Saturday, October 22, 2011

Edith Wharton and Leonardo da Vinci

Edith Wharton first saw Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper during a trip to Milan when she was 17. It was to be almost four decades before she finally gave vent to the passion it had aroused. During that long interval, she said, she had "wanted to bash that picture's face". It wasn't the most edifying contribution to art history and she was careful not to broadcast it. Rather, she confessed her loathing privately in a letter to the art historian Bernard Berenson, who, as "the most authorised fist in the world", had just done her pugilistic business for her.

Berenson had published The Study and Criticism of Italian Art (Third Series, 1916) in which he revealed that, as a boy, he had "felt a repulsion" for The Last Supper. "The faces were uncanny, their expressions forced, their agitation alarmed me," he recalled feverishly. "They were the faces of people whose existence made the world less pleasant and certainly less safe." This description of the most famous narrative painting in the world as resembling a Neapolitan marketplace drew great opprobrium. One American newspaper compared it to an act of war, claiming Berenson had "torpedoed" Leonardo's reputation (this at a time when German U-boats were sinking allied ships). Another review argued that he had shown "such want of sympathy with Leonardo's work as is generally considered to place a critic's estimate out of court".

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