In April, Italian marketplace chain Eataly announced it would sponsor the latest effort to preserve Leonardo da Vinci's painting The Last Supper. It's the perfect marketing partnership: A food company saves the most famous depiction of a meal for future generations. This excerpt is from its online announcement, titled "Eataly Saves The Last Supper":
"We are partnering with the Italian government to sponsor a game-changing installation. Italy's Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism has designed an air-filtration system in collaboration with top Italian research institutes to filter in cool, clean air into the convent every day (10,000 cubic meters compared to today's 3,500!)."
The state-of-the-art filtration system will be installed and active by 2019, in time to mark the 500th anniversary of da Vinci's death.
This is the latest in a long line of attempts to stave off the inevitable. Nothing man-made is permanent; it will all be dust, eventually. But The Last Supper is a particularly tragic example of man's impermanence. And the fight to save it has been laden with controversy, particularly in the modern era, as corporate sponsorship and claims to technology have muddied the waters of an already sensitive subject.
The work of preserving Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper began soon after its completion.
The artist, ever the innovator, used an experimental technique to paint the moment that Christ told his Apostles that one of them would betray him. The scene would typically have been painted on wet plaster, but this fresco technique was fast-drying and would have required him to work quickly. Da Vinci wanted to work slowly over a number of years, and so he applied his pigments to a dry plaster wall. The result was a painting that did not adhere to its surface, owing to both the artist's technique and Milan's humidity.
The Last Supper began flaking a mere 20 years after da Vinci completed it. And after the Renaissance period passed, subsequent occupants of the church treated the painting with disregard. In the 1600s, occupants cut a door into the bottom of the painting, eliminating part of the table and Christ's feet, which were composed to allude to the crucifixion. When Napoleon Bonaparte's troops used the room as a stable in the late 1700s, they threw fragments of bricks at the painting's faces. And during World War II, a bomb hit the church. The wall with the painting on it, however, survived intact.
Along with these indignities were multiple attempts to repair and preserve the painting -- seven distinct attempts in all. These ranged from incompetent to serviceable, depending on the expertise of the artist and the technology available at the time. In 1770, for example, Giuseppe Mazza repainted all the faces with the exception of three before he was stopped; the prior who assigned him to restore the painting was sent to another convent. Another restorer, Stefano Barezzi, attempted to remove the entire painting from the wall and transfer it onto canvas in 1821, permanently damaging the work in the process.
In 1947, restorer Mauro Pellicioli began a multiyear process to reinforce the painting and return it to something resembling its original state. He adhered the flaking paint to the wall with a colorless shellac resin. He then began scraping away earlier restoration work, leaving only the areas covering empty spots, where Leonardo's work was lost or unsalvageable.
"The shellac was applied to entomb what survived on the wall, to keep it in place into perpetuity," Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, told Engadget.
This was meant to be a final, definitive restoration. And yet, mere decades later, another, "better" restoration of the painting would be attempted.
"There is a great prejudice for the new in restoration, which is problematic," said Daley. "It's always dangerous in life to rush into new technologies and be the first.
"In aeronautics, researchers have to get things right," Daley continued. "They can't afford for airliners to go down. But in art restoration, for all the great cultural importance of the works, the people who administer the restorations are not disciplined manufacturers; their activities grew out of craft traditions. And they can be amazingly casual."
Daley and art historian James Beck founded ArtWatch in 1991 as a watchdog organization -- a vocal, if small, contingency of artists and art historians that documents and protests what it views as irresponsible art restorations. Prior to its criticisms of The Last Supper's restoration, the organization's notoriety came from its criticisms of the Sistine Chapel renovation. They share common themes.