Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
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Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Pixels by the Billions for Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci Self-portrait (fragment) Leonardo da Vinci
The Last Supper can be found in the refectory of the Dominican church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The theme, perhaps at the suggestion of the Dominicans themselves, represents the Eucharist. The moment that Leonardo chooses is the most dramatic in the Gospels, the one in which Christ utters the sentence: "One of you will betray me." It is with these words that what Leonardo called "the motions of the soul" began: the apostles are dramatically alive, their gestures indicate amazement and wonder; there is one (apostle) who rises because he doesn't understand the words of Christ, one who approaches him, one who is horrified, one who pulls back, as Judas does, immediately feeling himself called to account.
(translated from "Leonardo, La vita e l'arte, I capolavori" by Lucia Aquino*)
The lines are long and the stay is short, I've read, for the thousands of tourists showing up at the Dominican church in Milan to see Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece firsthand.
Only twenty-five people are allowed in at a time every fifteen minutes during opening hours, to look at the approximately 15' x 29' painting, according to a recent article in USA Today. Museum officials are quoted as estimating demand to be three to four times the 320,000 visitors a year who succeed in being admitted.
More than just the next-best thing
Standing in front of the real Il Cenacolo, as the Italians call it, must be a one-of-a-kind pleasure surely. A new representation of the masterpiece online, however, and free for anyone to see, now offers a unique alternative. Placed online last month in an eye-popping range of sixteen billion pixels, the digital version of The Last Supper was created by an Italian group offering high definition photo imaging services, Haltadefinizione HAL9000, in cooperation with a handful of international corporations including AMD, an American company, and Nikon.
According to the official press release, "The online visualisation system of the highest definition photograph ever in the world will in fact let viewers enlarge and observe any portion of the painting, giving them a clear view of sections down to as little as one millimetre square."
Who owns the original and what they said
The owner of The Last Supper is the Italian state, which approved and cooperated on the digital rendition project. Official curator Alberto Artioli appears in a video (English subtitles) on the project website and talks about the value of the massive digital photographic image:
The truly exceptional shots taken today serve two purposes: the first is to further widen the knowledge of this remarkable painting already regarded as one of the world's most important and most familiar wall paintings, and to enable visitors and ordinary folk to get a close-up view, now made possible for the first time by this innovative technique.
The other purpose is of a scientific nature, because the rendition will constitute a historical record that will be used, I believe, as the benchmark for further restorations. It is a knowledge that is both documentary and scientific, and thus essential for the preservation of the painting.
If you want to learn more
For information about Leonardo da Vinci and his works, I found two websites particularly helpful: One is the official Italian website for The Last Supper, which offers a succinct summary of important historical and creative aspects of the painting. A more in depth discussion of Leonardo and his works is available on the Metropolitan Museum's Introduction to Leonardo and His Drawings by Carmen C. Bambach.
*From the Corriere della Sera series I CLASSICI DELL'ARTE, published in 2003 by Rizzoli libri illustrati, available in English translation on here.
by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
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