Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
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Thursday, November 15, 2007
Leonardo's Big Adventure and the Trouble it Caused
The Last Supper The Last Supper (detail), Leonardo da Vinci
When Leonardo da Vinci was painting The Last Supper back around 1494, the prior at the convent in Milan where the huge work was being created kept bugging the artist to work faster.
In his classic work written in 1550, Lives Of The Artists, Giorgio Vasari, gives an account of the prior's frustration:
...he was puzzled by Leonardo's habit of sometimes spending half a day at a time contemplating what he had done so far...
Leonardo ignored the nagging and continued to proceed at his own pace. The prior then went and complained to the duke who was Leonardo's patron for the project. The duke sent for the artist and "very tactfully" ask him how things were going.
Leonardo, knowing he was dealing with a prince of acute and discerning intelligence, was willing (as he never had been with the prior) to explain his mind at length; and so he talked to the duke for a long time about the art of painting. He explained that men of genius sometimes accomplish most when they work the least; for, he added, they are thinking out inventions and forming in their minds the perfect ideas which they subsequently express and reproduce with their hands.
The duke found Leonardo simpatico, and accepted his explanation, according to Vasari, and the pesky prior had to back off.
A bigger problem
In the intervening centuries since, a lot of people may have wished they could have had their own audience with Leonardo's duke to air a much different complaint, the rapid deterioration of the masterpiece. In fact, The Last Supper began to fall to pieces within twenty years of its completion, according to the official website for the painting.
The reason for the deterioration is explained in a review of the book in which the restoration artist Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, chronicles her recent twenty-year labor on the faded, flaking and damaged masterwork:
The technical problems with the Last Supper began as soon as Leonardo started to paint it. He jettisoned the traditional fresco technique of applying paint to wet plaster, a method unsuited to Leonardo's slow and thorough execution, and created the work instead with an experimental technique that involved painting directly on the dry plaster. With this renegade method, Leonardo rendered one of the most enduring painting techniques volatile and unstable.
Another opinion
It's kind of interesting to speculate what Leonardo himself might have to say about the dismay that has been expressed about the experimental technique he chose to use for The Last Supper. You don't have to do much reading about him to feel some doubt that this powerful creative force in human form would meekly have drooped his head and said, mea culpa. Probably not.
A different and more charitable perspective on Leonardo's approach to art is reflected in something else Vasari wrote about the artist. The biographer was describing a different work, a huge equestrian statue in bronze that was impossible to finish because the scale Leonardo attempted was so great. This drew criticism at the time from his detractors, Vasari said, and then added:
The truth, however, is surely that Leonardo's profound and discerning mind was so ambitious that this was itself an impediment; and the reason he failed was because he endeavored to add excellence to excellence and perfection to perfection.
by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
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