Nothing is more interesting than this far-famed picture, and nothing, I will venture to say, so striking to one who visits this relic of ancient art, as the condition in which he finds it. It is in a monastery, built in the year 1464, by Francis Sforza, Duke of Milan, erected for a fraternity of Dominican friars, belonging to a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, styled Delle Grazie.
The monastery is destroyed; the church is nothing; you pass it by; the refectory, or dining-hall, where the picture is, is nothing; the painting itself would not attract the attention of any one ignorant of the art. I do not wonder that the French soldiery selected the place for a stable; nor that they promoted it, in process of time, to the rank of a barrack for foot soldiers. Imagine yourself led into a large apartment with lofty plastered walls; the door in the centre, like a parish school; the windows high, and irregularly placed, but pretty large; the flat walls painted of a grey colour; the ceiling white-washed; the floor of the roughest flags; the place too small for barracks, of which it has greatly the aspect, and too vast and chilly for a school. At one end you find this picture, painted high upon these rude walls in fresco, the figures of the size of life, injured and disco-loured, and the walls much damaged. Perhaps it will be expected that, in the next paragraph, I shall say, ” Yet, even in circumstances so unpropitious, the Last Supper shone with splendour;” but no, it is like every spoiled fresco, a poor washy-looking thing, and I impartially declare, that I should hardly have discovered its beauties, and was forced to bring to recollection Morghen’s superb engraving, not without some wonder in what state the painting could then have been, what co-pies he consulted, or by what means he made good his design.
The conception of the artist is the finest, the most awful and grand imaginable; and the moment he has chosen, the most interesting, the most calculated to ex-cite all the various sensations of curiosity, pain, wonder, and horror; it is when our Saviour says, ” One among you shall betray me.”
The picture is now nearly lost, and all its beauty gone; and this is principally owing to the whimsical theories Leonardo had conceived in the composition, and manner of laying on his colours. He is reported to have been occupied sixteen years in this painting; the chief part of which time was, I doubt not, employed in experiments more properly chemical; and, after having tried and rejected many materials, he at last finished the picture in oil, on a ground composed of pitch, mastic, and plaster, combined with some fourth ingredient, and wrought with heated iron; an invention probably altogether his own, but which was afterwards used by Sebastiano del Piombo. Over this preparation he laid his fresco, a cement of burnt clay and ochre, which, being mixed up with varnish, formed a colouring of great beauty, but short duration.
The precise period when Leonardo commenced this great work is not correctly as certained; but it is supposed to have been towards the beginning of the year 1495. He began by forming a general plan of the whole, which (with many other valuable productions of his) is unfortunately lost. He next proceeded to make separate sketches of the heads, of which two are still in existence, one in the possession of Prince Lichtenstein, and the other purchased, a century ago, by an Englishman. A painting on a subject of such deep interest, and by an artist so eminent, could not fail to inspire the liveliest feelings among his friends and contemporaries; but curiosity and enthusiasm, to whatever height they might have arisen, had no remedy but patience; for, though this object constantly held the first place in the thoughts of Da Vinci, sixteen years elapsed before it was finally accomplished. Bernardo Zenale, on his expressing the difficulty of giving to the countenance of our Saviour a divine beauty and excellence, superior to that which he had already attained in those of some of the Apostles, particularly of St John, recommended him to follow the example of the celebrated Grecian artist, and leave the work unfinished; with which advice, according to one author (Lanazzo), he complied; but this statement is entirely contradicted by every other writer.
The description of the whole composition, given by Cardinal Frederic Borromeo, breathes all the fervour of a feeling mind, warmed to enthusiasm by admiration; and this is the language which is held by all the professors and authors of the day.
In a public recitation, held by Antonio Massi, at Pa-via, rather more than a hundred years since, he says,
Inimitable beauty shone in the Saviour’s countenance, blended with a character of deep and touching melancholy, expressive of celestial pity; a countenance on which the eye rested with awe, love, and admiration; while all the emotions of the mind, tenderness, anxiety, suspense, or fear, might be read in the varied aspects of the Apostles. The mild and effulgent beauty of St John was relieved by the stronger and more dignified physiognomy of St Peter, whose features, on which truth and zeal were pourtrayed, were finely contrasted by the haggard visage, dark scowling eye, wild disordered looks, and sunk cheek of Judas Iscariot, who is represented, with the jealous suspicion characteristic of guilt, to be listening to the discourse of St Peter.” During the progress of the work, the artist, as may easily be imagined, was assailed by the curiosity, or annoyed by the impatience, of those who surrounded him. It is reported, in particular, that the Prior, worn out with expectation, at length complained to the Duke, who, inquiring into the matter from Leonardo himself, was assured by him, that he devoted two hours daily to the painting; and this answer being satisfactory, the Prior was dismissed. But returning to the Duke some months after, and with additional ill humour, he protested, that during the intervening period, not a line had been added, or brush applied; upon which assertion, Ludovico again had re-course to Da Vinci, who explained, in language so eloquent and clear, the necessity of study and contemplation to mature his ideas on a subject so august, that the Duke was not only convinced, but charmed with the powers of mind displayed in his discourse; and from that time none dared to interfere. Leonardo was said to have revenged himself on the Prior, by making use of his countenance to represent Judas.
It would be a long matter to enumerate the variety of accidents that have combined to ruin this celebrated picture, and those occurring at a period so shortly following its completion, as to render it a subject of wonder, as well as a proof of the exquisite beauty it had once possessed, that its fame has been carried through so many ages. Two circumstances have especially contributed to pre-serve it to posterity; the admiration of contemporaries, who delighted in copying a favourite subject, and the diligence, taste, and talents of Morghen; and to these may be added, in the third place, the order, in the year 1796, by which Buonaparte prohibited the use of the hall any longer as a barrack.
In little more than fifty years after this painting was finished, it was found to be almost wholly destroyed. In the year 1726, it was repaired by Michael Angelo Bellotti, a presumptuous, but a good artist; and although, according to the assertion of some, his success was owing to a secret skill in renewing the colours, I should rather conjecture, that his art was that of repainting. At a later period, Giorgione was solicited to re-touch the picture, a task which he modestly declined. In the year 1772, they found a painter less diffident, Muzza, who nearly accomplished the utter destruction of this admirable piece. He boldly brushed off the surface of the painting wherever it interrupted his progress, laying a new ground of paste, mastic, burnt umber, and ochre, on the parts which he meant to repair. He had nearly finished the whole; St Thomas, Matthias, and Simon, alone were left untouched; and they were in the course of execution, when a new Prior (Paul Gallon) saved them from his barbarous hands. In the year 1797, Beauharnois, at that time Viceroy of Milan, ordered the refectory to be repaired, and defended the picture, by the erection of a low wooden gallery, on which the spectator is placed to view it.