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Pinin Brambilla Barcilon was an architecture student when she was first introduced to the restoration world by Piero Portaluppi e Mauro Pellicioli. As a girl she started painting flowers on tablecloths for Gio Ponti and eventually, when she became a restorer, she took care of the Pala Montefeltro by Piero della Francesca, together with many other works of Lombard art such as the Abbey of Mirasole and Viboldone, and the Visconti chapel of Saint Eustorgio in San Bassiano in Lodi Vecchio. But it was in the ‘70s when she came face to face with one of the greatest geniuses of all time, Leonardo da Vinci. Pinin Brambilla Barcilon was called to restore da Vinci’s The Last Supper. At the time, it looked like an impossible challenge.
Many tried to stop her, from the envious to the skeptical, including experts who were truly worried about the potential damage a restoration could cause to the already badly deteriorated painting.
Yet, Pinin Brambilla remained convinced of her ideas on how to approach this incredible endeavor. And in the end, after 21 years she was able to prove to everyone that she was right.
Today, at the age of ninety, Pinin Brambilla has published a book to tell her story and her relationship with Leonardo da Vinci, through a tough project that she said was more difficult and demanding than the restoration of the Sistine chapel.
The Last Supper measures 460 cm × 880 cm (180 in × 350 in) and covers an end wall of the dining hall at the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan, Italy. The theme was a traditional one for refectories, although the room was not a refectory during the period that Leonardo painted it, from 1495 until 1498.
One story goes that a prior from the monastery complained to Leonardo about the delay, which enraged him. He wrote to the head of the monastery, explaining he had been struggling to find the perfect villainous face for Judas, and that if he could not find a face corresponding with what he had in mind, he would use the features of the prior who complained.
The Last Supper specifically portrays the reaction given by each apostle when Jesus said one of them would betray him. All twelve apostles have different reactions to the news, with various degrees of anger and shock. Eventually it was possible to identify each apostle from a da Vinci manuscript found in the 19th century, with reported their names in order. Before this, only Judas, Peter, John and Jesus were positively identified.
To restore the painting, a labor that went on from 1978 to 1999, Pinin Brambilla Barcilon decided to stabilize the painting, and reverse the damage caused by dirt and pollution. The 18th- and 19th-century restoration attempts were also reversed. Since it proved impractical to move the painting to a more controlled environment, she decided also to convert the refectory to a sealed, climate controlled space, which meant bricking up the windows. Then, a detailed study was undertaken to determine the painting's original form, using scientific tests (especially infrared reflectoscopy and microscopic core-samples), and original cartoons preserved in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.
In addition to the technical aspects, Mrs. Brambilla’s story is especially telling for the personal details of her life and how she had to struggle with a society that put a lot of pressure on a working mother, and a husband who complained about not having his wife at home on weekends, along with the financial and bureaucratic barriers of the project and the huge burden of responsibility that it represented. At one point even Adriano Olivetti had to step in. It’s the complex story of a woman dealing with a historic change of gender roles while also trying to decipher the genius of Leonardo da Vinci.