Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper

Pinin Brambilla Barcilon August 15, 1943 bombing of the refectory Section of the painting during Restoration Unrestored and damaged face of Jesus Christ

Early | Recent | Controversy


Althought Leonardo's Last Supper had faced progressive deterioration since it had been completed, the earliest recorded restorations are in the eighteenth century. These restorations were based on the false premise that the painting was executed in an oil medium. Thus, Michelangelo Bellotti, in 1726, after cleaning the mural with caustic solvents, covered it with layers of oil and varnish. While in 1770, Giusseppe Mazza removed his predecessor's work and repainted much of the original again in oil.

Understandably these treatments came under much fire and following restorers intervened by also repainting and trying to recreate Leonardo's original, rather than preserving it. A new stage in the Last Supper's history was reached in 1853 when Stefano Barezzi first tried to detach the painting from the wall. After failing to do so, he attempted to consolidate the painting by gluing the paint fragments to the base. Additionally, scientific studies of the mural were initiated at this time. However, the era of inept restorations ended only in the twentieth century, when a more responsible attitude developed.

In 1903 Luigi Cavengahi began a careful study of the Last Supper using large-scale, detailed photographs as an aid. He established for the first time that the painting was executed in tempera, not oil. Between 1906 and 1908 he cleaned the paint surface and retouched missing areas. Although he removed grime and glue, he left a considerable amount of the repaint untouched. In 1924, restorer, Oreste Silvestri, further removed grime from the painting.

On August 15, 1943, a bomb nearly destroyed the refectory, but the northern wall where the painting resides was braced and sandbagged as a precaution, and thus survived. However, for one year the painting had to face harsh conditions since the refectory was not repaired immediately.

In 1947-1949, Mauro Pelliccioli proceeded to give the painting another cleaning and reintegration necessitated by its mildewed condition. The restorer anchored the paint using a shellac as a fixative, rather than dirt-collecting, water-soluble glue. He then cleaned the painting and lightened the tonality of the mural. Without his efforts, even less of the Last Supper would remain today.


The most recent restoration of Leonardo's Last Supper was completed in May 1999. Work on this most recent restoration began in 1979 to repair areas where paint had flaked away, and quickly expanded to uncover fragments of the original painting covered by repainting from the above "early restorations."

Pinin Brambilla Barcilon has conducted this latest restoration of Leonardo's Last Supper under the auspices of Milan's Superintendent for Artistic and Historic Heritage. She is a renowned restoration artist who made use of various new technologies to bring life back into Leonardo's masterpiece.

Brambilla's task was first and foremost to stop further deterioration. Chemical analysis suggested that the over-painting which remained, was still eating away at Leonardo's original paint, and areas that were flaking away were taking parts of Leonardo's work with it as well. So, she decided the most pressing project was to remove everything that had been added after Leonardo finished the painting in 1498.

The restoration therefore demanded accuracy at the micron level, and attention to the smallest details. Microscopic pictures were utilized to magnify most areas of the painting. Such pictures demonstrated how mold, glue, repaint, and smog collected on the painting while infrared reflectoscopy enabled restorers to see the artist's original painting under layers of paint. Small diameter coring surveys also were performed. Samples taken from the corings were analyzed in laboratories to provide information on colors and materials utilized by Da Vinci. Miniature TV cameras inserted in the boreholes also provided information on the cracks and cavities. Sonar and radar surveys were also taken to provide information about the elastic and structural characteristics of the masonry and base that the painting resides upon.

Therefore using the above technologically advanced techniques for analysis and employing the use of solvents to remove multiple layers, Pinin Brambilla faced an extremely slow and meticulous process. Often, only an area the size of a postage stamp was cleaned each day. The twenty year project has proved to be quite successful however.

Once referring to Leonardo's Last Supper as a sick patient, Brambilla has proclaimed that she and her colleagues have been able to give back a reading of the dimensions, "of the expressive and chromatic intensity that we thought was lost forever." Brambilla, besides letting the original colors come through, added some basic color to blank areas in a way that the addition cannot be confused by the viewer with the original color. In certain areas, blank spots were left and not even painted over. Most importantly, the restorer believes that the luminosity of the original painting has been regained.

Leonardo's Last Supper was reopened to the public in May 1999. The painting is now preserved by a sophisticated air filtration system, moistured monitored environment, and dust-filtering chambers. Visitors must make reservations and groups are limited to 25 people for viewing times of only 15 minutes.


The most recent restoration, which took more than five times as long as Leonardo's execution of the painting, has been trumpeted by many but also condemned by many in the art world.

Critics, chiefly American and English, call Brambilla's removal of earlier restorations unnecessary and destructive, erasing fragments that might have been faithful to the original. James Beck, Art History Professor at Columbia University in New York, has been a prominent critic of the restoration. He has called it 18 to 20 percent Leonardo, and 80% the work of the restorer. Beck maintains that the areas that have been painted by Brambilla's watercolor essentially repaints the masterpiece. He asserts that the painting does not represent a conservation of what remains of Da Vinci's original, but represents a repaiting of a work that doesn't even have an echo of the past.Even Martin Kemp, Professor of History at Oxford and world expert on Leonardo, questions Brambilla's decision to fill in some of the gaps of the painting with similar tones of water-colors.

Although there are a number of critics, many have praised Brambilla's work. This is a topic to be debated in years and decades to come since it will never be certain as to whether the current state of the painting remains faithful to Leonardo Da Vinci's masterpiece or not.