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BACKSTAGE

A fragile heritage
Conservation of the Last Supper

Leonardo painted the Last Supper using a dry technique: he applied the pigments to a white preparatory layer, which served to level and smooth the wall, instead of painting directly on the wet plaster. Hence the colours were not absorbed by the plaster, but rather superimposed on the wall. This made the painting much more vulnerable and fragile than fresco. This technique and the far from perfect environmental conditions caused the loss of pigment in the years immediately after the painting was completed. It also led to numerous attempts at restoration that over the centuries ended up by disfiguring its appearance and further harming its state of preservation.

Leonardo da Vinci, the Last Supper, 1494-1498, detail of Christ during the restoration by Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, 1977-1998. Milan, Cenacolo Vinciano Museum. © Mibac – Polo museale della Lombardia

Particolare della manica di Matteo durante il restauro di Pinin Brambilla Barcilon

Leonardo da Vinci, the Last Supper, 1494-1498, detail of Matteo during the restoration by Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, 1977-1998. Milan, Cenacolo Vinciano Museum © Mibac – Polo museale della Lombardia

For this reason, after the last major restoration work completed in 1999, measures were taken to prevent it from deteriorating further. The air quality is carefully controlled in the refectory, consequently only small groups of visitors are allowed inside, while the environmental factors are continuously monitored: these are some of the measures adopted to ensure the work’s preservation. Hence the painting can only be viewed by appointment, with a limited number of people and restricted viewing times in the refectory. An uncontrolled influx of visitors would lead to an excessive increase in both relative humidity, with increased condensation of water vapor, and particulate matter. For these reasons access has to follow a path divided by automatic doors that close and open alternately. This allows a first natural filtering of the air that enters from outside, rich in pollutants that might harm the painting.

particolare della tavola durante il restauro di Pinin Brambilla Barcilon

Leonardo da Vinci, the Last Supper, 1494-1498, table detail during the restoration byPinin Brambilla Barcilon, 1977-1998. Milan, Cenacolo Vinciano Museum. © Mibac – Polo museale della Lombardia

The state of conservation
Repainting and restoration over time

The Last Supper, 1901 ca (catalogo Anderson)

The image we see today offers only a faint memory of the masterpiece that could be admired by Leonardo's contemporaries. Little is left of the original painting. The historical sources report that it had suffered considerable damage already a few years after its completion. In 1517 the canon Antonio De Beatis affirmed that the Last Supper “is beginning to decay”. In 1568 the artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari wrote that “we cannot make out anything more than a glowing stain”, badly blurred, and in 1625 Cardinal Federico Borromeo spoke of “falling flakes of paint”.
Clearly the Last Supper began to deteriorate a few years after its completion.
Leonardo did not use the traditional fresco technique to paint the Last Supper and the lunettes. He chose a method that would enable him to paint on dry plaster and work slowly, so as to be able to make changes to what he had already completed and lavish care on every least detail, working simultaneously on the whole surface of the painting. Fresco technique, on the other hand, requires the artist to work rapidly and does not allow for subsequent alterations, because the painter has to work on portions of plaster while it is still damp. Once it dries, no changes can be made. So this technique was poorly suited to Leonardo’s slow and meticulous approach, working with layer upon layer of paint.

The Last Supper after Luigi Cavenaghi’s restoration, 1908

In the Last Supper the artist painted on the wall as he would have done on a wooden panel, using greasy tempera made by mixing the pigments with egg yolk. This painting on dry plaster (called “a secco”) enabled him to create intense tones and refined effects of light.

Since the early 18th century, we have records of nine attempts at restoration of the Last Supper, although traces of similar earlier intervention have been found. In the past, however, restoration was understood as reconstruction and completion of the missing or decayed parts. For this reason it often involved repainting whole portions of the work. But by the 20th century, restoration was limited to preserving and consolidating the work with its gaps.

La chiesa e il refettorio di Santa Maria delle Grazie dopo il bombardamento dell’agosto 1943

The church and the refectory of Saint Maria delle Grazie after the allied bombing on 1943. © Mibac – Polo museale della Lombardia

Pinin Brambilla Barcilon a lavoro durante il restauro del Cenacolo, 1982

Pinin Brambilla Barcilon working on restoration of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, 1982. © Mibac – Polo museale della Lombardia

Mauro Pellicioli davanti al Cenacolo di Leonardo

Mauro Pellicioli and the Last Supper. The making of of the film “Il miracolo della Cena. Le vicende del capolavoro di Leonardo da Vinci”, by Luigi Rognoni, Rizzoli film, 1953

Pinin Brambilla Barcilon e Carlo Bertelli durante i restauri

Pinin Brambilla Barcilon and Carlo Bertelli working on restoration.

The last operation by Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, lasting over twenty years, from 1977 to 1999, for the first time sought to recover the parts painted by Leonardo, concealed by earlier overpainting, and restored to public view a work as close as possible to its original appearance.

Conservation technique of the <em>Last Supper</em>
INSIDE THE LAST SUPPER

Conservation technique of the Last Supper

Leonardo did not use the traditional fresco technique to paint the Last Supper and the lunettes. He chose a method that would enable him to paint on dry plaster and work slowly, so as to be able to make changes.

NEWS AND EVENTS

On sale for September, October and November 2020

  • NEWS
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  • 9 September 2020
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  • Museo del Cenacolo Vinciano

From Thursday 10 September tickets for the Museum of Leonardo’s Last Supper are on sale for September, October and November 2020 (till 30th November)

On sale for September, October and November 2020

Last Supper painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the List of World Heritage Sites

  • NEWS
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  • 4 September 2020
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  • Museo del Cenacolo Vinciano

Exactly 40 years ago, from 1 to 5 September 1980, the fourth session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee was held in Paris, at which the Complex of Santa Maria delle Grazie, including the church and the Refectory with the Last Supper painted by Leonardo da Vinci were added in the List of World Heritage Sites.

Last Supper painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the List of World Heritage Sites

Increasing the number of visitors

  • NEWS
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  • 8 July 2020
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  • Museo del Cenacolo Vinciano

Starting from July, we are gradually increasing the number of visitors admitted to the Refectory: each week two more people will be admitted every 15 minutes, until by Saturday 25 July we reach the maximum of 18 people permitted every 15 minutes.

Increasing the number of visitors

The Museo del Cenacolo Vinciano reopens its doors to the public!

  • NEWS
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  • 5 June 2020
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  • Museo del Cenacolo Viciano

The Museum of Leonardo’s Last Supper reopens on 9 June with itineraries and visits carefully planned to protect the safety and health of public and staff

The Museo del Cenacolo Vinciano reopens its doors to the public!

Digital Voucher

  • NEWS
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  • 11 May 2020
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  • Museo del Cenacolo Vinciano

Visitors are informed that, under provisions of Article 88 para. 3 of Legislative Decree No. 18 of 17 March 2020, tickets purchased for visits in the period between 8th March 2020 and whenever the museum reopens will be refunded with a digital voucher for the equivalent sum, which may be used within one year of issue.
By express provision of the law, any other form of reimbursement is currently excluded.

 

Digital Voucher

Nero su bianco. Carte d’archivio raccontano Leonardo

  • EXHIBITION
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  • 16 January 2020 – 28 March 2020
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  • Archivio di Stato di Milano

A multisensory and multimedia narrative that accompanies visitors on an engaging journey to discover the documentary sources kept in the State Archives of Milan, recounting the story and works of Leonardo's period in Milan (and much else).

Nero su bianco. Carte d’archivio raccontano Leonardo
RESERVATIONS ARE COMPULSORY FOR ALL TYPES OF TICKETS

To guarantee everyone a safe visit, in this first experimental phase, the visits last 15 minutes for a maximum number of 18 people at a time

Every visitor to the Museum
of the Last Supper

is part of an extraordinary
experience, also made
possible by the support
of all of you.

HOURS

Tuesday – Saturday
9 am – 7 pm
(last entry 6.45 pm)

Sunday
9 am – 1.45 pm
(last entry 1.30 pm)

closed every Monday

BOOKINGS

To guarantee everyone a safe visit,
in this first experimental phase,
the visits last 15 minutes for
a maximum number of 18 people at a time
Reservations are required.

INFO

Toll-free number,
from landlines:
800 990 084

Toll number,
from landline or mobile:
+39 02 92800360

(Mon-Sat, 8 am-6.30 pm)