LEONARDO da Vinci
(b. 1452, Vinci, d. 1519, Cloux, near Amboise)
The Refectory with the Last Supper after restoration1498
Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan
After Ludovico il Moro was made duke of Milan in 1494, he decided to make the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie his family's burial place. This is the context within which Leonardo was probably commissioned to decorate the monks' dining room, the refectory, with a depiction of the Last Supper. It cannot be determined exactly when the commission went to Leonardo, however, the completion of the painting in 1498 is documented.
Leonardo's Last Supper is indisputably one of the most famous and important works in the history of painting. The quality of the wall painting was recognized within a very short space of time after its completion; copies were produced of it and its praises were sung in contemporary sources. After conquering Milan in 1499, the French king is even said to have expressed the desire to bring it to France, but his advisors were apparently able to dissuade him on the grounds that, given the technological conditions of the time, transporting the painting would have been tantamount to destroying it.
As in all his major undertakings, Leonardo sought a new technical solution for the process of painting. He decided in favour of mixed media and painted over two ground layers using oil and tempera paints, as was done in panel painting. This particular technique is partially responsible for the fact that the disintegration of the work set in so early, given the unfavourable climatic conditions.
Scarcely 20 years after the completion of the work, it was already starting to come to pieces, possibly because the wall had absorbed water. Ever since, every generation has worried and made efforts to a greater or lesser degree to preserve this work. In 1943, during an air raid, a bomb exploded in the refectory of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie and destroyed the roof and the wall to the right of the Last Supper right down to the foundations; the work of art, protected by sand bags, fortunately survived this catastrophe largely unscathed. Since about 1980, extremely extensive and technologically lavish restoration work has been taking place to preserve it, made particularly necessary by increasingly destructive air pollution. This restoration followed the disputed decision to remove all overpaintings and completions of missing sections, preserving only those parts originally painted by Leonardo.