As I get ready to launch details for Treasures of Piedmont and Italy’s Northern Lakes, the tour I will be hosting to Italy next September, I thought some in-depth posts about some of the “treasures” we will be seeing would be appropriate.
The first day of the tour will feature the highlights of Milan, one of which is Leonardo Da Vinci’s great masterpiece, The Last Supper.
The fresco is painted on the wall of the refectory (or monk’s dining hall) in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
At the time that Leonardo painted it, it was not a dining hall but a mausoleum for the Sforza family. Eventually, it became a refectory and when that happened, the monks cut a doorway into the wall on which this fresco was painted (probably as a short cut to the kitchen!) By doing this, they wiped out the feet of Christ! Over the years, the doorway has been closed up, but the permanent damage has been done to this great work.
The fresco has had its problems since the beginning, when in 1495, Leonardo Da Vinci was commissioned by his patron, Ludovico Sforza, to paint a wall in what was to be the family mausoleum. It took Leonardo several years to complete this project (as he was known to walk away from his works for long periods) and it was not painted as a proper fresco. Leonardo da Vinci painted The Last Supper on a dry wall rather than on wet plaster. Because a fresco cannot be modified as the artist works, Leonardo instead chose to seal the stone wall with a layer of pitch, gesso and mastic, then paint onto the sealing layer with tempera. Because of the method used, the piece began to deteriorate a few years after he finished it. Restorations began in the 1700’s and continued for several centuries, much to no avail. Further damage was done to the fresco due to improper restoration attempts. By the late 1970’s, the painting’s appearance had become so badly deteriorated that it was feared the masterpiece would be lost forever. Fortunately, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the conservation of Renaissance frescoes, Pinin Brambilla Barcion, initiated a major 20 year restoration on the fresco in 1978.
The project consisted of permanently stabilizing the painting, and reversing the damage caused by dirt, pollution, and the misguided 18th- and 19th-century restoration attempts. Since it was determined to be impractical to move the painting to a more controlled environment, the refectory was instead converted to a sealed, climate controlled environment. Since 1999, a very elaborate system has been put into effect to preserve the fresco. Only a small group of people are allowed to visit the refectory at a time – and then only for 15 minutes. Before entering the room, you are guided through a series of glass doors (much like entering a bank in Europe). From the outside, the doors open and you are filed into a sealed glassed- in room. After the outside doors close, the inside doors open allowing you to enter the refectory. It is actually really nice to be inside the room with only a few people. It allows you the opportunity to really study the fresco without throngs of people standing in front of it. Everyone gets a great view and you are allowed enough time to appreciate its glory.
The subject of the fresco, a portrayal of the reaction given by each apostle when Jesus tells them that one of them would betray him, has spurred theories and speculations as to what Leonardo Da Vinci was trying to say through his symbolism. One of the major ones deals with the number 3 – the apostles are in groups of 3, there are 3 windows above the table, and the geometric shape of Christ is a triangle. This is believed to be symbolic of the Holy Trinity.
Studying the twelve apostles, we note that they all have different reactions to the news of betrayal and it’s interesting to read into the body language and actions portrayed by each one. It’s fun to pick out all the small details of what the character’s are doing. For instance, Judas is tipping over a salt shaker which may have to do with the Eastern tradition of “betraying the salt” or betraying one’s master.
There are numerous other small gestures throughout the painting that I think make it one of the most interesting pieces of art to study.
The masterpiece has also been the subject of novels and movies. Most recently, Dan Brown’s famous Da Vinci Code has put forward some more theories (far fetched though they might be) of what Leonardo was trying to say and which make for some interesting further studies of the piece.