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The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci is considered to belong to the top 3 most mysterious and controversial works of the famous Italian. A fresco which is not really a fresco. A three-year-long experiment. A fertile field for speculation about the meaning of the symbols and the true personalities of the depicted characters. An inescapable challenge for restorers. All this is about one of the most famous works of art in the world.
The First Step Is Always the Hardest: Who Commissioned Leonardo to Paint The Last Supper
In 1494, the odious and ambitious Ludovico Sforza became the Duke of Milan. Despite all the ambitions and weaknesses, to some extend inherent, I must say, in almost every prominent statesman, Ludovico served a great deal for the benefit of his estate and achieved a significant diplomatic success by establishing peaceful relations with Florence, Venice and Rome.
He paid a lot of attention to the development of agriculture, industry, science and culture. Among the painters he especially favoured was Leonardo da Vinci. The artist created the portrait of Ludovico’s mistress and the mother of his son Cecilia Gallerani; the picture is better known as The Lady with an Ermine. Presumably, the painter also immortalized the Duke’s legitimate wife Beatrice d'Este, as well as his second mistress and the mother of his another illegitimate son Lucrezia Crivelli.
Ludovico’s house chapel was that at the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, whose abbot was a close friend of the Duke. The ruler of Milan sponsored a major reconstruction of the church, which he saw as a future mausoleum and a monument to the Sforza dynasty. His vain plans were exacerbated by the sudden death of his wife Beatrice and daughter Bianca in 1497, two years after Leonardo began working on The Last Supper.
In 1495 the artist was commissioned to paint one of the walls of the chapel’s dining hall with a nine-meter fresco depicting a popular Gospel story about the last meeting of Christ with the apostles, at which he showed his disciples the sacrament of the Eucharist for the first time. Back then, no one even suspected what a long and difficult fate was waiting for the fresco.
Experimental Art of Leonardo da Vinci
Until then, Leonardo had never worked work with frescoes. But how could that be an obstacle for a person who, of all methods of cognition, chose the empirical one and didn’t take anyone on their word, preferring to know everything by his own experience? He acted on the principle of “not taking easy ways”, and in this case remained faithful to it till the end.
Instead of using the good old technique of applying tempera to fresh plaster (which, in fact, gave the name to the fresco, originating from the Italian fresco – "fresh"), Leonardo began to experiment. Literally all the factors and stages, involved in the creating frescos, consistently became the subject of his experiment: starting with the construction of scaffolding, for which he tried to invent his own mechanisms, and ending with the composition of plaster and paints.
Firstly, he categorically did not like the method of working on wet plaster, since the latter set rather quickly and did not allow working thoughtfully on each fragment and endlessly refining it, leading to perfection – the way Leonardo used to create his paintings. Secondly, the traditional egg tempera did not give him the necessary degree of brightness of colours, since it was somewhat dimmed and changed colour when dried. Mixing pigments with oil made it possible to get more expressive and shiny colours. Besides, it was possible to achieve a different density of shades: from very thick and opaque to subtle and luminous. It perfectly agreed with his love for his signature sfumato technique and creating the filigree light and shade effects.
Still, that's not all. In order to make the oil emulsion more adapted to the requirements of wall painting, the artist decided to add egg yolk to it, thus obtaining a hitherto unprecedented composition of "oil tempera". As time would show, in the long term this bold experiment did not justify itself. Business Before Pleasure: Long History of Creation of The Last Supper
According to contemporaries, Leonardo approached all aspects of the creation of this painting with such thoroughness that it lasted indefinitely, and this immensely irritated the Abbot of the monastery. First, who would like their dining hall to be in a state of "chronic repair" with all its attendant nuances (some sources mention a very unpleasant smell of Leonardo’s composition of the plaster)?
Secondly, the long process also meant a corresponding increase in the financial costs of the fresco, and the more so that the whole team was working on it. The amount of preparatory works such as the application of plaster, primer and coating of lead white was supposed to involve all members of Leonardo’s studio.
The Abbot's patience was gradually coming to an end, and he complained to the Duke about the artist’s slowness and laziness. According to the legend, given by Vasari in The Lives, Leonardo, in his defense, answered Ludovico that he could not find a suitable scoundrel for the role of a model for Judas. And that if the face of the required degree of disgust would not be found, he "could always use the head of the Abbot, so annoying and immodest."
There is another legend about the model for Judas. It is so beautiful that even if the situation was far from reality, it would be worth inventing it. The artist allegedly looked for his Judas among the dregs of society, and in the end chose the worst drunkard from the gutter. "The model" could hardly stand on his feet and did not understand much, but when the image of Judas was finished, the drunkard stared at the painting and said that he had already posed for it before.
It turned out that three years before these events, when he was a young and chaste chorister in the church choir, he was noticed by some painter and offered the role of a model for the image of Christ.
It turns out that one and the same man in different periods of his life happened to be an embodiment of absolute purity and love, as well as the prototype of the greatest fall and betrayal. It’s a beautiful parable about the fragile boundaries between the good and the evil and how hard it is to climb up and easy to roll down.
Elusive Beauty: How Much Leonardo Remained in The Last Supper?
Despite all the efforts and experiments with the composition of paint, Leonardo still failed to make a revolution in creating frescoes. They were usually supposed to delight the eye for many centuries, but the destruction of the paint layer of The Last Supper began during the painter’s life. Already in the middle of the XVI century Vasari mentioned that "nothing was visible except a muddle of blots".
Numerous restorations and attempts to save the fresco by the legendary Italian only aggravated the losses. In the 30s of the last century the British art historian Kenneth Clark studied preparatory sketches and early copies of the painting made by the artists who took part in the fresco’s creation. He compared them to what was left of the fresco, and his conclusions were disappointing: "The exaggerated grimacing types, with their flavour of Michelangelo's 'Last Judgement', suggest that the leading hand was that of a feeble mannerist of the sixteenth century."
The last and most extensive restoration was completed in 1999. It took about two decades and required an investment of more than 20 billion lire. It is no wonder: restorers had to do an extremely delicate work: it was necessary to remove all layers of early restorations and not to damage little pieces which remained from the original fresco. The head of the restoration works recalled that the fresco was treated “as if it were a real disabled person”.
Despite the critics’ claims that as a result of those restorations the painting lost its "spirit of the original", today it is still closer to what the monks of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie saw in front of them during the meal. The main paradox is that one of the most famous and recognizable works of art in the world contains only no more than 20 percent of the original.
In fact, now it is the embodiment of a collective interpretation of Leonardo's plan, obtained through painstaking research and analysis of all available information. Still, as it often happens in the art world, the difficult fate of the exhibit only adds to its’ points and value (just think of the story of the abduction and acquisition of Leonardo’s Gioconda, which brought it to the absolute top of the mass culture).