Letter: New conservation efforts turn Leonardo into Seurat

From Jacques Franck of the Armand Hammer Center


May I introduce a few observations on the restoration of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” in Milan as reported in your November issue (p.21). In May 1995 I was allowed to see the mural in the course of its current restoration. At the time around two-thirds of what remains of the original material—in fact, very little (20%?)—had been cleaned. Therefore, huge sections of the work were missing and, of course, needed considerable retouching. The losses have been lightly touched up in watercolour and the tones adapted to match the subsisting material, albeit much paler. This now confers a rather washed out appearance to the mural as a whole, and considerably accentuates its ghastly character while, at the same time, reducing its participation in the rhythms produced by the surrounding architecture to almost nil. And that is not all. The way the inpainting interferes with the retrieved original fragments gives to the masterpiece an odd, modernist aspect. This is alarming in as much as uninformed members of the public are likely to be misled when the mural is unveiled, thinking that its newly restored state is faithful to the initial image painted by Leonardo.

This would not be acceptable and, in order that this ambiguous situation be fully understood by your readers, at least, I supply the following meaningful example from my 1997 publication on the subject (“The ‘Last Supper’, 1497-1997: the moment of truth” in Academia Leonardi Vinci, University of California, Los Angeles, Vol. X (1997), pp.165-182):

“With more than 90% of its original material now missing, the red mantle of St Philip has been transformed into a vast, unshaded area of colour, varying from beige to pale brick red; its summital shape (corresponding to the apostle’s shoulders) is strongly contrasted with the dark colours in the background, and follows an almost perfect arc of a circle. This zone was originally modulated by the interaction between shadow and light, by the different accents whereby the mass and detail of the clothing were built up. All that has now disappeared, except for tiny islands of original material still clinging to the wall. The presence of one tone on the whole surface of the mantle has given it a strange, certainly new, uniformity: however ‘discreet’ the retouching was intended to be, it has reconstituted the garment in its own way. Due to the huge proportion of losses in the restored section, entire parts of the wall now present this aspect to the viewer; barely coloured, simplified to a fault (when the forms are still readable, which is no longer the case for several square metres). This brings us to a disturbing thought: is Leonardo still here? Surely less—in my eyes—than when the project first began, and less, even, than the restorers themselves would have liked. As an outcome of the commendable desire to spare the spectator the raw sight of the gaping wounds which affect the surface, this tactful ‘setting off’ of the original’s surviving remains has unintentionally conferred a new coherence to the image of the work, now in a style close to that of Seurat—a modernist vision bearing no resemblance, needless to say, to the art practised by Leonardo.”

Jacques Franck

The Armand Hammer Center

University of California, Los Angeles

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Leonardo into Seurat'