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Leonardo da Vinci

The Last Supper restoration: What the media said

The conclusion of the twenty-year project to restore Leonardo’s famous fresco has made headlines around the world The Art Newspaper presents a selection of reactions from the newspapers

Admiring

The Times, London, Richard Cork

“My memory of “The Last Supper”, from a visit in the late 1960s, was of a gloomy shadow where little evidence of Leonardo’s hand could be discerned...It was a melancholy spectacle, and I had to imagine what this patchwork of scarred, deteriorating paint must once have looked like. Now, by welcome contrast, the drama of the event has come back partially to life...The painting seems larger, grander and more commanding than before. It looks uncannily like an extension of the real refectory...The same light saturates the room, falling on to the right wall and animating all the figures as well...The paleness of the painting revealed today is more faithful to [Leonardo’s] intentions than the previous murkiness....A host of hitherto obscure details [become] visible...Above all, though, the hands throughout the composition gain enormously in eloquence....[making] sense of each individual’s reaction to the event. The restored painting that is now revealed is far more than a wreck. Whatever its detractors may claim, this latest restoration brings us a great deal closer to Leonardo’s original vision.”

The Independent, London, Frances Kennedy

“What first strikes you is the light, the sheer luminosity of it. Colours are clearer and more vibrant, and there’s huge variety of tone....It’s no longer that gloomy, grimy, ill-defined enigma that I toiled over in school...Now you can actually see the faces and figures within the image, and what they’re doing and seeming to say...Whether “The Last Supper” is Leonardo or not may, in the end, prove to be a side issue. After all, we find ways to be comfortable with what we are used to. The furore of a few years ago that accompanied the Japanese-financed clean-up of the Sistine Chapel has largely abated and the operation is now widely considered to have been a great success.”

Le Monde, Paris, Richard Heuze

“Returned to public view, freed...of the injuries inflicted by time, this great work of Christian art is now visible in all its splendour: clear, legible, full of life and strength.”

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Dietmar Polazcek

“The venture of a technically extremely difficult total cleaning has paid off. Layers of wax, infill, overpainting, conservation substances and filth prevented one from reading the real Leonardo—but no-one knew whether there would be any trace of the original paint underneath...Of course, you do not see here what you see, but what you know to be there... An experienced, art-historically aware, viewer is needed, whose eye pieces together the whole out of the fragments of paint, assisted by the pale, (reversible) watercolour that fills in the gaps in matching tones.”

The Guardian, London, Adrian Searle (after actually seeing the painting)

“Pinin Brambilla Barcilon [the restorer] has not betrayed Leonardo, or what is left of his painting...What remains, in patches, fragments, shards and spots, of Leonardo’s original paintwork glows through the paler watercolour filling-in...to preserve the work’s pictorial unity....Enough remains of the details and composition to tantalise and fascinate...The restoration of the space around and behind the figures is patchy and intermittent, but gives the painting architectural and tonal coherence in the refectory...I am reminded of the story of grandfather’s penknife: the handle was broken so I replaced it. Then I broke the blade and replaced that. Do I still have my grandfather’s knife? Do we still have Leonardo’s painting? It doesn’t matter.”

The Wall Street Journal, New York, Frederika Randall

“One of the most beautiful features of the restored painting is the brilliant white tablecloth with its still-life of glasses, dishes and eloquent scraps of bread. Restorers were also able to recover three distinct blues—lapis, periwinkle and turquoise—from Leonardo’s original palette, as well as traces of the gold leaf he applied liberally to the apostles’ robes...In his remarks to a conference in Rome, Giuseppe Basile, director of the Instituto Centrale del Restauro, condemned the “sensationalist critics” of the restoration and what he called a “fetishistic approach to great works of art.” “The Last Supper” is a document of the Renaissance, not a holy relic, he said. It took Italian restorers a certain amount of courage to walk down that scholarly path, but I think Leonardo would have liked their boldness.”

Critical

The Economist, London

“The main questionmark against the “Last Supper” is not so much the detail of what was or was not done, but the necessity for undertaking such an elaborate, extensive campaign in the first place. Restoration normally provokes strong passion and encourages dogmatic positions. The fact is that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t; sometimes it is worth it, and sometimes it is better to accept that what you have left is a ruin—or rather, as in the case of “The Last Supper” a relic.”

The Daily Telegraph, London, Martin Gayford

“The general effect is almost certainly not correct. Leonardo was a dark, shadowy painter as we know from other works. Admittedly this is a wall painting unlike the other Leonardos. But he obviously did not want the usual fresco look, otherwise he would not have used the “oily distemper”. The present watercolour-like effect allows the viewer to distinguish the original from the restoration. But in practice few, I suspect, would guess that the head of Christ is largely a work of the Eighties, repainted according to a drawing which may or may not be by Leonardo and may or may not reflect his intentions...In many ways it would have been better to leave [The Last Supper] alone...What we have now is an archaeologically correct reconstruction, but one is always troublingly aware that a large part of what one is looking at is actually a brand-new picture. Essentially, a restoration such as this is an act of arrogance. It is undertaken in the belief that the restorers of today can do better than their predecessors. It is far from obvious that they have....It isn’t a disaster because “The Last Supper” was already a wreck, but it is still a restoration that needn’t, and shouldn’t have happened.”

The Evening Standard, London, Brian Sewell

“What we see now is a wilful reconstruction taking the picture further from the truth than it has been this century—better a Last Supper flaking from the wall than so reinvented that it is a fake.”

The Guardian, London, Adrian Searle (before seeing the painting)

“Artworks grow old and then they die. There is a point at which this process should be allowed to take its course. There is a limit to how much fixing and shoring up can be done. Nips and tucks and collagen implants play a losing game....Perhaps it is time to let Leonardo’s painting go, or to realise that what we now have is not a Leonardo at all, but a palimpsest. The painting is now, inevitably, a distorted mirror of the artist’s original, and a true likeness, not of Christ and his disciples, but of our hubris.”

Arthouse: “The Lost Supper”, UK, (Channel 4, 19 December 1998), executive producer Waldemar Januszczak, art critic, Sunday Times

“The restorers have failed spectacularly. The Lost Supper unearths the tangled web of botched restorations, inept interventions and appalling neglect that has been the fate of “The Last Supper”. The decision to remove 500 years of overpainting and return to the original, has reduced the masterpiece to bare walls and ghosts. Arthouse reveals how the new cult of authenticity has surely claimed its most famous victim.”

Italians undaunted

As criticism of the twenty-year restoration of the “Last Supper” made headlines around the world, the Louvre diplomatically announced that it would not be taking the layers of yellowed varnish off Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. But curators at Florence’s Uffizi galleries remain undaunted. The artist’s “Annunciation” painted between 1472 and 1475 is now being restored by the Alfio del Serra restoration laboratory. The project is expected to take around twelve months. According to Antonio Natali, curator of Renaissance paintings at the Uffizi, the deepening yellow of the painting’s layer of varnish prevents the clear reading of certain details. The turreted townscape in the distance, which is now barely discernible, should emerge more clearly with the overall cleaning, which should also restore brightness to the colours. Restorers will also repair cracks which have appeared in the joins of the panels which make up the painting

Was it necessary?

Giorgio Bonsanti’s defences of the latest restoration of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” (The Art Newspaper, No.82, May 1999, p.53) are oddly self-cancelling. He objects both to “indiscriminate attacks against all restoration,” and attacks that are “usually directed against Italy.” Italians suffer “low self esteem and foreigner worship” but Italian standards of restoration are “higher than elsewhere.” All criticisms of the restoration are implausibly attributed to “the declamations of the international brigade ArtWatch International...led by the American art historian James Beck and the English journalist [sic] Michael Daley.” In truth, the twenty-year long, Olivetti-sponsored restoration has been problematic in the eyes of Italy’s own restoration community: “Over the years work has been stopped repeatedly, sometimes following changes at the helm of the Milanese Soprintendenza and the Instituto in Rome, other times simply to allow the whole project to be reconsidered” (The Art Newspaper, No.86, November 1998, p.21).

Why was reconsideration thought necessary? Why did a Milanese councillor bring an action against the authorities for allegedly accelerating the murals’ decay? Why does the painter and restoration expert Mario Donizetti believe that “The Last Supper” will now “disintegrate more rapidly than before?”

Bonsanti sees “the virtue” of the restoration in its “successful preservation of all that remained of the original surface.” But he raises the question: How much survives? Carlo Bertelli, who initiated the restoration, thinks only 20%. His successor, Pietro Marani, recently and ambiguously claimed that 90% survives “in parts”. Earlier, he put the overall figure at “no more than 50%.” The restoration’s coordinator, Giuseppe Basile, puts it at “about half”. James Beck estimates 18-20%. A former director of the Istituto Centrale, Giovanni Urbani, thinks 25%. Bonsanti himself suggests “possibly 20%”.

Whatever the figure, Bonsanti commends Brambilla’s work as an example of Italian “excellence” but, counterproductively, itemises the elements of current “good practice”. These include: “pre-publication of restoration plans” (that’s changed during the campaign itself); “a general approach of non-invasiveness”; and a “tolerance of previous restorations.” By any standards Brambilla’s has been an invasive and intolerant programme: systematically expunging all previous restorations—thereby severing the mural’s historical and aesthetic continuity and making yet further repainting necessary. In addition, the surviving fragments of Leonardo’s work were repeatedly assaulted with scalpel and solvent, in an attempt to wrest from within them, every atom of “alien” material.

Bonsanti calls for “technically competent, well-researched” criticism but that is precisely what Brambilla has had, and has failed to answer. Maurizio Seracini, director of diagnostic services at Editech (a restoration laboratory in Florence), who was called in for consultation on “The Last Supper” after restoration began, complains that “nobody asked ‘was it necessary?’” adding “I myself have not seen definitive scientific proof that restoration was really needed.”

One reason why it may not have been necessary is because—contrary to all accounts—“The Last Supper” had recently been restored (1951-54) by Brambilla’s own teacher Mauro Pellicioli. Pellicioli’s much-acclaimed restoration has been air-brushed out of the record. Why? Berenson saluted the recovery of Leonardo as Pellicioli, after first setting the surface solid scraped off all repaints except those covering only bare wall. And bare wall, a few local gains notwithstanding, is precisely what Brambilla “recovered”.

As for her subsequent repainting, some critics complain of its too “modernist” appearance. Others object that it was carried out with modern commercial watercolours which overlap Leonardo’s work. I raise a third objection: the quality of Brambilla’s “reconstructions”. The redrawn left hand of St Jude now contains, within the contours of its third finger, patches of (apparently original) blue paint that are identical to those on the nearby blue robes of St Matthew. This feature is, in Bonsanti’s terms, an “observable fact”. Does he conclude from it, that Leonardo sometimes painted fingertips blue—or that Brambilla’s reconstruction is in error?