Vasari’s Last Supper restored after 50 years

It’s been exactly 50 years since the Arno river in Florence broke its banks and flooded the historic city with 22 feet of toxic sludge. Some of the greatest art in the world, 14,000 artworks and books, were lost forever. Many thousands more pieces of Florence’s immense cultural patrimony spent a day soaked in a dangerous, volatile and destructive mixture of water, mud, gas, sewage and naphtha forced out of underground home fuel tanks by the 40-mile-an-hour floodwaters.

One of the worst hit was the monumental 21-by-8-feet panel painting The Last Supper made in 1546 by painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari. Kept in the Basilica of Santa Croce which is a few blocks from the Arno and at a lower elevation than much of the rest of the city, The Last Supper was completely submerged in filth for more than 12 hours. When the waters receded, they literally pulled the paint and gesso underlay off the five poplar panels which were now the consistency of a sponge.

The Mud Angels, volunteers who flocked to Florence to do everything they could to save its mortally wounded art, waded through the sludge scooping up any tiny fragment of paint they could find. Art conservator Marco Grassi, carpenter Ciro Castelli and others worked together to salvage the moribund panel paining. They affixed sheets of Japanese mulberry paper to the surface with methacrylate resin to keep the blistered and peeling paint from coming off. The painting was then taken apart and its five component panels laid out flat on racks in the conservatory of a lemon orchard. The relatively humid environment, it was hoped, would allow the panels to dry slowly and minimize cracking and warping. It was the best they could do at the time, but the panels dried hard anyway. They lost two centimeters in width and developed cracks. The gesso primer dried poorly too, becoming unstable and crumbly.

The technology to repair the overwhelming amount of damage simply did not exist in 1966. It wouldn’t exist for another 40+ years. The breakthrough happened in 2010, when the Getty Foundation gave a $400,000 grant to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the stone mosaic workshop founded in the 16th century which has become one of the world’s leading art restoration institutes, to bring The Last Supper back from the dead and enlist the great expertise and experience of retired or retiring panel-painting conservators to train a new generation.

It was backbreaking labour. Removing the mulberry paper proved a devilish task, with swaths of paint, detached from the brittle gesso layer, coming off with the paper. Fixing the panels themselves was an immense challenge as well. They had to be enlarged to their original size in order to put the curled and lifted paint back into place. Ciro Castelli devised an ingenious method to resolve that conundrum. He cut tiny slits in the back and filled them and the original dowel tracks with jigsaw puzzles of poplar wood filler. This precision system stretched the panels and will also help preserve them going forward since it gives them room to expand and contract naturally.

In 2013, the five panels were put back together for the first time since 1966. In 2014, fashion house Prada donated a big chunk of change for the last phase of restoration. With this extra boost, restorers hoped they’d be able to complete their work in time for the 50th anniversary of the flood and they succeeded. On November 4th, 2016, Giorgio Vasari’s The Last Supper went back on display at the Museo dell’Opera in the old refectory of Santa Croce.

There’s a wonderful article on the flood and restoration of the Vasari painting in The New York Times by Paula Deitz, who was in Florence on the day of the flood November 4th, 1966, in which Marco Grassi talks about his how they worked to save The Last Supper.


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Comment by Jeff Wood
2016-11-05 12:42:34

Remarkable work.

Some 40 people died in the floods, about half in the town and the rest in the surrounding country.

A few years ago, we had severe, prolonged rain which affected the Arno badly. The river rose to nearly the bridges in Firenze and Pisa. You could have navigated the countryside between the cities by boat.

Extra metal shields were installed on the river banks in each city. Florence had some flooding but not too severe. The banks must have been weakened, because a few weeks ago, after a storm a section of bank collapsed.

Drainage is an Italian obsession, but sometimes Nature, the besom*, has her way.

*(Dearieme knows what that means: consult him)

Comment by livius drusus
2016-11-05 14:18:49

I hope the section of the bank that collapsed wasn’t one of the shielded ones. One does like to delude oneself that the besom element can be forestalled by human action.

Comment by Neo Cortex
2016-11-05 13:40:28

This morning, the anniversary of the events in Firenze was reported in the news over here.

According to what I heard, there is an emergency schedule in place now, and the really important stuff needs to be stored at least on the first floor(s).

Comment by livius drusus
2016-11-05 14:16:18

Oh yes, there are measures in case of flooding now that will hopefully prevent calamities of this degree from reoccurring.

There have been some news stories covering the anniversary in the US press as well. There are also simultaneous exhibitions of photographs of the 1966 flood at the Italian Institute of Culture in New York and the Italian Embassy in Washington, D.C. They feature some of the only color photographs taken of the flooded city by Joe Blaustein, an American teacher who was in Florence at the time.

Comment by Jeff Wood
2016-11-05 15:08:43

Ah, from the photographs, that part was a couple of hundred yards downriver from the Ponte Vecchio, so shielded. But to be fair, it was drastic, sudden subsidence rather than a collapse into the river.

Livy, a few months ago you reported the discovery of an amphitheatre on the north side of Volterra. I had a look – it is only ten or twelve miles from me – and fancied it would be a racetrack, basically. Round here, the Etruscans still love a horse.

Excavation started at the beginning of the summer. I will try to call by and see if anything interesting has come up. If so, I will report back as your Man in Lordly Volterrae.

Comment by Vera Narishkin
2016-11-05 17:19:04

This brings up many memories for me as I was among the volunteers who went to Florence to help clean up. I was assigned cleaning up streets, not works of art. Filthy muddy job it was.

Comment by livius drusus
2016-11-05 18:54:40

I’m honored, truly, to have a real life Angel of the Mud commenting on this blog. Thank you so much for slogging through unthinkable nastiness to help one of the world’s greatest cities recover from disaster. :notworthy:

Comment by Hels
2016-11-06 10:05:32

“It’s been exactly 50 years since the Arno river in Florence broke its banks and flooded the historic city with 22 feet of toxic sludge”. What a disaster :(… I remember visiting Florence’s spectacular synagogue years later and seeing the mud marks half way up the huge pillars inside.

How is it that The Last Supper, painted in 1546, was not protected by a contingency plan, just in case a serious flood might have happened?

Comment by Magical
2016-11-06 14:59:51

I actually stalled on reading this once I saw that damaged panel – it was a very distressing photo. I’m glad I returned to this and continued reading, I’m also glad I didn’t have to deal with the painstaking work to fix this – it would have driven me nuts!

Comment by Edward Goldberg
2016-11-06 17:44:31

Past is present?!?!?! Here in Florence, there has been torrential rain for the last two days now and the Arno has risen to an allarming height and two of the main bridges are closed. Many of the fiftieth anniversary events were cancelled…and everyone is more than a little weirded out. (Note to Vera: The Reunion of Angeli del Fango did indeed take place.)

There should no longer be a danger of serious flooding since a major catchment was constructed up in the Mugello–the Lago di Bilancino–so that water can be accumulated and managed. But we will see…

A bit of historical context: In addition to the lack of technology fifty years ago,a big old Vasari would not have been all that prized back then and apart from the practical challenges, it would not have come all that high on the list of things that needed to be restored in the wake of the 1966 Flood.

Comment by dearieme
2016-11-09 10:03:21

Aye, the besom lost to the huckster.

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