Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco The Last Supper, located on the refectory wall of the Milanese church Santa Maria delle Grazie, is among one of the most easily recognized works of Italian art. But did you know that payment for it was a vineyard in the center of Milan?
The fresco, like most other projects of this nature, was commissioned by a wealthy patron: Ludovico “Il Moro” Sforza, the Duke of Milan. Although monetary compensation for art supplies was still commonplace, cash payment for the actual job was seen as sort of trashy or impolite. For this reason it became more common during the late 15th century for material goods (read: silk, property, horses, etc) to be given instead – hence why Ludovico drafted up legal paperwork for a donation of a vineyard to the very noble Leonardo. Leonardo’s family had a history with making wine, so space for vines in his new city of residence was an appropriate gift to the Tuscan artist. What’s more the vineyard was part of Ludovico’s new palace gardens – quite an honor! None of them could possibly have known what misfortune the fresco, vines, and people involved were to have after the paint dried.
The first (literal) stroke of bad luck of them all involves the “fresco” itself. Though it’s a celebrated masterpiece in terms of its dramatic narrative and subtle illusionism, this work of art proved to be in many ways a technical failure. Leonardo’s experimental painting technique differed from traditional fresco and meant that it started to deteriorate even before it was finished. This ineffective dry plaster technique combined with centuries of neglect and poor treatments resulted in it being a mere faded shadow of what he must have originally envisioned. In 1499 (just two years after the fresco was completed) Milan was invaded and taken over by the French, causing Leonardo to leave the city and his vines. Ludovico was promptly imprisoned, where he remained until his death in 1508. When Leonardo returned to Milan to work for the new French rulers some years after the invasion, his vineyard was given back to him unharmed. Leonardo da Vinci died in 1519, but not before drawing up a will which left the vines to Andrea Salai (a longtime student and apprentice) and Giovanbattista Villani (a loyal servant). Over the years the vineyard passed through the hands of many different owners. It was eventually destroyed during World War II and abandoned.
Five hundred years later the land where Leonardo da Vinci planted vines is still part of the palace’s walled garden in central Milan. The project to resurrect Leonardo’s vineyard seems to be going swimmingly thanks to the efforts of folks at the University of Milan, geneticists, oenologists, and the family who own the property today. Researchers were able to discover what grape variety Leonardo had planted 5 centuries ago from surviving remnants of the roots and plants still underground: Malvasia di Candia – a common white variety and found today in many white wines in Lazio!
The gardens with the replanted vines will be open to the public in May of 2015, coinciding with the start of Expo 2015, uncoincidentally hosted by Milan.