30 May 2010

LIFE: Milan's Last Supper

MILAN, Italy - When I asked my Best Friend what she liked most about her first trip to Italy, she said Milan. Milan? That was a surprise. After my carefully calculated tour of the Italy’s lake region which involved massive coordination of train, boat and funicular time tables, she liked Milan? We were only there for half a day and only managed to see the Galleria and the Duomo. I do remember asking her if she wanted to see the Last Supper, which is one of the city's treasures, and she said no. She wasn’t the first to turn down the offer. I’ve had that reaction from others and it always surprises me.

Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper

Maybe there are so many reproductions of the painting out there that people forget that the original, painted by Leonardo da Vinci over 500 years ago, is at the Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery. It recently underwent the most intense restorations of any work of art on record.

The city of Milan wanted the restoration completed for the 500th anniversary of the painting, but the years passed, and the scaffolding stayed in place as the restorers worked flake by flake, millimeter by millimeter, fragment after fragment.

But then again the painting was never really about speed anyway, was it.

When Leonardo was working on it, he had more than one unfriendly discussion with the Friars of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie over his apparent lack of urgency to complete the project. They were becoming exasperated with his slowness. They complained that Leonardo would stand in front of the painting for hours, make a few brush strokes, and then leave for the day. It was true. Leonardo was taking his time. In fact it is precisely because he wanted to take his time that all the trouble began. Leonardo knew that if he used normal fresco techniques he would have to work quickly, and that was not his game plan. So he experimented and reworked an old Roman and Greek technique that would give him more time and allow him to work at his own pace.

Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan

With true fresco, a layer of wet plaster is applied to a surface and before it dries the artist must apply the color. The color then penetrates the plaster and becomes part of it, and together they become an indestructible substance. The wet plaster layer is called la giornata, meaning the day, because that's all the time you have to work with it. Instead, what Leonardo did was put two layers of a dry plaster preparation on the wall, and he used the wall the same way a painter uses a canvas.

If he made a mistake, although it's hard to think of Leonardo making mistakes, all he had to do was slap on another layer of plaster and start over again. This technique gave him enough time; days, months and even years, to retouch, correct and modify portions of the painting he wasn't satisfied with. The problem was that the technique he used requires a number of special conditions, the most important of which is a dry wall, and the wall on which Leonardo painted the Last Supper was anything but dry, even today. In the winter moisture laden winds blow down on Milan from the snow-covered Alps, and in the summer water condenses on the wall because there is a river directly beneath the monastery. Not the best of conditions for a painting, to say the least.

Detail: Head of Christ

Cracks actually started to appear on the surface of the painting about ten years after it was finished. No doubt the culprit was the humidity, but the vapors from the kettles of boiling broth and splattering fat and grease from roasts turning on the open fire, played their part as well. The room was after all, the Friars kitchen and dining room. In addition to the cooking that went on, smoky torches were lit during the evenings and dark days of winter, so as the cracks appeared they quickly filled with soot and dust.

By the 1660's and 1700's, visitors saw a painting that had almost disappeared, a painting reduced to obscure shreds. And as if it's pitiful condition was not humiliating enough, when the French occupied Milan, Napoleon's troops used the monastery as a stable, and whiled away the hours throwing bricks at the painting, that is when their horses were not tied to it. There were also several attempts to repaint it, and even one attempt to remove it from the wall and cart it off to France.


Then came a series of restorations, one more damaging than the other. The painting was scraped, peeled, waxed, oiled, glued and destroyed. At one point restorers were reattaching Leonard's paint droppings with a mixture of glue and oil. At the end of the eighteenth century, art restorer Luigi Mazza decided to take all the glue and oil off. While he was definitely on the right track, in the process he also took off a great deal of what remained of Leonardo's paint.

And as if that wasn't damage enough, the building was completely destroyed by a bombduring the Second World War Newspapers of the day ran scandalous photos of the wall exposed to the elements, held up only by sacks of sand. The fact that the wall was standing at all would have been called a miracle in the Middle Ages, and maybe it was.

Today the painting is protected. Special dust-absorbing carpets and dust-filtering pipes have been installed to keep it safe from the elemnts. Reservations are necessary and visitors are only allowed inside in groups of 25 and only for 15 minutes. But it is 15 minutes in the presence of genius. If you are in town, and you can get a reservation, I highly recommend it. You’ll never look at a reproduction of the Last Supper in the same way again.

1 comment:

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    The Eastern Orthodox use the term "Mystical Supper" which refers both to the biblical event and the act of Eucharistic celebration within liturgy.
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