Da Vinci, Duration, Death

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

I spent a day in Milan recently, chasing around desperately in a quest to see The Last Supper. I succeeded at last, but what did I actually see? Da Vinci's work, or a mockery of time?

I arrived in Milan tired, after a week working at a client site about 40 miles northeast of the city. I hadn't been in Europe in ten years. I am not as good a traveler as I was, and though in my twenties I thought I was an explorer, I think now I was always nervous on the road. I wasn't sure I wanted to be there at all. There are times in your life when you can wander, and there are times when an internal governor tells you that you cannot waste any time, but must fly straight to the mark. Whatever it is.

When I set out, I only knew one thing about Milan: that there was a huge medieval cathedral there, named Il Duomo. Almost a quarter century ago, I changed trains in Milan on my way to Brindisi to catch a ferry to Greece. I had three hours between trains and visited the cathedral. I didn't remember much about it or Milan at all except, absurdly, that I bought a French newspaper there and learned the word "organigramme" from an article about the Red Brigades.

Sometime during my week at the client site, I read that Leonardo Da Vinci's The Last Supper was to be seen in Milan, and that became my goal for the weekend. I knew only a little about Da Vinci and had only a vague impression of the painting, probably acquired from a history of art class at Brooklyn College. We used Janson's big book. Almost everything I know about art is there in Janson. I don't own a copy any more. What do I remember about art? That the breakthrough of the Renaissance had to do with a new level of realism, the humanity and individuality of figures which were stereotyped in prior art, that new experiments in perspective were tried. Of da Vinci, I remembered that he was a genius, an engineer, a philosopher, that he kept notebooks which I browsed in the bookstore at the Metropolitan Museum, that he was an intellectual humorous scamp.

I had a few impressions of Janson's textbook. The beautiful young madonna and the women surrounding her in various Renaissance works reminded me of Italian American girls I knew from high school and college. The book described the evolution of art, that I had been captured by the symbolism and the technical mastery as they developed through time. That the girl sitting next to me, Liz Nittolo, looked much like the girl on the page; that beauty stayed the same while the way it is mirrored changes. It is easy to think that everyone looked different in the past, because the way they are presented changed. But human material cannot have been so different.

At the Hotel Diana in Milan, I made a reservation with the concierge for a bus tour the next morning. Twenty-five years ago, I was too proud ever to take a bus tour, which I regarded as a canned, Disneyesque version of travel. Now I was tired and not really up to the challenge of exploring Milan without help. The concierge told me I needed to catch the bus from another hotel a mile or so away, and marked it on the map.

In the morning I walked to the other place. I had been worried about not finding it, and I was forty-five minutes early. I sat down to wait when that hotel's concierge came over to tell me that the bus was full and would not even be stopping at the hotel. I told him quietly--I dd not want to be the ugly American--that I had a reservation. No, he said, my hotel had called him last night and he had put my name on a list, not expecting any problem. But when he called the bus company, they said they were full. It was, after all, the Saturday of Easter weekend. He would send someone over to the tourist office next to Il Duomo to make sure I got on the 3:00 tour.

I sat and looked at the map. Based on the distance I had already walked between the two hotels, I concluded I could get over to the monastery where The Last Supper was located without too much trouble. I had already come almost halfway. I thanked the concierge and set out. Within a few minutes I was in walking mode, in a relaxed reverie, passing through a street corner market where heaps of baby octopi were for sale. Then left on a classic European boulevard. Milan was not so different from Paris. The bars and the bookstores looked the same.

I hit the Sforza fort and decided to go in. I walked around for a few minutes in the huge interior, identified that there were museums, but decided to come back after I had seen The Last Supper. The painting, to which I had only ever given a half hours' thought in my life, over Jansen's and while an art professor talked of it, had become the goal that validated the day. I though of Yeats' lines from Tom O'Roughley:

‘THOUGH logic choppers rule the town,
And every man and maid and boy
Has marked a distant object down,
An aimless joy is a pure joy,’
Or so did Tom O’Roughley say
That saw the surges running by,
‘And wisdom is a butterfly
And not a gloomy bird of prey.

In my whole life I have never been able to live as Tom said, though it is attractive. On a day when I could advance no major goal, I had to have a little one. The Last Supper was my "distant object" for Saturday, April 14.

Too nervous to visit any other museums until I had accomplished my objective, I left the Sforza fort and walked another few streets to the Santa Maria della Grazie church where Da Vinci's fresco is displayed. There was a line of people waiting, and a "Sold Out" sign. I began to have that feeling you get when the universe is unreasonably refusing to manifest something you thought you were entitled to, something that was not supposed to be difficult to accomplish. I read a sign in English which informed me, more unreasonably still, that tickets were not sold here but had to be obtained elsewhere.

I began to relinquish: it seemed probable that I would not get to see The Last Supper. I did not trust that the concierge would be any more succesful at putting me on the 3:00 bus than he had been with the morning one. It was not yet noon and I also was not certain I had the stamina to wander around for three more hours or to get myself over to Il Duomo, which was almost as far as I had already walked. So I started to consider giving up. What was The Last Supper to me? If I had landed in Hooplemyer, Ak., instead of Milan, my goal might just as easily have been a Museum of String, with the world's largest ball of twine, insetad of a Da Vinci fresco. If The Last Supper didn't mean anything more to me than a big ball of string, what difference did it make if I saw it? I remembered there was another da Vinci fresco in one of the museums at the castle. Wouldn't that be just as good?

It wasn't, because once you've marked a distant object down, its very hard to let it go. I decided to play things out a little; if I went back to the hotel and watched the Italian version of MTV the day would be very flat, and I would feel I had failed. Instead, I retraced my steps to the castle and visited the museum, where I looked at hundreds of not terribly interesting examples of art from medieval tombs and early pillars and mosaics. "Too much Christianity," someone else had said about Milan, explaining why he gave up before seeing the The Last Supper. In another room there were paintings by Renaissance artists I had never heard of. One had the same unusual last name as a businessman I had met during the week. Reminding me that you don't know anything about age and duration until you have visited Europe or Asia, because the United States was only minted yesterday.

These works however reminded me of Janson's. There were real people in them who looked fairly modern. There was a portrait of a musical family, each holding a different instrument, and in the background, with a flute and an arch expression, I saw my Brooklyn College classmate again.

Then the chapel painted by Da Vinci, and also extensively restored. There were no people. He had painted trees, their trunks on the wall and the ceiling a paradise of interlacing leaves. It must have been a very restful place for the original count to sit and meditate between murders and wars.

By now I knew I was going on to Il Duomo. I walked through the castle grounds to spend five minutes in the park on the other side, just to check another item from my list, and then struck out for Il Duomo. I didn't really remember it from a quarter century before. It was huge and spiky. Details everywhere, the brass doors thronged with writhing figures. Soldiers assailing a wall with a battering ram and a dog assisting. For me, such places inspire an agoraphobia I usually don't know I have.

The tourist office next door was closed until 2 so I went into the cathedral. Along both walls, confessional booths with priests sitting in them. They weren't like the confessionals I know from movies, as both the priest and penitent were visible to everyone. No concealment. People were kneeling in public murmuring to priests while thousands of other people strolled by. Halfway along, the tombs of former archbishops. What appeared to be the preserved body of one of them in a glass case. Boxes everywhere for donations. The most beautiful thing I saw was a image of the sun on the floor, on a mosaic of the zodiac. I looked up and a pinhole in the high ceiling, a camera obscura, was projecting it.

Il Duomo was commenced in the 13th century and finished in the 20th. The whole place was redolent of age and quiet power. I went back next door, past a pick-up truck full of flowers, a painting of the wounded Christ on the side. The tourist office still wasn't open but I found a museum with an exhibit about The Last Supper. Everyone else's version, before and after. Stereotypical ones, where the saints all look the same. Copies by contemporaries of Da Vinci and later. Warhol's. Luis Bunuel's pastiche in Viridiana. By now I had some understanding of what I would be looking at and was raring to go.

The tourist office was open and they had my reservation. All day long, I had fully expected to get shut out again, that the day would come to nothing more memorable than the five minutes I spent sitting under the other fresco of leaves and trees. I climbed onto the hot bus and fell asleep in the stagnant air. When the tour began, the guide made us get out of the bus and walk through Il Duomo. But a service had now started so they threw us out again. We visited one museum I hadn't, and stood awhile in front of Mantegna's Dead Christ, with its odd perspective. At Brooklyn College, Professor Aaron Streiter had done a little pantomime of the Renaissance bursting out of the middle ages: looking straight ahead grimly, then to one side with a smile. Dead Christ, with its odd tint and offbeat perspective, was the living Christ bursting from the forehead of dead, stereotypical medieval art. I remembered it from Janson's.

We went back to the Sforza castle, retracing my steps from the day. Then on to Santa Maria Della Grazie. The Last Supper is not in the church itself, but in a museum, a former monastery, behind. Only twenty people are allowed in at a time. You wait in various antechambers, like airlocks, until a door slides open. The place is strictly climate controlled. When I finally stood in front of the fresco it was worth the wait. Each apostle had a lively, distinct Italian face. Recognizable, too, as the faces I saw in the street that day. Some were raging, some weeping, some astonished. Christ has just told them, an instant before, that one of them will betray him before the cock crows. One of them is asking, "Is it me, Lord?" Can you imagine that: wondering, am I going to be the traitor? Farther down, Judas' face is the only one you can't see fully. He is glowing with resentment and fear, nearer to evil but not exactly. "Nothing human is alien to me."

Fifteen minutes and we had to move on, out another airlock. I was very satisfied. I could go eat now, drink a glass of white wine, and spend the evening in my room watching television, because I had achieved my object. The day and my life were restored to meaning. The day would always be meaningful and as far as life was concerned I could move on to the next distant object.

But what exactly did I see? I began to read about The Last Supper. Da Vinci had made a serious mistake when he painted it. Frescos are usually painted rapidly on wet plaster. Da Vinci liked to take his time, to paint and revise, so he did it on drywall, using an experimental mixture. As a result, the fresco had already badly faded in his lifetime. One hundred and twenty years later, when Spain controlled Milan and the monastery, the painting was so decayed that a Spanish functionary put a door through the picture, eliminating Jesus' feet. Probably he didn't even know what it was. The man who put a door through a Da Vinci.

The fresco was in a monastery, in the dining room, so the monks at supper could look up at Jesus and the disciples having supper on the wall. I imagine a huge, smoky room, full of food smells and soot. The door which violated the painting communicated with the kitchen. The fresco must have gotten dirty beyond recognition very rapidly.

During the Allied invasion of Italy in 1944, the monastery took a direct hit from a bomb. In the 1950's, a "restoration" of the painting was attempted which was widely criticized for altering Da Vinci's work; one of the disciple's hands, for example, re-emerged as a loaf of bread. Someone else put a coat of plastic over the fresco in the hope it wouldn't fade any more. Our guide had seen it in his child-hood; he described to us a very gray image of almost unrecognizable figures. In 1977, the fresco was withdrawn from public view, and Dr. Pinin Brambilia Barcilon, an Italian art professor, spent the next twenty years "restoring" it.

What did "restoration" mean in this context? Only about twenty percent of the picture was left, and the rest had vanished entirely. Working from copies, she repainted the remainder in bright pigments. The result has been very controversial. Respected voices in the art world have said that this is a travesty, really not a Da Vinci but at best a collaboration between him and the restorer, at worst her work entirely. Art critic Waldemar Januszczak said that "Now it is the work of someone who has painted 80% of it. It looks like a postcard because it was copied from a postcard." Professor James Beck of Columbia: "To claim this is the original is pure nonsense....This woman has simply produced a new Brambilla." Although she carefully reversed the liberties taken in the 1950's--the loaf of bread is again a hand--critics say Dr. Brambilla took other liberties. Jesus' face is said to have feminine, pouting lips and a strange expression diverging from the original. I read in one account that Da Vinci never finished Jesus' head, but Dr. Brambilla did. The pigments she used are said to be much more garish than da Vinci intended.

I always thought that restoration of an artwork meant removing grime and perhaps, touching up a few damaged places. In this case, it meant the somewhat speculative recreation of an artwork that was already gone. As soon as you learn that the work retains only twenty percent or less (some say ten) of the original, you realize with regret that you haven't seen a Da Vinci. Only the Disney version. The fresco which had become a semiotic sign for me--signifying the accomplishment of a goal, and therefore a meaningful life--had become one for everyone else as well. Just as the fresco could just as well have been a ball of string for me, it didn't have to be a genuine Da Vinci for anyone else either. What it stood for was human triumph over the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Humans couldn't be so foolish as to allow a magnificent fresco to be defeated by grime, carpentry, Allied bombs or the ravages caused by a bad choice of paint and technique. All of our greatest achievements must be timeless in the sense of standing outside time, of not being subject to it, so that a small piece of ourselves stands there as well. It is a bizarre experience to read Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time and to be reminded that one "day", due to the collapse of the universe upon itself, there will be no humans, therefore no art, and not even "time" as we understand it. Therefore no-one to remember that The Last Supper existed.

Great con men know that in order to sell an implausible story, they must mix in a few homely details that are poignantly real. To put her "restoration" across, Dr. Brambilla chose not to recreate the portion of the painting destroyed in 1620 by the door. Why not, when she recreated so much else?

People need Da Vinci to be timeless, and Milan needed The Last Supper, and in a typical human informal conspiracy, everyone suspended judgment, because if we all say it is a Da Vinci, then perhaps it is. Under this theory, one could scrape the remaining paint from the wall, propagate it into a thousand other copies of lost Da Vinci works by various artists, and these would all become Da Vinci works as well. I suppose you could have several authentic Last Suppers, one staying in Milan while the others tour the world.

Teilhard de Chardin spoke of things which drop into time and become objects of history:

And thus it is that this universe differentiates itself from purely abstract magnitudes and places itself among the realities which are born, which grow, and which die. From time it passes into duration; and finally escapes from geometry dramatically to become, in its totality as in its parts, an object of history.

Art is a human function, and as such it has duration and eventually dies, like humans themselves, the human race and the universe we live in. The Last Supper too has escaped from geometry, lived, impressed people, and has passed away, like the artist. Everything else is denial. What I saw in Milan was as horrifying (now that I know what it was) as the archbishop's body in the glass case--except that the latter was more authentic in that it retained more of the archbishop than the Da Vinci did of Da Vinci. It would have been better to let it go.