Renaissance era ‘Last Supper’ painting returns to glory after tragedy (VIDEO)

Giorgio Vasari’s glorious 1546 tableau of Christ’s last meal will rise again at the Opera di Santa Croce in Florence.

Santa Croce Church in Florence, Italy.  Wolfgang Kaehler | Getty Images

Fifty years ago, Florence, Italy suffered a devastating flood that almost destroyed some of its most beloved works of Renaissance art. One of them was Giorgio Vasari’s Last Supper, which was pulled from the water after being totally submerged for at least 12 hours. The restoration process for the massive tableau only started 10 years ago and has finally been completed. The 1546 painting will be reinstalled in the Opera di Santa Croce museum this Friday (yes, tomorrow.)

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The Last Supper is not only a technical triumph, it’s a triumph for art-lovers and Christian communities alike. Its creator, Vasari, is himself an important figure in Renaissance history. Often referred to as the “father of art history” for his extensive artist biographies, Vasari also was an accomplished artist. Just look at the Last Supper! The piece depicts, as the title implies, Jesus’s last supper with his disciples—and on a monumental scale. Commissioned by nuns of the Florentine Murate Convent, the painting is a five-paneled work that spans more than eight feet by 21 feet. It’s a beautiful, lifelike portrait of Christ on his last night as a free man on earth prior to the Crucifixion.

The story of the damaged artworks is one of compassion and painstaking care. After the devastating flood, a group of volunteer rescue workers nicknamed the Angels of the Mud stepped in and saved more than 1,800 irreplaceable works and four million precious books from permanent ruin. (Grazie a Dio!) So whatever happened to these treasures? Over the past few decades, many have been put back right where they belong, but there have been a few stragglers, the Last Supper included, that required special attention. In fact, the five-panel painting was considered the most complex of the rescued works in the restoration line-up.

Paula Deitz, editor of the New York City-based art magazine, The Hudson Review, wrote the following in a recent article for The New York Times:

“The ceremony itself represents the symbolic end of an era, a poignant half-century in modern art history during which scores of experts in Florence, and young apprentices just learning their trade, labored painstakingly to restore priceless works. But the challenges for the Vasari appeared insurmountable until the last decade, with conservators hoping for new expertise to help them.”

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It took 40 years, a partnership between Italy’s National Trust and the house of Prada, and additional funding from the Getty Foundation before the technology to restore the Last Supper would be realized.

By the miracle of science, we now have this cultural gem back. Not even the mighty Tuscan Arno River could do it in! And we’re so thankful.

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