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Giorgio Vasari's 'The Last Supper' returns to Santa Croce Basilica
Last Supper by Giorgio Vasari, severely damaged during the flood of 1966. Florence, Santa Croce, 1966. Photo: Mondadori Portfolio/Archivio Giorgio Lotto/Giogio Lotti

LOS ANGELES, CA.- On November 4, 1966, flood waters rushed through the city of Florence, Italy, destroying thousands of priceless artworks in museums and churches. Santa Croce Basilica became a leading symbol of this destruction, as water and mud engulfed the historic structure, severely damaging several treasured paintings, among them Giorgio Vasari’s monumental 1546 panel painting The Last Supper. Now, fifty years after the flood, Santa Croce welcomes The Last Supper back, newly conserved through an international collaboration between the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the Getty Foundation, Prada, and Protezione Civile.

The structural conservation of the painting was funded by the Getty Foundation as part of its Panel Paintings Initiative, a program that was launched as a joint effort in 2008 between the Getty Foundation, Getty Conservation Institute, and J. Paul Getty Museum. The initiative advances the knowledge of current experts in panel paintings conservation and prepares a next generation of conservators for the future. To achieve these goals, the Getty Foundation partners with leading art institutions in the western hemisphere supporting side-by-side training residencies.

“The unveiling of The Last Supper is the culmination of years of collaboration across continents and across fields to save one of the most significant and challenging examples of a flood-damaged painting,” says Deborah Marrow, director of the Getty Foundation. “Not only is the painting at home in Santa Croce once again, but a new generation of panel paintings conservators have been trained through these efforts so that other paintings can receive the same excellent care and treatment.”

Giorgio Vasari (Italian, 1511-1574), was a Renaissance painter, architect, writer, and historian, and is considered one of the first artist biographers with his book Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Vasari painted The Last Supper in 1546 for the refectory of the Murate, a monastery of cloistered Benedictine nuns in what is now Via Ghibellina. It was later moved to the convent of San Marco and then transferred to Santa Croce Basilica in 1815, where it remained until 1966. The work is massive at 8 by 21 feet, and is composed of five panels and a total of 20 thick poplar planks. The painting features Christ and his disciples at the moment at which Christ announces that one of them will betray him, set within a realistic tableau that was considered modern for its time.

On November 4, 1966, after heavy rainfall in Tuscany, a flood wave burst into Florence, covering more than 7,000 acres with water and sewage, and depositing 600,000 tons of mud and debris. The water reached heights of over 22 feet in the lowest parts of the city, including the area of Santa Croce. Inside the basilica and adjacent museum, it swelled to well over 8 feet high, damaging many irreplaceable artworks. During the flood, The Last Supper was submerged in a slurry of water, mud, and heating oil for over twelve hours, which softened the paint and saturated the wooden support structure. When the sludge receded, some of the paint and gesso migrated with it toward the bottom of the painting.

In a heroic effort, rescuers tried to protect the painted surface by covering it with conservation-grade paper to prevent the paint from peeling off and sliding down. After initial emergency efforts, the panels were still drenched and needed to slowly dry in a controlled environment to avoid warping and splitting. Faced with a monumental conservation challenge and lacking the technology needed to properly restore the work, rescuers carefully disassembled the painting and put its five panels in storage, where they lay dormant for decades.

In 2010, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, a premier conservation laboratory and training institution in Florence, received a three-year grant for the structural conservation of Vasari’s painting from the Getty Foundation, and for the first time since the flood conservators faced the challenge of The Last Supper’s conservation. The intense water saturation caused the wood to soften and expand, in turn stressing the painted surface and causing dramatic cracks and breaks. Wooden supports on the back of the artwork that kept the work structurally sound also failed, leaving the painting in pieces.

“The Last Supper was ideally suited to the Panel Paintings Initiative, given its large size and structural complexity, as well as the extent of the damage caused by the flood,” says Antoine Wilmering, senior program officer at the Getty Foundation. “What better way to train future conservators and challenge existing ones than by presenting them with one of the most difficult paintings to restore?”

The painting’s conservation treatment offered training opportunities for both mid-career and advanced-level conservators, overseen by Soprintendente Dr. Marco Ciattti and deputy director Cecilia Frosinini, and led by panel experts Ciro Castelli, Mauro Parri, and Andrea Santacesaria. Castelli was a carpenter in Florence before the flood, and became one of what were called “Mud Angels,” those who volunteered locally and from around the world to rescue art, books, and historic materials. Following the flood, Castelli found his calling as a panel paintings conservator, and is now one of the most respected experts in the world. During the course of the project, the OPD team also consulted with other international leaders in the field, allowing the trainees to observe peer-to-peer discussions and decision making at the highest level.

In 2013, the stabilization of the wood was complete, and The Last Supper‘s five panels were reconnected for the first time in 47 years. The team’s solution was based on the support system originally devised by Vasari himself, which has stabilized the painting while also allowing the wooden panels to move naturally with standard temperature and humidity fluctuations.

Work on the final conservation of the painted surface was completed with support from Prada. A conservation team led by OPD conservator Roberto Bellucci was able to recover an unanticipated amount of the original painted surface, revealing the artist’s hand in surprising detail. Through a carefully planned and highly skilled conservation treatment, OPD conservators have resurrected a significant painting that was deemed beyond repair.

The Last Supper still resides in an area prone to flooding, so additional safety precautions have been installed to ensure it is not damaged again. In the advent of heavy autumn rains, a button is pushed that engages two winches, which hoist the painting above the flood line and out of harm’s way. The process requires no electricity, in the event of an outage.

Visitors to Santa Croce can now view the newly-conserved work in the old refectory, the museum of Santa Croce, where the public can once again enjoy the splendor and power of one of Vasari’s most important paintings.

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