Issue Number: 116
Two new books on Leonardo raise fascinating questions about when a work of art ceases to exist and how the artist dealt with demanding patrons, writes Edmund Fawcett
For all its fame, The Last Supper was soon gone. Less than 20 years after Leonardo da Vinci finished it in 1498, the paint was already peeling badly. One reason he chose treacherous oil and tempera, rather than fresco, safer and more usual for a mural, is that he had little experience of fresco. Another is that fresco required speed and lacked subtlety, whereas Leonardo shone at conveying mood and attitude. By the middle of the 17th century, a knowledgeable visitor to Milan reported that the figures of Christ and his apostles were barely visible. In 1770, after at least eight partial restorations earlier in the century, virtually the entire work was repainted.
The assault on Leonardo’s dramatic masterpiece did not stop there. In 1943, an Allied bomb destroyed most of the Dominican refectory where it was painted. By luck, the wall with The Last Supper survived. Soon after, an initial modern restoration fixed the painting’s perilous surface. In 1999 a 22-year campaign to recover the remains of the original reached completion. Restorers took off centuries of overpaint, left Leonardo’s pigments – probably no more than 20 per cent of the whole – and filled in the rest with a wash of suitable hue in a lighter tone. What you now see are little islands of Leonardo in an ocean of judicious filler. It is hard to fault the judgment of the Renaissance art historian, Charles Hope: ‘To all intents and purposes The Last Supper no longer exists and has not existed for centuries.’
Non-existence in the world of art is not, however, the handicap it used to be. The American conceptualist, Lawrence Weiner, encouraged us to think that for an artwork to merit attention ‘the piece need not be made’.
Leonardo da Vinci, 'The Last Supper', 1495-98. (post restoration) in the refectory of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. Photo courtesy of Alamy
A parallel lesson from The Last Supper may be that visual ruin is no obstacle to enduring admiration, interpretation and controversy. Five hundred years on, Leonardo’s grand wreck has lost none of its capacity to fascinate.
In Leonardo and The Last Supper, Ross King artfully tells the story of its making and unmaking against a background of Milan court politics and Habsburg-Valois wars for an upper hand in Italy. Leonardo’s life, training, techniques, restless curiosities, vegetarian tastes and, above all, his superlative skills as a draughtsman, are all brought into play. King, who also writes novels, combines wide reading of specialist sources with a narrative verve. The formula served him well in an earlier successful book, Brunelleschi’s Dome (2000).
King reports, without claiming to decide, interpretive controversies. Which moment in the Gospel story does Leonardo depict? Most think it is Christ’s declaration of pending betrayal by one of the 12. That reading fits the moving, theatrical play of astonished reactions by the apostles. They are still visible in the gesturing hands, if only in outline. Other interpreters claim it depicts the institution of the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist, an episode immediately following in the two gospels that describe the scene, Matthew and John. Indeed certain paintings of the Last Supper depict that moment, though they are not in refectories and they usually show a chalice, not present in Leonardo’s. King open-mindedly suggests either reading is possible.
He is generally frank about what is not known. Documented fact is sparse. Leonardo was a celebrity in his day. He walked off projects and argued with patrons. His unexpected comings and goings, from Milan to Florence and back, his half-completed projects, leave a trail of questions. No contract for The Last Supper is known. Nor is what Leonardo’s patron, Ludovico Sforza, tyrant of Milan, thought of the result.
Sforza was soon deposed when a French army took his city in 1499. Troops included in their destruction Leonardo’s giant clay model for an equestrian statue of Sforza’s father. This work, which had brought Leonardo to Milan in the first place, was destroyed – it is said by archers in target practice – where it stood in a vineyard outside the city. Leonardo left for Florence, by way of Venice, where he advised on another of his many interests – fortification.
On his travels Leonardo stopped briefly in Mantua, where he gave Sforza’s sister-in-law Isabella d’Este to understand that he would paint her portrait. Isabella was a patron of the arts, wife of the warrior-ruler of Mantua, Francesco Gonzaga, and regent both in his absence at war and after his death during the minority of their son. A beautiful if damaged drawing of her seen in profile, widely though not universally attributed to Leonardo, is now in the Louvre. Despite her entreaties by letter, he never did the portrait. Nor did he provide a picture of the young Christ that she had also attempted to interest him in painting for her.
Drawing on Isabella’s correspondence, the art historian Francis Ames-Lewis, has explored these might-have-beens in Isabella and Leonardo. It is a beautifully illustrated study of her patronage and collecting, which throws fascinating light on artist-patron relations at the time.
Isabella, who created a celebrated circle of scholars, knew what she wanted. She found sitting for portraits tiresome and complained if she disliked the results. An admirer, the humanist Pietro Bembo, warned her in a letter of 1506 not to bother Giovanni Bellini with ‘written details that cramp his style’. A flattering Leonardo portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, her brother-in-law’s mistress, seems to have spurred Isabella’s wish for one of her own. Who promised what as Leonardo passed through Mantua remains tantalisingly unclear. She continued to beg by letter. Leonardo fended her off in replies sent by colleagues or relations. In his lofty, self-possessed treatment of demanding patrons, Europe’s most celebrated artist was, it appears, impeccably gender-blind.