Henry James called it ‘an illustrious invalid’ while Aldous Huxley called it ‘the saddest work of art in the world’. Neither were talking about the subject matter of one of the world’s most important and moving works of art, but about centuries of appalling neglect, which saw Leonardo’s Last Supper assume the condition of a fly-blown poster on a subway wall.
You’ll find the painting in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. In a permanent process of restoration, due to its state of decay, first sight of it makes it clear exactly what James meant. People visit the painting ‘with leave-taking sighs and almost death bed or tiptoe precautions’ he noted, and such is its peeling, crumbling state that you cannot believe the painting will still be intact should you choose to visit again.
A large part of the blame lies with Leonardo da Vinci himself of course. Quixotically he chose to complete his masterpiece with oil paint (a far less reliable medium in Renaissance times than today) rather than with the fast-drying and stable watercolour fresco technique. Within five years the painting was crumbling. Two hundred years later, Napoleon’s troops were using the wall and painting for target practice. A Second World War bomb flattened most of Santa Maria, leaving only the wall bearing Leonardo’s painting … a miracle perhaps?
Two hundred years of restoration beg the question: how much of what we see is actually Leonardo’s work? And restoration, of course, was markedly more intrusive in past years than is the fashion today.
And yet it still fascinates visitors, a fascination only increased by its central role in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. The parlous state of the painting makes it all the more tantalising trying to work out whether that is a man or Mary Magdalene. The publication of the book seems to have achieved the impossible, to make The Last Supper Leonardo’s most famed and viewed painting, outstripping the Mona Lisa.
It’s a dramatic spectacle, taking up a whole wall of the church, the life-size depictions of the figures contributing to the scene’s drama. The figures of the disciples are grouped in a triangular Trinity formation around Christ. In a peculiar trick of perspective, the walls of the room within the canvas seem to recede from the walls of the church itself. All lines focus on the soon-to-be-crucified Christ at the centre.
And even through the crumbling oils and patchy restoration, the brilliance of Leonardo’s work remains. He scoured the streets of Milan for more than two years, searching for faces to make the visages of the disciples. The monks complained, after months of work, that the face of Judas Iscariot was still not in place. The arch and acerbic Leonardo, never a great fan of the clergy, replied that in all Milan he had been unable to find a countenance sufficiently soaked in evil. But if pushed he would use the face of the prior. He got there in the end. Vasari writes that Judas’s face is ‘the very embodiment of treachery and inhumanity’.
Be warned that this is a very popular attraction, and it’s advisable to attempt to book well ahead of your visit … or prepare to be disappointed. An excellent audio guide helps you to make the most of the painting.
Even if you're in Milan for just the one day - indeed you may be visiting explicitly to view the Last Supper - do try to make time to visit the principal Milan art gallery, the Pinacoteca Brera.
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Posted by: Avanea Levien