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On the Cenacolo (Last Supper) of Leonardo

Fig. 1 - Cenacolo, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan
Fig. 2 - Adoration of the Magi, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (detail)

Fig. 3 - Canvas copy by Giampietrino. Bartholomew (detail)
Fig. 4 - Wooden copy, by Virgilio del Conte
Fig. 5 - Bas relief, Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Venice
Fig. 6 - Portrait of Salai. Private collection, Germany

Fig. 7 - Cenacolo, Milan. Thomas, Jacob and Philip (detail)

An infinite number of papers and books have been dedicated to this very famous painting in the Refettorio of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan but some mystery did always remain and this may be one of the element of attraction, by the way common to other works by Leonardo. One day the librarian of my institute who keeps an eye on my trafficking with Leonardo did ask me: "The guys there gesticulate in an unordered way. As you are a Tuscan and have a feeling for gestures, what are they trying to say?"

I took the challenge and did look with the usual prejudice that they were reacting to Jesus statement: "One of you will betray me." Delusion, to my Tuscan eye they were saying something else, but at first I could not figure out what. So I started reasoning from inside that usually Leonardo, who had a sacrilegious mind according to Vasari, but had a strong sense for hierarchical importance, when representing Jesus did put himself in place. Adult Jesus or the small one, the same. And his mother was the Madonna.

A curious fact was that he called the painting "Il Cenacolo". This term in Italian in general, but especially in Florence doesn't mean "Last Supper " as it is currently supposed, but a circle of guys with a common interest, which meet regularly, possibly after work to discuss their arguments, often on intellectual subjects and perhaps have something to eat. If it is a Cenacolo, one of the problem is in what the Leo-Jesus companions were interested. Presumably in something vital to Leo and for which the meeting could become an event so as to merit such a grandiose mural.

One problem that did cast a very long shadow of sorrow in the life of Leo was that as a consequence of the infinite rapes he was submitted to in his young years he had become impotent if preserving the male impulses. The castration story is made explicit in Jesus blessing hand in the NY Metropolitan Madonna and child reported in this same gallery. The psychoanalysts that sounded him in depth, on the basis of his scripts, K.R. Eissler and R.S. Stites reached parallel conclusions. That idea is clearly expressed in a self portrait in the Adoration of the Magi at the Uffizi, where he seem to pray to have an erection (fig. 2). He did call the event wittily and somehow blasphemously: Resurrectio carnis.

It must be clear that Leonardo work can be read at various levels, Leo Steinberg says and repeats this in his book "Leonardo incessant last supper": .. He is never unambiguous and clear, but consistently layered, double functioning, polysemantic .. pictorial symbols as multiplex signs .. ambiguity becomes a species of power. This is to say that my interpretation can be one of the layers and will not necessarily displace others, but it will show his infinite ability at multiplexing sacred and profane and I presume will reveal his deepest drives an multiplexed personality.

After long meditations I tentatively had a hunch, that the great event is an erection by Leo-Jesus, the unfulfilled dream of his life, the resurrectio carnis, and the bunch around the table were his cenacolo of gays. With that assumption, suddenly, all the mise en scene did make a coherent sense to me. Because the hierarchies in the band would be upset by "The Event" explains the sudden agitation and give a meaning to the gestures and postures. Eg St. John who has the features of Salai the lifelong lover of Leonardo, leans out contrary to all tradition of Last Suppers. If the boss has an erection his job is lost. Not to speak of the two guys at the left of Leo-Jesus one announcing the event with popping eyes and a straight finger pointing upwards and the other staring in marvel at the loin, oh my, oh Jesus.

A subtle and never really interpreted gesture is Jesus extended hand moving toward a similarly extended hand by Judas. The hands are open in a sign that can be interpreted as agreement Through my decoding I have identified the features of the various Leo's rapists, Judas has the features of the Nibbio, the rapist n1 . From certain reconstructions I have done he must have kept relations with adult Leo. The gesture may then mean continuity of homosexual relation in spite of.

My interpretation being somehow extreme and Leo's worshippers being touchy I kept it to me except some hints to the librarian who said oh my you will never be able to publish it. It flashed to my mind the publish and perish for the Leo's astronomical discoveries. However I thought such evident hints should not have totally escaped to millions of people looking at the Cenacolo over five centuries. Especially to fellow artists who have sharp eyes and twisted minds. Luckily in 2001 a splendid exposition perceptively titled "Il genio e le passioni" was arranged in the Palazzo Reale in Milano. There about 100 art objects were presented, inspired to the Cenacolo, from the one to one copy by Giampietrino, on canvas and perfectly preserved, to objects where the Leo's influence was more and more indirect. I went through the exposition goggle eyed. The fellow artists who spent days and years in front of the original, had seen.

Obviously they were boiling to tell it around, but the atmosphere in the sixteen century when most of the pieces of art were done was not optimal to say such things explicitly (still it is not). So they astutely modified some details of their copies to show they got the joke. So that posterity, i.e. me and my readers if they believe me, could witness their wit. I will report here a few examples, very simple and evident as a web site requires, leaving the full exercise to the reader who can leaf the beautiful catalogue of "Il genio e le passioni" produced by SKIRA in 2001.

On the left of the Cenacolo there is a robust and aggressive guy explicitly protesting, formally Bartholomew. His legs are short and he superposes his feet to bring his groin at the level of the table. As it appears clearly in the Giampietrino copy a suspicious roll of cloth lays in front on the table. (Fig. 3) A small woodcut attributed to Virgilio del Conte (1558- 1617) and reproducing the Cenacolo gives the first interpretation, instead of the roll, the tunic appears pushed forward by a sort of stick inside, well over the table, and the folds propagate straight up and down. (Fig. 4)

A more explicit version appears in a bas relief constituting the back side of a tombstone in Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Venice, for the chaplain of the church Michele Fiorini dead in 1670. It's dating is uncertain, but around 1500.(Fig. 5) Also author is uncertain, on the basis of the sacrilege it could be Leonardo himself. In this bas relief the roll is open and shows a sort of bull penis cut in three pieces. Bartholomew appears upset, St Peter clasps gingerly a short butcher knife worn by sharpening and Judas holds high a big scrotum. The stallion protesting in the Cenacolo has been properly punished. St. John-Salai still leans out.

This Bartholomew seems much observed by the artists copying the Cenacolo. His vest is knotted on the shoulder, in a rough ball in the original. But a number of copies sport an elegant knot in form of a penis in erection phase.(Fig. 3) He looks at Jesus as protesting and his right hand folds a cloth. In the original the action is not legible any more, but in the copies it is very clear, the cloth forms a vulva, an injury directed to Leo as he supposedly should stick to his normal passive role.

The immense success of the thriller "The da Vinci Code" has injected in the collective imaginary the rock belief that the St. John in the Cenacolo is actually Mary Magdalene, wife of Jesus. It is not clear why a loving wife should lean out, but the face is feminine and many guess some sort of tits. But there is a drawing depicting Salai, the life long lover of Leo (Fig. 6), most probably due to Leonardo himself according to Carlo Pedretti. It is now in private hands in Germany but it seems it did belong to the bunch of drawings in Windsor and was "lost" due to the Victorian ethics of some conservator. It sports in fact an equine penis, to make any conservator jealous. And has an evident tit. I think this Salai is the best candidate for a St John leaning away, for very good reasons, from Leo-Jesus but I confess I was not able to convince my friends who had read "The da Vinci Code".

The real eye witnesses of the event are the three persons on the left of Leo-Jesus and they react in a very informative way (Fig. 7). Thomas goggle eyed at the sudden abundance points up a strait index, Tuscan gesture for erection, Jacob stares at the groin with raised hands and marvelled head, Philip on the right tore his dress with a face full of desire as if. "One of you will betray me" really doesn't work.