Restored Goes on Display Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Pinin Brambilla Barcilon’s restoration of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper raised questions concerning the use of modern technologies in repairing classic artworks.

Summary of Event

On May 28, 1999, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper was unveiled for the public after a years-long project to restore the painting. Almost immediately, art scholars and critics offered both praise and criticism of the restoration’s results. Pinin Brambilla Barcilon was the Renaissance art scholar and restorer in charge of the restoration. The project, which had taken twenty-one years, was by far the longest, most painstaking, and most technologically advanced restoration of The Last Supper ever attempted. Last Supper, The (Leonardo da Vinci) Art;restoration [kw]Restored Last Supper Goes on Display (May 28, 1999) [kw]Last Supper Goes on Display, Restored (May 28, 1999) Last Supper, The (Leonardo da Vinci) Art;restoration [g]Europe;May 28, 1999: Restored Last Supper Goes on Display[10360] [g]Italy;May 28, 1999: Restored Last Supper Goes on Display[10360] [c]Arts;May 28, 1999: Restored Last Supper Goes on Display[10360] Brambilla Barcilon, Pinin Leonardo da Vinci Sforza, Ludovico

Brambilla Barcilon was appointed to undertake the restoration project in 1977; she began her work in 1978. One of the most time-consuming phases of the project involved cleaning the painting, as a too-thorough cleaning would destroy the art underneath centuries of grime. Another important phase of the restoration involved removing a hard substance that had been applied in the early 1950’s by a restorer. The result of Brambilla Barcilon’s two-decades-long project was a chromatically brighter, and perhaps historically more complete, rendering of The Last Supper, one that some critics were unwilling to accept.

Leonardo da Vinci painted The Last Supper for his patron, Duke Ludovico Sforza. The painting, begun in 1495 and finished in 1498, is a mural affixed on a wall in the refectory at the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. It is not unique for its subject matter—the last meal of Jesus was a common theme in Renaissance paintings. What distinguishes Leonardo’s depiction of this theme from that of other painters of the period are the dramatic expressions the artist afforded to the painting’s subjects, Jesus and his twelve disciples. The narrative basis for the painting is an account in the book of John (13:21) in the Bible. During the meal, Jesus reveals his knowledge that one of his disciples will betray him. In the painting, each individual disciple is shown with a facial expression that matches his role or his reaction to what Jesus has said, as described in the biblical account. The work’s Christian basis and its originality of artistic expression make it an important artifact for both religious and artistic reasons.

By 1999, The Last Supper was five hundred years old. Because of its age, medium, and location, the painting was extremely fragile. Brambilla Barcilon’s restoration was the latest in a lengthy history of preservation attempts. These did not begin until more than a century after Leonardo completed the work, although The Last Supper was in need of cleaning, repair, and protection even during the artist’s lifetime. Brambilla Barcilon’s restoration project was different from earlier attempts in that it took more time and included efforts to correct the mistakes made by previous restorers. Prior to 1978, most attempts to preserve the work had only caused further deterioration. In 1768, a curtain was used to cover the work, and bits of the painting crumbled off whenever the material moved. Additionally, the curtain caused condensation to collect on the painting’s surface. Before Brambilla Barcilon’s lengthy restoration project, other attempts to restore The Last Supper had ranged from one to four years in duration. The first thorough study and cleansing of the work took place from 1901 to 1908.

One reason The Last Supper was particularly difficult to restore was the painting’s location. At one point in the seventeenth century, the painting had faded so much that when workers were commissioned to install an additional door in the refectory, they began to put the door in the middle of the painting because they could not see the artwork clearly. The section cut out by the workers was subsequently reattached. When the building was bombed during World War II, the painting survived, but it was made unstable by the vibrations. Another problematic aspect of restoring The Last Supper was that, instead of being a true fresco painting, in which the artwork is done on a wet surface, the painting was done on a dry surface; this meant that almost immediately after it was completed, the paint began to flake.

Members of the press gather in the rectory at the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy, at the reopening of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in May, 1999.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In 1978, Brambilla Barcilon was faced with the challenge of stabilizing the sometimes abused work of art. Instead of trying to move the painting, she opted to create a safe environment for it in its original location, turning the refectory into an air-tight, climate-controlled chamber in which she worked on The Last Supper for the next twenty-one years. As new technologies were developed, Brambilla Barcilon took advantage of them. She submitted The Last Supper to a variety of tests to determine where pollutants lay and where the original paint ended and subsequent repair attempts began. She used infrared reflectoscopy and took microscopic samples of particles found on the work’s surface. When her testing was concluded, Brambilla Barcilon discovered that parts of the painting were irreparably damaged. She chose to fill in those areas with watercolors in a soft color palette easily distinguished from Leonardo’s work.

Before Brambilla Barcilon’s work was unveiled, the popular image of The Last Supper was of a dark or muted, but nonetheless dramatic, painting. The restored work was brighter and clearer, but some argued that clarity in exchange for the restorer’s own artwork ruined the original. Others applauded Brambilla Barcilon’s effort and appreciated her attention to detail and willingness to adhere to the original work as closely as possible. Given the painting’s age and the amount of damage it had sustained over the years, they argued, the restoration was a success.

Significance

Brambilla Barcilon’s restoration of The Last Supper—a work of cultural and religious importance that had survived for more than five hundred years—raised the question of how far art restorers should be allowed to go in applying technology to the preservation of art. Critics were forced to consider whether technology might be used to make artistic masterpieces better.

At the very least, Brambilla Barcilon’s innovation in stabilizing the environment of The Last Supper, creating an air-tight, climate-controlled chamber in which to work on restoring the painting, provided a blueprint for the preservation of other aged works of art. Following the restoration, the environment Brambilla Barcilon created for The Last Supper was maintained, and limits were placed on the number of visitors who could view the painting at any one time (twenty-five people) and the length of time they could stay (fifteen minutes). Last Supper, The (Leonardo da Vinci) Art;restoration

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brambilla Barcilon, Pinin, and Pietro C. Marani. Leonardo: The Last Supper. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Details the work of the restoration project. In addition to four hundred color photographs, presents the technical facts of The Last Supper that separate Brambilla Barcilon’s work from Leonardo da Vinci’s original work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marani, Pietro C. Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003. Presents photographs of all of the artist’s paintings and discusses each work. Also provides information about the life and times of Leonardo and his connections with fellow artists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steinberg, Leo. Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Zone Books, 2001. Offers insights into why The Last Supper is still one of world’s most important paintings. Covered topics include the effects of restoration attempts on the work’s vitality and viability as a classic. Makes a case for the painting’s continued relevance, both as a unique work of art and as a chronicle of religious belief.

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