History of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper Painting

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Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting was originally painted starting in 1495 and was completed in 1498. The painting was commissioned by Duke Ludovico Sforza and his wife Beatrice d’Este to be painted as a mural in Milan. The painting itself is a recreation of The Last Supper as described in the Gospel of John regarding the final days of Jesus Christ. The scene Leonardo chooses is the moment at which Jesus reveals that one of his disciples will betray him.

Measuring 15 x 29 Feet, the mural is found in the back of the dining hall of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. During the time in which Leonardo painted it, depictions of the Last Supper were very common. It was a challenge to all good Renaissance painters to recreate the Last Supper. However, Leondardo’s depiction garnered so much fame and admiration because it was so much different than the others. Using the sense of realism he infused in many of his paintings, the Last Supper was a wonderful example of his talents. However, some criticism has been leveled due to the consequences of the painting technique Leonardo Da Vinci used in the Last Supper and its rapid deterioration.

The painting itself is rife with important references to his patron, including the Sforzas coats-of-arms, located along the top of the painting beneath the arches of the ceiling. There were also originally figures of the Sforza family added in tempera to the piece, though like the main painting itself, they have rapidly deteriorated over time.

By the time Leonardo’s biographer, Giorgio Vasari, was writing his histories, the painting was already largely ruined by decomposition. It’s believed that such flaking began to occur as early as 1517 and continued for centuries. In 1652 a large doorway was cut through the middle of the painting, which at this point was largely unrecognizable. It was bricked up in time, but an irregular shape in the painting can still be seen today. Numerous copies were made early in the life of the painting which depict different versions, though it is impossible to know what the mural really looked like any longer.

In 1768, a curtain was hung to protect the painting from further deterioration. Unfortunately, the curtain only served cause the build up of moisture. When the curtain was moved, it would flake even more paint free of the wall. Da Vinci’s Last Supper was first restored in 1726 by Michelangelo Bellotti. He filled in the missing sections with oils and varnished it over. Unfortunately this restoration barely lasted and in 1770 another painter tried again. Giuseppe Mazza removed all of Bellotti’s restoration work and almost completely repainted the mural. The public was unhappy with the repainting though and he was eventually halted.

Only 26 years later, in 1796 French Troops utilized the room for an armory all the while throwing rocks at it and purposely gouging out the eyes of the Apostles. Later, the room was used as a prison and further damage still could have been inflicted. Later, in 1821, Stefano Barezzi was hired to move what everyone thought was a fresco as such work was his specialty. However, because the painting was not a fresco, he damaged the painting severely. He attempted to reattach those sections he had destroyed with glue. Later, in 1901, Luigi Cavenaghi did a full study of the painting and the structure behind it before starting on a full cleaning. Later, in 1924 Oreste Silvestri continued the job of cleaning the painting and restoring the broken bits and pieces.

However, the painting was still not quite safe. On August 15, 1943, the room was hit with a bomb. Though the wall was sandbagged, the vibrations from the bombing may have damaged it even further. After the war, Mauro Pelliccioli attempted another cleaning of the painting.

By the time the 1970s arrived, the painting was largely unrecognizable. So, from 1978 to 1999 Pinin Brambilla Barcilon undertook a massive restoration process, the goal of which was to stabilize the painting for good and remove the damage inflicted over the years. The entire room was turned into a museum, sealed off from the outside world, as the painting could not be moved. The portions of the painting that could not be restored accurately were repainted using careful watercolors while the rest was studied and researched using old drawings and sketches from throughout the world. Upon finishing, Barcilon was able to recreate the first full picture of the Last Supper in hundreds of years. Today, the Last Supper painting sits in its current exhibit in Milan. To view the painting you must sign up for a long waiting list and are only given 15 minutes when you enter the exhibit.

The importance of the Last Supper to pop culture has also seen a recent spike as more and more people find interesting bits and pieces in the painting to discuss. The release of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code in 2003 only helped that popularity to spike, while movies and television have been using the famous image for years now to depict the themes of Da Vinci’s painting. For those still interested in learning more, you can find incredibly detailed information on Da Vinci’s Last Supper on Last Supper wikis, as well as excellent Last Supper reprints in most art shops around the world.

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