In the footsteps of Leonardo in France: The enigma of the Last Supper tapestry
This is the title of the study day that was held at the Vatican Museums at the end of the restoration of the famous tapestry preserved today in the Pinacoteca Vaticana (the Painting Gallery) in a tribute to Leonardo da Vinci.
The Vatican Museums want to take part in the 2019 celebrations with various initiatives. One of these is on the precious Vatican tapestry of the Last Supper in Amboise in the Castle of Clos Lucé (in France) and is perhaps the most representative of all celebrations and also of the multifaceted activities taking place today in the Vatican Museums including research projects, restoration projects, and collaboration with different institutions at multiple levels. It is a tribute to Leonardo’s genius from the Pope’s Museums.
“It was a pleasure and an honor to dialogue with the French institutions and to re-establish that relationship that dates back to 1533 and to the gift of the famous tapestry, sumptuously made of silk with gold and silver threads and completed with a border in crimson velvet,” said Barbara Jatta, Director of the Vatican Museums, at the opening of the presentation.
With its size of 45 square meters, this work that reproduces the same measures of the fresco exhibited in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan: The Cenacle, or widely known as the “Last Supper,” appears for the first time in 1533 in an inventory of the Castle of Blois among the fabrics chosen to be brought to Marseilles on the occasion of the marriage of the two fourteen-year-oldsm Caterina de’Medici, nephew of Pope Clement VII, and Henry of Valois, second-born of the fervent Catholic Francis I, King of France and heir to the throne – a marriage celebrated with all the pomp by the same pontiff in the city of Marseille in the autumn of 1533.
On this festive occasion, an exchange of gifts would have taken place between Pope Clement VII and Francis I. The pontiff gave the King of France a box of rock crystals and gilded silver, as well as a precious unicorn horn, while the French sovereign gifted the Pope with the precious “cloth” in silk, silver, and gold that reproduced the scene of the Last Supper. This is how the enigmatic tapestry suddenly entered onto the stage of history.
The opinion of Alessandra Rodolfo on the Vatican tapestry
The precious cloth has the same dimensions as the Cenacle. While faithfully reproducing in the disposition and in the attitude of the figures, the Leonardesque assembly of the apostles gathered around the table of the Lord, the Vatican tapestry nevertheless shows a different setting, framing the scene within rich architectural scenes of Renaissance layout. “It is suggestive to think,” explains Alessandra Rodolfo, curator of the Vatican Tapestry and Fabrics Department, who coordinated the delicate research work, “that it may have been the master himself, Peintre du roi (the King’s painter), who supervised the model of the work by transporting his masterpiece into a courtier, Nordic, and Renaissance environment.”
The work is very close to the master’s masterpiece. The characters, as well as the laid table, faithfully reproduce the artist’s painting. The delicate Leonardesque brushstroke, the famous “nuanced,” are imitated in the cloth through the technique with which the tapestry-maker is able to create nuances making the apostles who are agitated, questioning, gesticulating, gathered around for the last time almost “human” at the table of the Lord.
The tapestry, whose commissioning and provenance have been the subject of hypotheses, conjectures, and mysteries, is still difficult to identify even with regard to the manufacturing workshop. There is no doubt the link with Francesco I and his mother, Luisa di Savoia, for the many heraldic and symbolic references to the two sovereign devotees.
One of the most precious tapestries of the Vatican collections, therefore, returns to be the protagonist of artistic-cultural exchanges between the Vatican and France on the occasion of this exhibition that tells the story of the first decades of the sixteenth century, an era of subtle political relations between the Church and great ruling families, and also strong professional and human ties between Leonardo and the French sovereigns.
The precious tapestry inspired by the fresco of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci shines today in the VIII room of the Pinacoteca Vaticana among the works in the Salone di Raffaello, after an intervention lasting a year and a half at the Tapestry and Tissue Restoration Laboratory of the Vatican Museums
The scientific examination of the tapestry
“The activity of archival and museographic research has also made it possible to tell the story of the tapestry held in the Vatican. Present in the inventories of the Floreria Apostolica (a multiservice area within the Vatican City) as early as 1536, the tapestry was immediately recognized as an extraordinary work and, given its nature, often used in the life of the Pontifical Curia (Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization · Apostolic … Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses), in the many celebrations that took place there and in particular those of the Lavanda (washing) of the feet on Holy Thursday in Sala Ducale or in that of Corpus Domini. This and other use wore out so much of the cloth as restorations witnessed already in the XVIIth and then in the XVIIIth century. At the end of the eighteenth century, Pope Pius VI Braschi felt the need to make a replicate, probably precisely in order to preserve it.
Under Leo XIII Pecci in July 1902, it was exposed twice in the open, together with his replica or in alternation to it, in the Cortile del Belvedere (courtyard of B…), on the occasion of the Eucharistic Congress and in the visit of the Parma People to the “recluse” Pope in the Vatican palace due to the “Roman Question-R.Q.” (this indicates the conflict that arose in 1848 first between the Holy See and the Italian National Movement, then between the Holy See and the unified Italian State, for sovereignty over Rome – note of ed.) Pius XI, a few months after the “Reconciliation” (of the R.Q.) exhibited it again in Piazza San Pietro in July 1929 for a Eucharistic procession of “reconciliation” and then in the Belvedere Courtyard, on September 13 of the same year, for welcome of the Catholic Youth in the heart of the new Vatican City State.
The return to the land of origin and to Milan
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From 7 June to 8 September 2019, the tapestry will be exhibited for the first time in France in the Clos Lucè Castle in Amboise on the occasion of the exhibition named “La Cène de Léonard de Vinci by François Ier, (owner of the castle) a chef-d’oeuvre en or et soie ” (a masterpiece in gold and silk) and in autumn, at the Palazzo Reale, in Milan.
The return of the tapestry to France is, therefore, an opportunity to tell its story by surrounding it with a valuable nucleus of works that narrate the historical, artistic, and personal context in which Leonardo moved.
Having arrived in Amboise in the autumn of 1516 at the end of November, Leonardo moved to Clos-Lucé Caslte in the service of Luisa and Francesco I, his brotherly friend and companion in philosophical dissertations, where he remained until his death on 2 May 1519.
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The great Renaissance genius of Leonardo da Vinci will be marked with a rich calendar of events and exhibitions in Italy to celebrate the 500th anniversary of his death. These events will provide an opportunity to retrace his footsteps in the places where he lived and created his masterpieces and will also provide participation in shows and the chance to visit an exhibition.
Here are all the articles dedicated to Leonardo in this special year.
IN TURIN – From 16 April to 14 July 2019: Leonardo da Vinci – Drawing the future: among the works, the famous self-portrait, the studies for the Battle of Anghiari, the angel for the Virgin of the rocks. Alongside Leonardo’s works, there are also works by Raphael, Michelangelo, Bramante.
IN MILAN – Very rich (probably the richest program in Italy) the Milanese calendar dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci who spent 17 years of his life in the city.
Royal Palace – Three exhibitions are scheduled at the Palazzo Reale. It starts with The Wonderful World of Nature (from 5 March to 7 July, provisional dates) dedicated to the relationship between Leonardo and the nature of sixteenth-century Lombardy.
Sforzesco Castle – Two appointments, both departing in May 2019, in the Ducal Chapel, the Leonardo exhibition and the Sala delle Asse between nature, art, and science (from 16 May to 12 January 2020).
Veneranda Ambrosiana Library – The museum, which preserves the Portrait of Music, offers various exhibitions dedicated to Leonardo. The secrets of the Atlantic Code, Leonardo.
“Leonardo da Vinci” Science and Technology Museum – From 19 July to 13 October the Leonardo da Vinci Parade.
Museo del Novecento – Two new works of contemporary art dedicated to Leonardo will be exhibited in the rooms of the museum.
Hippodrome and other places in the city – Leonardo Horse Project: The bronze statue of Leonardo’s Horse kept at the Snai San Siro racetrack in Milan in the autumn at Palazzo Litta shows “La corte del gran maestro. Leonardo da Vinci, Charles d’Amboise, and the Porta Vercellina district at the Stelline Foundation (2 April – 30 June), “The Last Supper after Leonardo.”
VENICE – Gallerie dell’Accademia – From April 19 until July 14, the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition. The man is a model of the world presents the 25 sheets of Leonardo belonging to the Venetian museum, including the famous studio known as Uomo Vitruviano. The Madonna Litta also arrives from the Hermitage.
IN GENOA, the Art Commission Association presents the Leonardesque contemporary art exhibition (27 April-31 May), set up at the Sant’Agostino Museum.
IN FLORENCE- Uffizi Gallery – The exhibition, The Leicester Code. The microscope water of nature is closing (it lasts until January 20): the manuscript loaned by Bill Gates.
Palazzo Strozzi – The exhibition dedicated to Verrocchio, the master of Leonardo, opens on March 8 (until July 14 2019), with works by Botticelli, Perugino, and Ghirlandaio. Also exposed, some drawings and studies of Leonardo.
Palazzo Vecchio – From 29 March to 24 June 2019, the Sala dei Gigli hosts Leonardo and Florence, a selection of papers relating to works and studies carried out by Leonardo in Florence.
IN VINCI (FI) – Leonardiano Museum/Castello dei Conti Guidi. In the museum dedicated to Leonardo, also home to an exhibition.