In my wanderings around Milan some sixteen years ago (!!!!) I went to see The Last Supper. I didn’t care much about the painting. I felt I’d seen it a million times already in fifty million kitsch reproductions, but when I got there, and I did see it, I realized I had been wrong. I hadn’t seen the painting ever before, just tawdry gestures in its general direction.
History class in high school had informed me that Italy and the US were, for a time, enemies in WW II. I processed that fact, probably answered something on a test, and moved on from there to other things that interested me. My opinion of world history at that point in my life was that it was irrelevant to me. I told my teachers this and watched them shrug or listened as they attempted to explain why I had to take this class. Pretty much the whole rest of my life has finished those lectures for them. As Aristotle said, and someone engraved over the door of the library at the University of Colorado, Boulder, “Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.”
The painting is more than a painting and all the attempts to restore or destroy it are unlikely to succeed in eliminating its mysterious essence. It is a force. I’m not the only one to see this or feel it. In Goethe’s day, people who wanted to see the painting were lowered on ropes through a hole in the roof. His assessment was the same as mine.
In my World History class in high school I didn’t learn anything about one important aspect of the reality of bombing. It wasn’t until I saw The Last Supper and then saw photos of it during WW II, and saw Michael Powell’s A Canterbury Tale that I understood that some of the casualties of war are not human beings, but human culture.
The Allies repeatedly bombed Milan because it was Italy’s second largest city and a major industrial power. The Italians, at the beginning of the war, knowing this was coming, set out to protect precious, irreplaceable, world treasures — among them The Last Supper.
When I first saw these photos I was stunned because I had visited the church, seen the painting, and had no idea that the church had been — essentially — reduced to rubble and then rebuilt around this painting, a painting that people once thought so little of that they cut a door into the bottom of it and then, in a later iteration, stabled horses in this room.
If you wander around Milan today, you will not guess the devastation of WW II or all the other wars, centuries of wars. But you will see The Last Supper. The painting is a masterpiece, but the sandbags, scaffold and drapery that saved it from bombs? A masterpiece, too.