Leonardo painted three of his masterpieces in Milan: the two versions of the mystery-laden Virgin of the Rocks and the Last Supper. The former two are in London and the Louvre; the latter would have been in Paris too, had the French been able to figure out a way to remove the wall.
Ever since the 14th century, it had been the fashion in Italy to paint a Cenacolo or scene of the Last Supper on the walls of monastic refectories, and as the Dominicans at Santa Maria were special favourites of Lodovico il Moro, he sent them his favourite artist to make their Cenacolo the last word on the subject. When Leonardo unveiled his Last Supper (1494–98) it was immediately acclaimed as the greatest work of the greatest living artist, a masterful psychological study, an instant caught in time, the apostles’ gestures of disbelief and dismay captured almost photographically by one of the greatest students of human nature. In the 16th century, Vasari wrote in his Lives of the Artists ‘In all the faces one can read the fearful question: who will betray the Lord? And each expresses in his own way not only his love for Jesus, but also fear, anger and indeed sorrow, because they cannot understand his words.’ According to Vasari, Leonardo left the portrait of Christ purposely unfinished, believing himself unworthy to paint divinity; Judas, the isolated traitor, also posed a problem, but the artist eventually was able to catch the expression of a man caught guiltily unawares but still nefariously determined and unrepentant.
Unfortunately for posterity, damp was a problem even as Leonardo worked on the fresco and the ever-experimental genius was not content to use proper, established fresco technique (where the paint is applied quickly to wet plaster) but painted with tempera on glue and plaster as if on wood, enabling him to return over and over to achieve the subtlety of tone and depth he desired. Leonardo knew even as he painted his masterpiece that it wouldn’t last, but the fact only stimulated his restless mind, which was fascinated with the unfinished and the transitory. Almost immediately the moisture in the walls began its deadly work of flaking off particles of paint.
Although it was considered a ‘lost work’ by the 17th century (in 1620 it was so dark that the Spaniards unwittingly cut a doorway into its centre), various restorers have tried their hand at this most challenging task. In the Second World War the refectory was massively damaged by a bomb, and the Last Supper was only preserved thanks to piles of mattresses and other precautionary measures. In 1953, master restorer Mauro Pelliccioli covered what remained of the work with a rock-hard protective shield of clear glue; by then, only an estimated 20 per cent of what was visible was by Leonardo’s own hand. In 1977, the Ministry of Arts decided to let Italy’s communications company Olivetti pay £3.5 million to make the Last Supper a showcase restoration project. The leader of the project, Pinin Brambilla, was given the job of chipping off Pelliccioli’s protective coating, cleansing the work of its previous restorations and repaintings, then stabilizing the wall to prevent further damage, and finally painting in the gaps. In May 1999, when the last scaffolding was taken down (the restoration took over five times as long as it took Leonardo to paint it), Brambilla’s work was displayed to howls of fury by art critics around the world.
Italians for the most part have tried to hold their chins up (the then Minister for the Arts, Giovanna Melandri, called it ‘the restoration of the century’), while one of the harshest critics, James Beck from the Department of Art History at Columbia University, countered: ‘This woman has simply produced a new Brambilla. What you have is a modern repainting of a work that was poorly conserved. It doesn't even have an echo of the past. At least the older over-paintings were guided by Leonardo's work.’ Brambilla (who was quoted as saying she communed daily with Leonardo’s ghost while working on the project) notoriously even went where the living Leonardo feared to tread and put some finishing touches on Christ’s face.
© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls