The scaffolding is finally coming down. The laborious and controversial restoration of Leonardo’s Last Supper is now complete (The Art Newspaper, No.86, November 1998, p.21). On the twenty-ninth of this month the fresco in the refectory of the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan goes on view in its entirety for the first time in twenty years.
Italy’s Minister of Culture, Giovanna Melandri, is hailing the project as “one of the century’s most important restorations”. But those who disagree are fuelling a heated debate which continues to fill Italian newspapers. Much of the criticism has come from America. A television programme broadcast in England last 27 December also decried the cleaning, commenting that the successive layers of overpainting that have been removed were closer to the artist’s original intentions than the retouching performed by the present team to make Leonardo’s original work readable (estimates of the surviving original paintwork by Leonardo range from twenty to fifty percent).
Giorgio Bonsanti, director of the Florence-based Opificio delle Pietre Dure, one of Italy’s top restoration laboratories, replies to the criticisms.
During the holidays, the press (or those members of it left in the office) search desperately for stories with which to fill the pages of their newspapers. This might explain the rapacity with which the Italian press pounced on the news that an English television programme was highly critical of the restoration work carried out on Leonardo’s Last Supper. Italian reportage was also coloured by the usual combination of low self-esteem and foreigner-worship, but even taking that into account, the reverence with which English and American criticism is being publicised is out of all proportion.
At the root of the controversy are the declamations of the international brigade, Art Watch International, now nearly ten years old, led by the American art historian James Beck and the English journalist Michael Daley. These crusaders are convinced that masterpieces are being desecrated by poor restoration all over the world, but especially in Italy.
I have always known that when a man bites a dog it makes headlines, and not the other way round, and I would like my colleagues in the offices of our daily newspapers to understand that, in our case, it would be worth reporting if someone were to write favourably about Italian restoration projects.
All standards of accuracy and correctness were laid aside in the scramble to report the supposedly disastrous restoration of the Last Supper. Carlo Bertelli, who initiated the project when he was Soprintendente in Milan, was reported to have called the final result “una rovina”, a ruin. He was, in fact, referring to the state of preservation of the painting.
Various aspects of this situation need to be considered. For a number of reasons connected with Leonardo’s technique, with environmental problems (the location of the painting for a start), with the vicissitudes of the past, and with repeated attempts at restoration of the grossest kind, Leonardo’s masterpiece only exists today in a very reduced form, possibly 20% remains of the original. The truth is that the image reproduced all over the world is not Leonardo’s Last Supper, but a version of minimal authenticity.
The virtue of the now completed restoration lies in the successful preservation of all that remained of the original surface. It also confirms an axiom, namely that when a historical object has been progressively distorted over the years, to free the original and allow it to speak for itself is infinitely better and more satisfying than to continue to quote Leonardo’s work while using illustrations that bear no trace of his handiwork. If there is someone who continues to prefer the version made up of stray daubs of paint and other more nefarious substances, good luck to him.
Indiscriminate attacks against all restoration work, good or bad, are counterproductive because they make no distinctions, thereby disorientating the public opinion that they seek to educate and preventing objective judgments. I am the first to acknowledge that some Italian restorations are carried out even now without that degree of excellence to which we should always aspire and which should always include pre-publication of restoration plans, full documentation of the project while restoration is in progress, publication of a detailed scientific report on the results when the job is finished, a general approach of non-invasiveness, and the recognition and tolerance of previous restorations. I am not suggesting that critics should be silenced or that a moratorium is desirable, but criticism should be based on observable fact, it should be a technically competent, well-researched and accurate reaction.
Sermons on this subject come from various pulpits but are usually directed at Italy, where, on the whole, standards of restoration are higher than they are elsewhere. There are a number of factors at work: Italy makes a suitable sounding board because of the enormous cultural and economic importance of its cultural heritage. Italy is also a country which tolerates dissent. The decision not to submit restoration work carried out in the US to critical examination (when most of the critics of Italian restoration come from the US) is because of the real fear of legal action costing millions of dollars in that highly litigious country. The American fear of litigation stems from a legal principle which is quite rightly prohibited in Italian law: in America a lawyer can offer his services to a potential client at no cost to the client unless the case is won, when the lawyer claims as his fee a percentage of any sum paid out.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Why Italy is a sitting duck'