Visited Milan for the Expo? You’d have missed a real treat if you didn't head off to the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in a whole new light, thanks to Italian manufacturer iGuzzini, which has ‘adopted’ the painting. Entry is strictly controlled for just 15 minutes, but it’s most definitely worth it, says Cate St Hill
When Leonardo da Vinci painted The Last Supper (Il Cenacolo in Italian), depicting the moment Jesus announced that one of his 12 disciples would betray him, on the walls of the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan in 1495, he built a rod for his own back, or at least for the backs of its future guardians. Instead of using traditional fresco techniques, where the paint is applied quickly while the plaster is still wet (meaning a fresco cannot be modified as the artist works), da Vinci decided to experiment with a new method that would allow him to continue perfecting the details of the painting long after the plaster had dried. He sealed the stone wall with a double layer of dried plaster and then added an undercoat of white lead before painting with oil and tempera.
Unfortunately for him, this also meant that the work became extremely fragile very quickly, in fact within just a few years of it being completed in 1498. By 1517 the painting was starting to flake and by 1556 da Vinci's biographer declared it 'ruined', the figures unrecognisable. It is remarkable then that it has survived until today, despite an eyesore of a doorway being cut through the painting in 1652, French revolutionary troops scratching out the eyes of the apostles in the 18th century and the refectory being partly destroyed when the ceiling and east wall of the building collapsed during the Second World War (the wall with the painting was saved thanks to the resident Dominican monks who placed sandbags to protect it). By the 20th century it had faded substantially and underwent a 21-year restoration that removed the clumsy attempts at restoration made previously.
Now 500 years on from it starting to deteriorate, The Last Supper's conservation is more important and more complicated than ever. The windows to the left of the painting have been boarded up, the room is carefully climate controlled and visitors are only allowed to visit for strict slots of 15 minutes (you have to make your way through two 'chambers', resting a while in each to allow the dust to settle and not disturb the painting). Lighting too is a fine balance between illuminating the painting for visitors and protecting the room from additional heat and humidity.
This spring, Italian lighting company iGuzzini replaced the fluorescent tubes installed at the end of the last restoration with a new lighting design featuring latest-generation luminaires that bring to life the colours of the painting. 'The objective was to obtain a lighting system with uniform light, not invasive, and that helped viewers understand and get to know the work of art, highlighting each detail,' says Giuseppe Napoleone, director of the Last Supper Museum. 'We wanted a light that respected the history of the architecture and the iconography of the space. The new light seems to enhance the space in a discreet and efficient manner, without forgetting its holy character.'
The Palco floodlights that are used to illuminate The Last Supper - positioned low down and hidden behind a barrier - are modelled on the shape of a paintbrush and are fitted with continuous spectrum CoB (Chip on Board) LEDs that were calibrated with a high blue radiation presence and a warm light tone to complement the pigments of the painting. The reds and blues now seem more vibrant, while the energy consumption (and consequently heat emitted in the room) has been reduced massively, by 86 per cent from 345W to 47W. 'As soon as you enter, you perceive a penumbra, which you quickly get used to and which naturally, through suggestive illumination, not aggressive, takes your eyes towards Leonardo's masterpiece and the other painting [on the opposite wall], that both seem to live in their own light,' says Napoleone.
This year all lights seem to be on Milan - there's the extravaganza of Milan Expo 2015 as well as the annual Milan Salone. 2015 was also announced by the UN as the International Year of Light. iGuzzini is illuminating numerous areas of the Expo, from the central Cardo and Decumano avenues, to the squares, water walkway, pedestrian areas and nine pavilions, including Foster's UAE pavilion and Libeskind's Vanke pavilion. There's even an app to guide you around the areas of Milan lit up by iGuzzini. Its slogan: Light is Back.