See more of Leonardo's Last Supper at other venues
Milan is disappointing, but of sentimental value.
My husband Jim is a travel junkie. I am a food fanatic. We both love art. So we settled for a visit to Leonardo’s famous Last Supper on a trip to Milan to satisfy our curiosity. We both studied art history as students and now make a point of seeing the real thing in countries we visit. I grew up drooling over pictures of paintings in my textbooks and it has been thrilling to see and experience a few of them in all their glory: Rembrandt’s Night Watch, Goya’s Mayas and of course Leonardo’s Mona Lisa for starters. Paintings by Picasso, Turner, Raphael, Van Gogh and so many other great artists have greeted us in galleries as famous as the Louvre, Hermitage, Uffizi, Brera and Prado.
The Real thing in the Refectory (dining room) at Santa Maria Della Grazie
Jim booked for the Last Supper and bought our e-tickets online well in advance. It was going to be an expensive meal in terms of our local currency, costing enough to wipe out my pantry for a week. All that money and effort - to sit in front of a scrubbed-out piece of wall in a darkened room for ten minutes. At least this was to be a non-fattening supper - free of calories and not very appetising. We found our way to the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria Della Grazie and waited outside in the queue until it was our turn to go inside the building.
The entrance to the refectory (certainly not an attractive place to dine) was very intimidating. We were herded into a glass box, clutching our expensive tickets. The cameras mounted on the ceiling cast their beady little eyes all over us. A door slid open on the other side and we entered a second glass cubicle. Then there was a great hush and finally we were ushered into a dark gloomy room. On the right hand side was the painting that had caused all this fuss. Measuring 460 cm × 880 cm (181 inches × 346 inches) The Last Supper is an opus Magnus to say the least. But I was disappointed and disillusioned. Leonardo Da Vinci’s personal handwriting could hardly be detected after so many decades of damage and “repair.”
On leaving the gloomy hall, picture-deprived tourists can crowd around a smaller reproduction of the painting in a small hallway and take pictures. We all had to wait for our turn to snap the “money shot” for Mama without capturing a few wayward tourist heads, protruding paunches and garish Italian handbags. We could vaguely make out the four groups of disciples, the table; the miserable cuisine (or lack of it.) Nobody, including Christ looked very inspiring or imbued with holiness: proof enough that Leonardo had merely painted a commissioned work. What were his real insights? Jim managed to take some reasonable video footage, as you will see when you watch our movie later on.
We were happy to leave with a few photographic mementoes. Buying kitchy souvenirs would have wiped out a few Metro tickets. This was actually our second helping of the Last Supper. We had just come from Lugano in Switzerland and seen a very faithful copy of the painting by one of Leonardo’s students, Cesare da Sesto. We had really enjoyed that Last Supper – a free meal in a small friendly church with our two friends and no other tourists. We could take our time and captures some unique images. Watch the video and see how a ray of sun streams from the heart of Christ. It was Autumn exuinox and the church windows had let in the sunlight to produce this awesome effect. Was this intentional? By the time we left the sun had moved and it was pouring out of Christ's outstretched hand.
If you are lucky enough to visit The Royal Academy of Arts in London you can see another copy of the Last Supper by Giampietrino. It is an oil painting on canvas in a beautiful gallery and you can take as much time as you need. Here you can brush up on all the details that have been brushed out of Leonardo's original! This painting was used to restore missing details such as the salt cellar that Judas evidnetly tipped over a well as Christ's feet and sandals. It is smaller, measuring 770 cm × 298 cm as compared to the murals that are 460 cm x 880 cm.
Now watch this short movie of the Last Supper in Milan and the copy in Lugano
The Last Supper in Milan and in Switzerland
See footage of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper and Ponte Capricia's copy by Cesare da Sesto
You can click on this link to see the Last Supper as an oil painting by Giampietrino in the London Academy of Arts.
So What Happened to the original Last Supper?
A lot of indigestion or misconception, it seems. An act of stupidity by Leonardo in the first place is the reason the paint began to flake off the wall even while the great Master was busy with it between 1495 and 1498. He worked with a team of apprentices and students known as Leonardeschi. They did all the donkey work, such as preparing the surfaces, tracing out the motifs and applying the basic colours. But first they all had to do a lot of planning and sketching under the watchful eye of their mentor. This is where the Leonardeschi could learn, practise and study figure drawing and perspective and various techniques with the Master. Painting was regarded as a trade and there was plenty of employment for competent artists who could decorate church interiors and paint portraits of important rich folk.
The Sketches and Preparation
Many of Leonardo’s students became independent artists later on and studied with other Masters such as Raphael, Donatello or Michelangelo. (No - not the Ninja Turtles.) Students had to learn by observation. Leonardo himself was no stranger to being granted a bit of licence when he was a junior apprentice. When Leonardo was fourteen years old his Master Verrocchio asked him to paint the entire face of one of the angels in his painting of St John the Baptist. When Verrocchio saw how his young student had created a masterpiece in its own right, he strode out of his own studio in a huff.
The point being that these huge and holy commissioned paintings were a team effort. We could say the same of the Last Supper. Often sketches drawn by Cesare Da Sesto were mistaken for those of Leonardo Da Vinci. Under the supervision of Leonardo, his apprentices and students would follow his instructions and perhaps fill in a few “faces” here and there. This suggests that it was not unusual for parts of paintings by the Masters were, in fact, done by the apprentices.
Two copies of the Last Supper survive in two different places
This is where the story gets interesting. If two bright students had not been able to reproduce the Last Supper in its entirety in two other locations, using two different techniques, there would have been no reliable data available to restore the remains of the Last Supper. Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli, called Giampietrino made a copy of it in 1520 using oil paint on a huge canvas, almost the same size as the original. This accurate full-scale version is now in the collection of The Royal Academy of Arts in London. It includes several lost details such as Christ's feet and the salt-cellar spilled by Judas. This painting was used as one of the main references during the modern restoration of 1978-1998.
The fresco by Cesare da Sesto in the Church of St. Ambrogio in Ponte Capriasca near Lugano in Switzerland was also used during the 20 year restoration of the last century. Cesare’s sketches are very similar to those of Leonardo so who knows what ended up on the last picture - team work? It is said that the original motifs from Milan were used for tracing onto the walls of this Church. He used the traditional technique of painting tempera onto plaster and there is no shortage of fine detail and delicate brushwork. Cesare chose to use a different background and altered the perspective somewhat. He changed some of the colours of the robes but remained faithful in every other detail, including the portraiture. The people of Lugano are proud to point out that the names of all the disciples are written below the painting as instructed by Leonardo before he died. Cesare was a great friend of Leonardo and helped to preserve the legacy of the Last Supper (as a fresco) with his help (sketches?) and encouragement.
Blame it all on Bad Technique
Leonardo was very concerned about the condition of his original work throughout the rest of his life. He encouraged a number of his students to make faithful copies of it. Call it foresight in hindsight. He knew he had himself to blame for what had amounted to a self-destructing work of art. But as an innovator, a genius, an inventor and a brilliant architect and engineer it is forgivable to neglect a quirk of science. Leonardo had tried to paint with water-based paint on a non-porous surface. Rather like using poster paint on a china plate and leaving it in the sun to dry. Yes, even if you varnish it, your masterpiece will flake off.
Painting Techniques: Fresco, Tempera, Oil Painting
We need to appreciate the difference between a fresco and an oil painting to really understand the cause of the original problem. A fresco is painted on wet plaster with a water based paint called tempera. This is a solution containing mineral pigments that are mixed with egg yolks. No joke, even today there is an iffy smell about pots of tempera (original water-based) poster paint. Mineral oxides provided colours like green (chrome), yellow (ochre), white (lime) and so on. The plaster absorbed a lot of the colour so the artist had to work quickly before the area became too dry. Leonardo wanted to take his time and tried to change this technique.
The fresco technique produced an indelible image as we can see from these examples of early paintings in medieval monasteries. This example from the monastery of Sumea in North East Turkey. Shows the this plaster layer used as a surface to apply the tempera. As you can see, the colours are still bright and these is no flaking of the images despite the plaster breaking off.
Frescos do not have the subtlety of soft brush strokes we use for oil paintings. Leonardo wanted to have the freedom to work in more detail and take his time. This is why he sealed off the surface using waterproofing materials that were around at the time such as bitumen and resin. With oil painting the porous canvas is primed with a waterproofing substance such as varnish. But onto this sealed canvas surface, the pigments are mixed with oil. They take a long time to dry and colours can be blended and smudged at will to create the soft “sfumato” effect so loved by Da Vinci. His most famous painting - the Mona Lisa is a typical example of this, but it took him four years!
Although still a crumbly mess, we can appreciate many of the original conceptual aspects of the Last Supper. The final result evokes an emotive effect - a feeling of awe, even to this day when viewing the shadow that remains of it. Rather like the teachings and good intentions of the Messiah, the true meaning tends to flake off the walls of a whitened sepulchre.
There has been a sad succession of deterioration/restoration as you can see from this timeline:
1495 – 1458: The last Supper is painted by Leonardo and his team. Before completion some of the paint begins to flake and peel off due to the experimental technique he used.
1517: The painting begins to deteriorate considerably and some of the detail disappears.
1556: Leonardo’s biographer Giorgio Vasari declares that the painting has been ruined. (He said that way back then. Just in case you think I am a killjoy.)
1652: They cut a doorway through the painting. They later bricked it up. How could they! Traces of this indiscretion appear as an irregular arch-shaped structure near the centre of the painting.
1768: Some idiots hung a curtain over the painting to protect it. But closing up the painting trapped moisture on its surface and it smudged off more of the now squishy flaking paint. Opening the curtain served to wipe out yet more detail, along with the delicate brush strokes of the great Master.
The windows of the building were bricked up at a later stage for fear of the damaging effect that sunlight may have on it. (This is probably why we were not allowed to take photos of it. The supervisors even seemed to object to loud noises!)
1978-1998: The main restoration of the Last Supper, using life-sized copies from Giampietrino (oil on canvas) and Cesare Da Sesto (fresco or tempera on plaster)
Leonardo da Vinci painted The Last Supper on a dry wall rather than on wet plaster. He sealed the stone wall with a layer of pitch, gesso and mastic. This produced a shiny non-porous surface similar to a well primed canvas, ready to accept oil-based paint. But instead he used a water-based tempera medium. A conflict of techniques - just like a badly cooked meal, the Last Supper has failed to stand the test of time.
But there is more to the Last Supper than the picture on the wall. We can all experience the true genius of the undertaking by the spiritual impact it has on us. How it must have pleased Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan and the patron of Leonardo Da Vinci to see these life sized images of Christ the Lord with his twelve disciples depicted on a dining room wall. Their state of shock and dismay at the table is a harsh reminder of how not to eat a meal. Never raise your cortisol levels as it upsets the digestion: this is what my Mother told me. But it shows that we humans are not really in control of what we are destined to do. Albeit with the best of intentions, we tend to blunder and then have regrets.
It is all in the stars, they say. But that is another story. In another article we can take a look beyond the Last Supper and explore some fascinating machinations.