London’s Last Supper: Better than Leonardo’s?

Copy of da Vinci’s Last Supper at London’s RA (Royal Academy of Arts)

Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper is probably one of the most recognized paintings in the world. And, surprisingly, there’s an almost exact copy of it right here in London. It’s at the RA (Royal Academy of Arts) and you can see it for free in the Collection Gallery. It’s dated to no more than 20 years after da Vinci’s original and it’s attributed to one or more of his students. The London copy is in good condition and shows many details that have been lost in the original. 

Why is it in London?

In the early 1800s this fresco was taken off the wall in a monastery in Pavia, Italy and sent to London to be sold. The RA bought it in 1821 for a grand total of 600 guineas (about £36,000 today). That was the most they had ever paid for a piece in their Collection. They hung it in a lecture hall where it was used to teach art students. The budding artists were encouraged to study and copy it. 

Da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan after restoration – Public domain from Wikipedia

Problems in Milan

Leonardo da Vinci was a genius who was always experimenting with new ideas and ways of doing things. So when he was asked to paint a Last Supper on the wall of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy, he decided to experiment. He tried a new way of painting which didn’t work out so well. Da Vinci’s experimental technique combined with the dampness of the wall had catastrophic results. His masterpiece began to flake almost as soon as it was finished.

The Milan Last Supper was completed in 1498 and just 34 years later it was described as blurred and colorless. A mere 58 years after it was painted it was said to be ruined, with figures so deteriorated that they were unrecognizable. It seemed that the great master’s painting was worthless, so in 1652 the convent administrators decided to cut a doorway through the bottom of the painting and Jesus lost his feet (which can still be seen in London).

Da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan in the 1970s (Note the door) – Public domain from Wikipedia

Restorations

Everyone knew that da Vinci was one of the greatest Renaissance painters and they wanted to save his masterful depiction of the Last Supper. The first restoration began in 1726, and over the next 273 years the painting underwent a long series of botched restorations – many of them causing even more damage.

By the 1970s the painting was in a truly sad state and another restoration was needed. This time the latest technology and scientific methods were used to look underneath the well-intentioned but poorly-executed attempts from the 18th and 19th centuries. The modern-day restorers used original sketches and the London copy to help them find da Vinci’s true vision.

This latest restoration took 21 years – from 1978 to 1999. Many parts of the painting had basically disappeared and were unable to be restored. These spaces were painted in with beige watercolor to show that they were not original. 

Detail from restored painting showing the beige paint where the original had just disappeared. Detail from public domain image above.

Protection and Visits

After all those years of painstaking restoration, the painting had to be protected from further deterioration. For that reason, the entire room was turned into a climate-controlled environment and the number of visitors was limited. 

Now a maximum of 25 people at time are admitted every 15 minutes and they must go through several air filtration chambers before they enter the room with the painting. So if you want to see the original (or what’s left of it) you need to make a reservation weeks or even months in advance. Or you can just pop into the RA in London and see the copy. It’s usually not crowded and you can sit and contemplate the painting for as long as you like.

The Last Suppers

While Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper is the most famous one, he wasn’t the first person to paint this scene. There are several Cenacoli (Last Suppers) in Florence that predate da Vinci’s. These frescoes were usually painted on walls in the dining halls of monasteries where the monks could feel like they were breaking bread with Jesus. 

Most of these supper scenes were painted using perspective and architectural elements which made them seem to actually be a part of the room. You can see this in the Milan painting, but unfortunately, the London painting has been cut down at some point, and the top third is missing. This does lessen the impact that the piece originally would have had, but it’s still an amazing painting and well worth a visit.

Royal Academy of Arts Burlington Gardens entrance

When you go to the RA, enter by the Burlington Gardens entrance and go straight up the stairs. There are also free guided tours of the museum if you are interested. Be sure to check their website before you go: RA website

Royal Academy of Arts address (two entrances): 
6 Burlington Gardens, London, W1S 3ET (use this one to visit the Last Supper) or Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BD

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Margo Lestz

Margo has authored four books about France. She has a BA in Liberal Studies with International Emphasis and enjoys travel, languages, history, writing, and experiencing other cultures.

5 comments

  1. Thank you Margo. Another interesting piece of research. It was lucky Leonardo’s students made the copy so in London we can see the original vision. Just a pity the top has been cut off.
    Best wishes
    Paula

    1. Thanks, Paula. I was so surprised to learn it was here. It is great to have a copy since the original deteriorated so quickly. What the RA doesn’t mention is that they must have been the ones to cut the top off. I saw an old image of it hanging in the lecture hall and it still had the top part. It’s hard to believe that an art institution would cut up a piece of art like that, but I guess at the time they thought they had a good reason for it. 🙁

    1. Thanks, Pat. It was amazing to just sit in front of it and admire it – at times all by myself… 🙂

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