Revolution in art is never boring. In fifteenth-century Italy, art innovated and flourished as it had never done before. Its aim? The rebirth of classical learning and culture of ancient Rome and Greece. In other words a renaissance (naissance is French for birth). The Renaissance art style continued to evolve, eventually leading to Mannerism.
Catholic Italy celebrated the sublime, the divine, and the noble in its art and the Cenacolo (Last Supper) was one of its perennial subjects. Artists were summoned to paint it on the walls of its many churches.
Paintings of The Last Supper illustrate the dynamism of the Renaissance style as it progressed from Early to Late Renaissance. Andrea del Castagno painted his version about 1447 at the church of Sant’ Appolonia in Florence (Early). Taddeo Gaddi did one at Santa Croce before this but it’s not as well preserved. The most famous Cenacolo, that of Leonardo da Vinci’s, was painted in 1495 at the Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan (High). Tintoretto finished his in 1592 at the Santa Maria Maggiore in Venice (Late Renaissance/Mannerism).
Castagno and Leonardo employed fresco techniques while Tintoretto turned to oil on canvas. The use of different media is in itself significant. By Tintoretto’s time, the center of the Renaissance had shifted from Florence to Venice where artists of the early 16th century adopted oil techniques from Flemish Artists. Starting a century earlier, Flemish artists innovated with oil, refining their techniques all that time.
By Late Renaissance, oil had become the preferred medium for Italian painters because it captured the limitless nuances of light, detail, and color. It also proved durable on canvases that could be easily stored and transported.
Castagno’s technique endured better than Leonardo’s. He favored the much more durable buon fresco (wet fresco) technique, the preferred medium in Renaissance Florence for monumental history paintings of religious subjects. Buon fresco, a laborious medium, traditionally used water-based tempera. Leonardo, who had probably already known about oils, experimented with oil tempera on dry intonaco (the thin final layer of plaster) with disastrous results (discussed in Part 2).
Castagno’s Last Supper was painted 20 years after Massacio’s history-changing (and Renaissance-defining) work at the Brancacci Chapel in Florence and 10 years after Alberti’s tome on painting (Della Pittura) a Renaissance style manifesto. It is characteristically Early Renaissance.
In size (about 32 feet wide and 15 feet high), Castagno’s Cenacolo is monumental. It depicts the classic scene of Jesus and his twelve disciples seated behind a long table. Parallel to the picture plane, the table spreads across the width of the fresco, occupying about a third of the canvas height.
The disciples flank Jesus who sits somewhere in the middle of the picture. He’s looking indulgently down at the young disciple John, supposedly a favorite of Jesus, whose head is resting on the table possibly asleep.
The expressions and gestures of the other disciples appear to be tolerant but nonetheless somewhat dismayed and a little puzzled. In keeping with the New Testament, Judas sits at the opposite side of the table, signifying his role as the disciple who betrays Jesus and leads to his crucifixion.
The “istoria” in this painting, is straightforward, relatively unambiguous and easy to grasp. The rest of the painting is architectural setting, a sumptuous-looking hall whose size and realistic details create a trompe l’oeil.
Castagno employs linear perspective in the abundant rectangular forms of the architecture. But he goes beyond conventional one-point perspective. Some other parts of the setting trace different converging lines—a multi-point perspective that more effectively gives the not-too-deep space a sense of realism and orderliness.
This use of a multiple perspective might have been Castagno’s outstanding innovation in a painting that’s otherwise text-book Renaissance. Early Renaissance doesn’t clutter a scene with unnecessary figures. It creates volume by modeling through light and shadow and it produces impact through gestures and body postures that show emotions.