More than One Masterpiece

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.

13 thoughts on “More than One Masterpiece

  1. The reality of art is always so much more intense than anything you see in a book or on film.

    Almost all European Jewish culture was destroyed in WWII. The synagogues that they blew up and the rabbis and scholars they killed were not just places to pray. They were the libraries and the repositories of traditions and knowledge. It can’t be replaced. Hitler set out to destroy the Jewish people and in large measure, succeeded.

    • The Nazis treatment (mistreatment) of Jews was taught very thoroughly to me in school. We had to watch “Night in Fog” at least once a year. But no one talked about the Rape of Nanjing, the burying alive of millions of Chinese in north China, or the Allied bombing of anything. We hear all the time about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but we don’t hear about Dresden or Milan. It just didn’t suit “the agenda” to give a broader perspective on what had actually happened. No one taught us anything about the destruction of culture and, at this point in my life, I think that is at least as important as the loss of human life. Without culture, what do people have? By blowing up synagogues and libraries, looting art collections and killing rabbis Hitler was, of course, systematically attempting to destroy a culture. But I guess he didn’t count on people like my piano teacher who escaped to Shanghai, or his mother — a painter — who escaped to southern Italy taking with them not just their faith but their culture and their abilities. But…I agree with you. I think Hitler succeeded in destroying Jewish culture because what he did was overlay something beautiful and good with unquenchable rage and a culture of victimization. That makes me sad every time I think about it.

  2. Oh gosh! I had no idea! And what might be worse, but I have to admit it, I had absolutely no idea this is a huge wall painting! I feel I have a huge lack of knowledge! (Bad english here as well?)
    Thank you so much for writing about this (and other interesting topics). I guess I have to find classes to attend. Maybe some “university for elder people”? 🤓

      • Not particularly close, really. But compared to you, yes.
        But I have been pondering if there might be some interesting lektures or something when the autumn comes. I’ll check that out. But in this town… I wonder… small…

  3. I have been to Milan, but just sort of did La Scala and the cathedral. It was a one day stopover or a car journey on a Sunday from Lugano when it rained in any case, I missed out on this painting and now it seems to be one of the things I should put on my bucket list. I remember the temple of Mithras being discovered in Walbrook Street (named after a London underground river) in 1954 when a new building was being constructed. I was a kid, but it impressed me and I was astonished when I realised that the building work continued. An old temple being discovered after almost 2,000 years just to be removed because it was in the way. We are very much influenced by the destruction we see around us today. I wonder how the old romans would feel about that if they were still here. One day our civilisation will be discovered.

  4. Lovely article. Milan , Such a wonderful hub of art and culture in present time.

  5. Sometimes seeing is believing to gain a better perspective of history particularly in countries much older that have seen hardship and recovered. Amazing to hear it started with Art!

  6. “I understood that some of the casualties of war are not human beings, but human culture.” Wow. Such a thought-provoking statement.

    I was reading something yesterday that I think resonates with this a lot. When the Soviet Union invaded the Baltic states (i.e., Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) during WWII, they started a process called “Sovietization.” Essentially, the Soviets destroyed each Baltic state’s government, way of life, and mentality and “replaced” it with the Soviet government, way of life, and mentality. The sad truth is that while war can physically destroy culture, it can also ideologically destroy culture.

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