, correcting misguided restoration attempts, and repainting areas that were beyond repair in watercolor (to distinguish them as non-original). The process lasted 21 years before the painting was ready for public display on May 28, 1999.
See it Now!
The restoration, although well-done and carefully implemented, did not save the painting from further damage, and the museum at which it is now displayed now lets people in six days a week for only 15 minutes at a time. The former refractory is climate controlled, and visitors must pass through dehumidifying chambers before entering the room. The good news is that although tickets sell out within 2 minutes of their release every month, Select Italy’s extensive allotment is available for easy purchase at selectitaly.com.