The enduring legacy of The Last Supper

This week’s column features a work of art that is amongst the most famous, if not the most famous wall painting in the world. We are, of course, talking about The Last Supper, created more than four centuries ago by the legendary Leonardo da Vinci. Only a handful of people know how this amazing work of art has managed to survive the abuses by man and nature, including two world wars.

Leonardo’s mural is located on the wall of what was earlier the refectory or dining hall of the monastery of Santa delle Grazie in Milan. The vast number of misfortunes that this painting has suffered makes one believe in divine providence, since it is still located in its original site and visited by art lovers from the world over. The Last Supper is said to have suffered more than ‘half a dozen restorers’, who seem to have been its worst enemies. Now after its last restoration, even though parts of this masterpiece have been destroyed, it is now said to be as close to what da Vinci had originally painted. The vagaries of nature have also been controlled somewhat through central heating and ensuring that sunlight does not fall on it.

It has been said ‘the downfall of The Last Supper began with its creation.’ Da Vinci, who completed his masterpiece in the late 1490s, chose to paint the mural on a base of white lead primer, instead of using the usual practice of painting quickly and directly on wet plaster. While his choice might appear technically sound, for some reason, in this particular case, it seems to have failed. Experts feel that humidity affected the plaster, as a result of which, both the primer and the paint, were not able to adhere to the wall. We cannot fault the members of the monastery as they were most protective of their mural, but lack of knowledge took its toll.

By 1517, the word spread about the painting beginning to flake and ‘several largescale copies were completed within Leonardo’s lifetime, including two by his students.’ By 1587, the painting was considered to be ‘half-ruined’. Then a door below the painting was enlarged and Christ’s feet disappeared.

In 1768, a protective curtain was hung that added to the flaking. It was at this stage that the friars decided to engage the first restorer. His name was Michelangelo Belloti, an almost unknown painter to repaint the entire surface. When his work was pronounced ‘incompetent’, it was decide in 1770 to appoint another painter — Giuseppe Mazza, who was asked ‘to remove Bellotti’s overpainting with a scalpel’. One can only shudder at the very thought of anyone even suggesting such desecration! Fortunately, James Barry, an Irish artist, who happened to be visiting and saw the damage caused by Mazza’s effort and raised a hue and cry — loud enough to halt Mazza.

But the worst time for the painting probably came in 1796 when Napoleon’s troops occupied Milan. It is said that they used the refectory as an armoury and a stable and damaged the mural by throwing stones at the apostles and even scratching their eyes. From then on, more restorations followed till in 1943. Allied troops dropped a bomb that landed next to the dining hall. Somehow, the wall with the mural which had been sandbagged, managed to survive.

The dining hall was rebuilt and now, after considerable effort, The Last Supper continues to be one of Milan’s biggest attractions. Much of the painting is no doubt altered, but da Vinci’s genius shines through in the perspective, which gives visitors the feeling of dining with Christ and the apostles.

(The writer is an author and a former art gallery owner)

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