“It is better to have a retouched painting than to no longer have the painting at all”: Pino’s history of Leonardo’s ‘The Last Supper’
In 1796, the first monograph entirely devoted to Leonardo’s Cenacolo (The Last Supper) appeared, authored by Domenico Pino, prior of the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, upon whose refectory wall the famous artist painted his iconic scene between 1495 and 1498.
Pino had been assigned the task of collecting more information on the fresco – which was originally commissioned by Leonardo’s patrons Duke Ludovico Sforza and Beatrice d’Este – by a Milanese printer who was preparing a new edition of the Nuova Guida di Milano per gli Amanti delle Belle Arti by Brera Academy secretary Carlo Bianconi (1732-1802), which had first appeared in 1787.
Pino obviously had access to the conventual archives, which were later dispersed by Napoleon’s troops, and he discovered and quoted many documents which are now sadly lost; for example, he cites a document signed by then-prior Vincenzo Maria Monti, referring to a payment of 37,16.5 lire given to Leonardo on June 1497, for a work in the refectory in which the artist “paints the Apostles”.
In the text, Pino explains that he is not an artist, but rather had a particular interest in the analysis of the profound theological meaning of Leonardo’s masterpiece, which depicts the moment narrated in the Gospel of John, in which Jesus, during his final meal with his twelve disciples, announces “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me” (13:21). However, while scouring the archives, the Dominican prior became especially motivated to write – as he declares in his preliminary address to the reader – “la storia precisa di questa nostra domestica dipintura famosa” (i.e., the true history of this famous painting located in our ‘home’), and to debunk several myths circulating about the Last Supper, which had discredited the Dominicans of Santa Maria delle Grazie; for example, the aforementioned Carlo Bianconi had blamed the friars for having placed a ‘lavatoio’, i.e. a washtub, in the refectory, whitewashed the painting, and above all allowed the ‘barbarous’ renovation of the precious ‘domestic’ mural in 1726, when the Last Supper was washed with caustic soda and then over-painted by Michelangelo Bellotti (1673-1744). Pino provides a detailed refute to Bianconi’s charges and ultimately concludes: “Fia meglio a mio avviso avere un dipinto ritoccato, che non averlo poi più”, i.e., “in my opinion, it is better to have a retouched painting than to no longer have the painting at all” (p. 49), signaling his personal approach to restoration.
The author thus stresses the efforts undertaken to preserve Leonardo’s masterpiece. In his dedicatory epistle to Grand Duke Ferdinand III de’ Medici, Pino records how in 1795 he was visited by a painter and draughtsman from Pistoia named Teodoro Matteini (1854-1831), who had been charged by the Grand Duke with the task of making a faithful copy of Leonardo’s painting, on behalf of the renowned engraver Raffaello Morghen (1758-1833). This was done, Pino explains, in order to preserve the Last Supper for posterity, or, as he writes in his dedication, ‘perpetually’, further evidence of how the Dominicans “fatto hanno quanto per lor si seppe, o venne lor suggerito per conservare questo domestico tesoro”, i.e. did “all that was known by or suggested to them in order to preserve this domestic treasure” (p. 58). Indeed, it was Matteini’s drawing that was sent to Morghen, who, in 1800, used it to produce his universally known copper-plate engraving reproducing – and partially reconstructing – Leonardo’s Cenacolo.
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