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Leonardo, The Last Supper

Leonardo’s Last Supper, one of the most important works of the Renaissance if not all of Western art, was painted between 1494 and 1498 in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. From the moment that the prior at the monastery complained to Leonardo that the work was taking too long, the Last Supper has endured centuries of controversy, neglect, and difficulty. Leonardo, The Last Supper, translated from the Italian, is the definitive document of the recently completed project to reverse these centuries of decline by restoring the painting and preserving it in a manner that generations of conservators have failed to do.

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. Added to this initial complication have been centuries of pollution, tourists, candle smoke, and the ravages of age, not to mention food fights in the refectory staged by Napoleonic soldiers and Allied bombs in 1943. By the middle of the twentieth century, the Last Supper was in desperate need of a complete restoration.

Pinin Brambilla Barcilon was chosen to head this twenty-year project, and Leonardo, The Last Supper is the official record of her remarkable effort. It first documents the cleaning and removal of the overpainting performed in the other attempts at restoration and then turns to Barcilon’s meticulous additions in watercolor, which were based on Leonardo’s preparatory drawings, early copies of the painting, and contemporary textual descriptions. This book presents full-scale reproductions of details from the fresco that clearly display and distinguish Leonardo’s hand from that of the restorer. With nearly 400 sumptuous color reproductions, the most comprehensive technical documentation of the project by Barcilon, and an introductory essay by art historian and project codirector Pietro C. Marani that focuses on the history of the fresco, Leonardo, The Last Supper is an invaluable historic record, an extraordinarily handsome book, and an essential volume for anyone who appreciates the beauty, technical achievements, and fate of Renaissance painting.

View fourteen images.

458 pages | 382 color plates, 64 halftones | 10 x 12 | © 2001

Art: European Art


“Pinin Barcilon was entrusted with the unenviable task of restoring the mural—again. Her highly controversial approach has been to pry away every bit of paint not clearly Leonardo’s, with the result that a pale but evocative ghost remains. Was too much removed? Readers can judge by perusing the extraordinary 1:1 scale photographs of sections from the painting."

Christopher Benfey | The New York Times Book Review

“All the technical detail a scholar could want is here, but even readers with little interest in it will find absorbing the almost inch-by-inch record of the painting in superb color photographs.”

San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

“This extraordinary volume, which documents the technical history of the two-decade-long restoration in the context of the broader history of the work itself, is what art historians have been waiting for. As a work of art itself, this book is produced with elegance, care, and refinement. . . . Between the two essays are contained 249 pages of the most breathtakingly beautiful photographs in modern art history, produced by Antonio Quattrone. These photographs alone justify the publication of this book, for, through their probing depth and sensitivity, we may not only wonder anew about the wisdom of restoration (not a subject for this review) but allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the realization of how little of that precious original paint remains as touches of small jewelry defining a wretched corpse. . . . This handsome volume, with its magnificent photographs and two informative essays, will be of great interest not only to scholars, historians, and visual artists but to all those who have interests in Renaissance painting, Leonardo da Vinci, and the science of conservation.”

Sixteenth Century Journal

“[A] text and color photographs that document the results of a 20-year conservation project recently completed. Pleasure at revelations of Leonardo’s hand are overwhelmed by a sense of sadness at how much is irretrievably lost.”

A. Richard Turner | Los Angeles Times Book Revew

“The cleaning of the Last Supper . . . could never promise a return to original splendor once the layers of dirt and repaint were removed. For it was generally known that little of Leonardo’s painted surface was there to be rediscovered. What little there is has now been brought to light, and is splendidly illustrated, in the weighty volume by Pinin Brambilla Barcilon and Pietro C. Marani. . . . The excellent color plates in this book are at once revealing and dismaying. Displaying in remarkable detail what is left of Leonardo’s painting, they introduce us to details and colors that we could hardly have appreciated before: the delicately rendered utensils and food on the table, the embroidered blue pattern on the tablecloth, and the nuanced rendering of its crisp folds.”

David Rosand | The New Republic

“This massive volume testifies to a great love of both Leonardo’s crumbling masterpieces and the meticulous craft of art restoration. . . . Although this most recent and ambitious restoration is controversial, the results­­­­­—exhaustively photographed here, in full-scale as well as reductions—are impressive, with lines emerging as simultaneously more subtle and more forceful, and the shadows, particularly in the striking figure of Philip, as more mysterious and tender.”

Laura Miller | Salon

Leonardo, The Last Supper documents the process by which, after nearly 500 years and various ‘restorations,’ conservators attempted to get the work as close as possible to its original state. . . . The 382 color plates and 64 halftones in the lush, slipcased edition are accompanied by extensive, cogent commentary.”

Publishers Weekly

Table of Contents

Preface to the English-Language Edition
Bruno Contardi
Renzo Zorzi
List of Archival Abbreviations
Leonardo’s Last Supper
Pietro C. Marani
The Last Supper (Illustrations)
The Restoration
Pinin Brambilla Barcilon

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