Andy Warhol’s often-quoted sound bite that “everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes” can be applied to objects as well as people. The most celebrated example is Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco painting of The Last Supper where, at 15-minute intervals, 30 visitors at a time are allowed to enter the former refectory (dining hall) of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.
The reason for this 15-minute time limit is to allow as many people as possible to view the fresco — over 1,000 per day — while preserving Leonardo’s fragile masterpiece from the effects of its worldwide fame. The Last Supper is displayed in a moisture-monitored environment that is protected by a sophisticated air filtration system, and visitors must pass through dust-filtering chambers before they reach the painting. Select Italy can plan your trip to Italy and include the Leonardo’s Last Supper in Milan. To satisfy your curiosity about this undisputed masterpiece, here are five things to know about The Last Supper before you go:
1) How Big Is It?
It’s immense, measuring 29 feet long by 15 feet high, and covers the entire end wall of what was once the convent’s dining hall. The friars would have eaten their frugal meals while gazing at this scene depicting men grouped around a wooden table much like the one where they are sitting themselves.
2) How Long Did It Take Leonardo to Paint It?
Four years — he began working on it in 1495 and finished The Last Supper in 1498. This is worth noting since Leonardo had a marked tendency to procrastinate or leave projects unfinished.
3) Why Is the Composition Remarkable?
One reason is because the disciples all display very human, identifiable emotions. The Last Supper had certainly been painted before, however, Leonardo’s version was the first to depict real people acting like real people. Christ announces that one disciple will betray him before sunrise, and all twelve react to the news with different degrees of horror, anger and shock — the calm figure of Jesus is the emotional center of the storm.
Also the use of perspective in the painting is incredible! You can see that every single element of the painting directs one’s attention straight to the midpoint of the composition, which is Christ’s head. It’s arguably the greatest example of one-point perspective ever created.
4) Why Is it Falling Apart?
First and foremost an inventor, Leonardo liked to experiment with new techniques. Instead of using tempera on wet plaster (the preferred method of fresco painting, and one which had worked successfully for centuries), he applied the pigments to dry plaster, building up the paint in slow, successive layers. Leonardo’s experiment resulted in a more varied palette with which he was able to achieve amazingly luminous details, such as light bouncing off pewter plates or the springy softness of hair. He got the effect he wanted but it turned out that this method wasn’t durable at all. The painted plaster began to flake off the wall almost immediately, and people have been attempting to restore it ever since (the most recent restoration took place from 1979-1999).
5) Why Doesn’t Jesus Have Feet?
Leonardo DID paint Christ’s feet, as contemporary copies of The Last Supper show, however, around 1650 someone decided that the refectory needed another door and the only logical spot for said door was right in the middle of that wall. We should probably consider ourselves lucky that the workman wasn’t hired to put in a huge glass picture window instead!
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