Paintings come and paintings go--most of the time in super slo-mo. It's so slow, in fact, that we think they're not changing at all, that once the paint has dried, they'll be around in the same state forever. But like everything else in the universe, paintings deteriorate. Even in the most hushed and pristine museums, they darken, fade, crack and crumble. And when they're subjected to horses' being stabled in the same room, Napoleon's bored troops throwing bricks at them, the moist breath of huge crowds and the fumes of a million Fiats wafting in from the streets, they age a little faster. That's what happened to Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" (1494-98) in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. What to do? The first six restorations of the 30-foot mural consisted of ham-handed overpainting and, in 1953, a coat of rock-hard transparent glue. They were enough to keep the tourists coming, the souvenir T shirts printed and Andy Warhol supplied with parody material. But "The Last Supper" continued to disintegrate.
In 1978 Italian authorities closed the doors on the masterpiece and let restorer Pinin Brambilla Barcilon begin what would become a 21-year, $7.7 million, centimeter-by-centimeter rehabilitation involving electronic microscopes, water-base paint and a neutral beige to fill in totally unretrievable areas. Last Friday the doors reopened, and the public rushed in to see whether the result was the Renaissance reborn--or the Old Master equivalent of Pamela Anderson. The experts' verdict: split down the middle, with the now embattled Culture Minister Giovanna Melandri and Brambilla celebrating the brighter, fresher Leonardo, and a bevy of foreign critics saying that any connection to da Vinci's handiwork had been forfeited to "an original Brambilla." Public judgment will take a little longer; in the upgraded refectory--where a filtration system and "air walls" will prevent even dandruff flakes from reaching "The Last Supper"--viewers will be admitted only 25 at a time. By the time there's a public consensus on the restoration, "The Last Supper" will probably need another.