· How a secret copy resurrected in Belgium

 

By Osa Amadi, Arts Editor

 


The Tongerlo Last Supper, by Leonardo da Vinci and his studio. Courtesy of the Sheen Center.

The Last Supper painted by Leonardo da Vinci on the wall in the refectory of the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan is said to reveal Leonardo at his superlative best. But just as the biblical event led to the tragic event of Good Friday (coincidentally on the same day this story is being written) and ultimately unto a victorious outcome, Easter Sunday, The Last Supper, as an artwork, bears a similar story.

 

The history

Having grown up and lived in Florence in the service of Lorenzo the Magnificent, head of the Medici family which ruled Florence at that time, Leonardo da Vinci became somewhat uncomfortable living in the city. He had witnessed a lot of violence arising from the execution of some conspirators who had attempted to assassinate Lorenzo. He had also escaped being jailed on a trumped-up charge of committing sodomy.

Besides, having no education, the young Leonardo hardly fitted into the circle of well-read friends of Lorenzo, made up of finest artists, poets and philosophers such as Botticelli, Lorenzo’s favorite painter; the poet, Angelo Poliziano; the philosopher, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola; and the Platonic scholar, Marsilio Ficino, all said to be leading luminaries of the Renaissance that was taking place in Florence.

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In 1482, at the age of 29, an opportunity came Leonardo’s way to leave Florence. Lorenzo sent him to Ludovico Sforza, ruler of Milan, to deliver, as well as to demonstrate to him, a silver lyre in form of a horse head which Leonardo had created.

That was how Leonardo went into the service of Ludovico Sforza, also known as “Il Moro” who, as a regent, had usurped the power of the rightful Duke of Milan, the 8-year old Gian Galeazzo on whom the dukedom had fallen after Duke Galeazzo Maria, Gian Galeazzo’s father and Ludovico Sforza’s older brother was assassinated in 1494.

 

Leonardo da Vinci in Milan

Leonardo da Vinci was happy in Milan. He lived there for 17 years, said to be the most productive years of his life. Among the many work of art he produced in Milan were The Last Supper. In addition, he also introduced himself to Ludovico Sforza as a military engineer and actually designed quite a number of military devices which he did not build but which had since been proved by recent experiment that they could have worked perfectly. For instance, 300 years later, the armored military vehicle, similar to the one Leonardo had designed in those days, was produced in the American Civil War!

Ultimately, Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned to paint The Last Supper, and it took him too long to complete to the displeasure of the prior of the monastery. Several reasons had been adduced to Leonardo’s growing delay or outright inability to complete commissioned works. As the historian, Paul Strathern observed in his “The Artists, the Philosopher, and the Warrior”, Leonardo’s “ever-evolving artistic ideas, which often made it impossible for him to achieve any uniform vision in a single work” and the diversion of his interest to so many other things like the said designs of military machines and study of mathematics could have been reasons for the delays.

Strathern presented a firsthand description of Leonardo at work by Matteo Bandello, a novice at the monastery who had closely observed Leonardo da Vinci as he worked on The Last Supper:

“He would arrive at an early hour; climb up unto the scaffolding, and start working. Sometimes he would stay there from dawn until sunset, not once setting down his brush, forgetting to eat or drink, and painting without cease. On other occasion he would go for two, three or four days without taking up his brush, but spending one or two hours a day standing before the work, arms folded, scrutinizing and assessing the figures in his mind. I also saw him, driven by some sudden urge, set out from the Corte Vecchia (his official quarter in Milan) at midday when the heat of the sun was at its height, without seeking the shade…and came straight to Santa Maria delle Grazie, clamber up unto the scaffolding, take up his brush, add one or two strokes, and then go away again.”

 

When the prior of the monastery could no longer bear Leonardo’s delay of The Last Supper, he reported him to the ruler of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. Ludovico then summoned Leonardo to come and explain why he was delaying the job. When Leonardo came, he said he had finished the painting; that it remained only the face of Judas, “because despite searching through the most notorious streets and taverns of the city, he had yet to find a face imbued with sufficient perfidious evil. However, if the prior required the painting finished at once, he was willing to use the prior’s face for Judas”.

At that, Ludovico burst into laughter, obviously to the chagrin of the prior, and Leonardo da Vinci was left to continue his work the way he deemed fit.

Well, we know he completed The Last Supper.  But as Sarah Cascone had noted in an article for Art World in March 2018, Leonardo da Vinci “was so committed to outdoing the typical cenacolo fresco that he chose an untested medium, using oil paint that failed to bind with the underlying plaster which began decaying within years of its initial application. The centuries have not been kind to the masterpiece—only 20 percent of the original painting is thought to remain intact, making it difficult to fully comprehend the impact the piece would have had when it was new”.

However, in 2017, when two authors, Jean-Pierre Isbouts and Christopher Heath Brown were working on their book, The Young Leonardo: The Evolution of a Revolutionary Artist, 1472–1499, someone informed them that  Leonardo da Vinci and his studio had completed on canvas a second version of The Last Supper, just a few years after he had finished painting the original in the refectory of the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan.

For Jean-Pierre and Christopher, it was a joke, but all the same, they tried to investigate it. And lo and behold, it was true! Finally, the second copy of The Last Supper was traced to a remote abbey in Tongerlo, Belgium, an hour outside Antwerp. A documentary film, The Search for the Last Supper, was even made on the subject.

 

When was the 2nd version of The Last Supper made?

After many years of Ludovico’s extravagant lifestyle, Milan began to feel the strain. By the time Lorenzo the Magnificent in Florence died in 1492, the rightful Duke of Milan, Gian Galeazzo, whose power had been usurped by Ludovico Sforza, had become a man. Yet, Ludovico refused to relinquish power to him. Gian’s wife, Isabella, being granddaughter of King Ferrante of Naples, appealed to her grandfather. Usurpers of thrones, who had become rampant in Italy by this time, were generally frowned at.

Fearing that the throne of Milan could be wrenched from his hands by a combined Italian force, Ludovico Sforza, according to Strathern, “took a rash and unprecedented step: he appealed for help outside Italy by promising to support Charles VIII of France, who had a claim to the throne of Naples.” This threw Italy into chaos.

But Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia, father of Cesare Borgia) mustered a Holy League force against the French invasion. Ludovico was shocked. Although the French had victory in the battle, Charles VIII’s army was forced to hastily retreat through the Alps.

In the ensuing melee, the King of Naples, King Ferrante fled Naples and died, and Ludovico ordered the poisoning of Gian Galeazzo, subsequently making himself the full Duke of Milan.

Unfortunately for him, however, Charles VIII died in 1498 and was succeeded by Louis XII, a descendant of the Viscontis, former dukes of Milan whose thrones had similarly been usurped by the Sforzas.

As war with Louis XII loomed in Milan, Leonardo da Vinci who had been on the employ of Ludovico Sforza began to gather his movable artworks in preparation to leave Milan. He must have delayed, for as Strathern recounted, “Leonardo would remain in Milan for three months after the French occupation. During this difficult time, he almost certainly had his first meeting with Cesare Borgia, whose support for Louis XII was intended to gain French backing for the invasion of the Romagna that he had secretly planned with his father, the pope (Alexander VI).”

Strathern gave a detailed account of Leonardo’s preparation to leave Milan and of his eventual slip out of Milan in December 1499 to Venice. He never mentioned any meeting between Leonardo and Louis XII. Nevertheless, it was possible, given the mentioned meeting between Cesare Borgia and Leonardo, an ally of Borgia, as at the time Louis XII came to Milan.

It was another art historian, Giorgio Vasari (who was also often quoted by Strathern) that was quoted as saying that when Louis XII visited Santa Maria della Grazie, the king had desperately hoped to bring The Last Supper with him to France, which was then severely lacking in arts and culture, “but the fact that it was painted on a wall robbed his Majesty of his desire, and so the picture remained with the Milanese.”

According to the documentary, “If he (Louis XII) can’t have the fresco itself, he will have the next best thing: a copy on canvas, that he can take back to France.”

Sarah Cascone’s article, citing the documentary, wrote that “the film points to a letter dated January 1507, tracked down in the archives in Florence, in which the king writes that “we have need of Leonardo da Vinci,” who had an assignment back in his native city. Based on this evidence, it seems likely that Louis XII commissioned Leonardo and his studio to paint a full-scale copy of The Last Supper, just eight years after they completed the original in 1499. Furthermore, a 1540 inventory of the governor of Milan’s estate in Gaillon, France, includes a “Last Supper on canvas with monumental figures that the king brought over from Milan.”

“Today,” says Cascone, “Brown and Isbouts have shown the painting (the 2nd copy of The Last Supper) to experts who believe some 90 percent of it was done by members of the artist’s studio. The paintings of Jesus Christ and St. John, however, may be by Leonardo himself—unlike the rest of the painting, X-ray analysis shows no underdrawings for these two important figures.”

With The Last Supper coming back to life as the resurrected Christ on this Easter Monday, may you have a special encounter with Jesus and victory over the COVID-19 Pandemic in Jesus name.

Happy Easter!

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