An Immaculate Copy of Leonardo’s The Last Supper Digitized by Google: View It in High Resolution Online

Roman­tic poets told us that great art is eter­nal and tran­scen­dent. They also told us every­thing made by human hands is bound to end in ruin and decay. Both themes were inspired by the redis­cov­ery and renewed fas­ci­na­tion for the arts of antiq­ui­ty in Europe and Egypt. It was a time of renewed appre­ci­a­tion for mon­u­men­tal works of art, which hap­pened to coin­cide with a peri­od when they came under con­sid­er­able threat from loot­ers, van­dals, and invad­ing armies.

One work of art that appeared on the itin­er­ary of every Grand Tour­ing aris­to­crat, Leonardo’s da Vinci’s fres­co The Last Sup­per in Milan, was made espe­cial­ly vul­ner­a­ble when the refec­to­ry in which it was paint­ed became an armory and sta­ble for Napoleon’s troops in 1796. The sol­diers scratched out the apos­tles’ eyes and lobbed rocks at the paint­ing. Lat­er, in 1800, Goethe wrote of the room flood­ing with two feet of water, and the build­ing was also used as a prison.

As every cura­tor and con­ser­va­tion­ist knows well, grand ideas about art gloss over impor­tant details. Art is bound to par­tic­u­lar cul­tures, his­to­ries and mate­ri­als. One of Leonardo’s most influ­en­tial fres­coes dur­ing the Renais­sance, for exam­ple, almost com­plete­ly melt­ed right after he fin­ished it, due to his insis­tence on using oils, which he also mixed with tem­pera in The Last Sup­per. Just a few decades after that paint­ing’s com­ple­tion, one Ital­ian writer would describe it as “blurred and col­or­less com­pared with what I remem­ber of it when I saw it as a boy.”

His­tor­i­cal decay is one thing. Recent fires at Brazil’s Nation­al Muse­um and Notre Dame served as stark reminders that acci­dents and poor plan­ning can rob the world of cher­ished cul­tur­al trea­sures all at once. Insti­tu­tions have been dig­i­tiz­ing their col­lec­tions with as much detail and pre­ci­sion as pos­si­ble. For their part, England’s Roy­al Acad­e­my of Arts has part­nered with Google Arts & Cul­ture to ren­der sev­er­al of their most prized works online, includ­ing a copy of The Last Sup­per on can­vas, made by Leonardo’s stu­dents from his orig­i­nal work.

More than any oth­er con­tem­po­rary descrip­tion of the paint­ing, this faith­ful copy, prob­a­bly made by artists who worked on the fres­co itself, pro­vides art his­to­ri­ans “key insights into the long-fad­ed mas­ter­work in Milan,” and lets us see the vivid shades that awed its first view­ers. Pre­sent­ed in “Gigapix­el clar­i­ty,” notes Art­net, the huge dig­i­tal image with its “ultra high res­o­lu­tion” was “made pos­si­ble by a pro­pri­etary Google cam­era.” As you zoom in to the tini­est details, facts appear about the paint­ing and its larg­er, more bat­tered orig­i­nal in Milan.

It is either a “mir­a­cle” that The Last Sup­per has sur­vived, as Áine Cain writes at Busi­ness Insid­er, or the result of an “unend­ing fight” to pre­serve the work, as Kevin Wong details at Endgad­get. Or maybe some mys­te­ri­ous mix­ture of chance and near-hero­ic effort. But what has sur­vived is not what Leonar­do paint­ed, but rather the best recon­struc­tion to emerge from cen­turies of destruc­tion and restora­tion. Get clos­er than any­one ever could to a fac­sim­i­le of the orig­i­nal and see details from Leonardo’s work that have left no oth­er trace in his­to­ry. Explore it here.

via Smith­son­ian

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Com­plete Dig­i­ti­za­tion of Leonar­do Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanti­cus, the Largest Exist­ing Col­lec­tion of His Draw­ings & Writ­ings

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Vision­ary Note­books Now Online: Browse 570 Dig­i­tized Pages

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Inven­tions Come to Life as Muse­um-Qual­i­ty, Work­able Mod­els: A Swing Bridge, Scythed Char­i­ot, Per­pet­u­al Motion Machine & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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