Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Florence 2012 Journal: Comparison of Taddeo Gaddi's Last Supper and Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper.

Comparison of Taddeo Gaddi’s Last Supper and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

The two paintings to be considered here are Taddeo Gaddi’s last supper (est. 1335, Basilica di Santa Croce) and Leonardo Da Vinci’s last supper (est. 1495, Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan). The two depictions of the last supper clearly have their differences. However, it can definitely be argued that they too share fairly important similarities. Not necessarily in how the paintings look, but their innovative nature in their contextual setting.

Firstly, as one of the leading figures from the ‘high Renaissance’, Leonardo’s work (not only paintings, but in general) pushed the boundaries – an example being the dissection of human bodies in order to understand nature and the human form. The consequence of this is that he had a sophisticated understanding of naturalism and the faces of the apostles are testament to this. They are interacting with Jesus and his revelation that one of them shall betray him (See Figure 1). Although upon a quick glance the superiority of Leonardo’s version is clear, Gaddi’s work must not be mistaken as completely unaffected by the Renaissance movement that had begun to gather pace in this period. His affiliation with Giotto clearly influenced some of the features of this painting. Under proper inspection the seemingly motionless faces without expression are far more naturalistic than the Byzantine faces of the past. What is amiss here, and what is evident in Leonardo’s last supper is the abundance of interaction between the figures. This, although considered superior, it is simply a different style. The art historian Heinrich Wofflin expresses that ‘in both styles unity is the chief aim’ and that ‘in the one case unity is achieved by a harmony of free parts’ and the other by ‘a union of parts in a single theme’[1]. Thus, the figures in Gaddi’s work may not be exemplifying Dante’s theory of ‘Visible Parlare’ but he certainly approached his portrayal of the figures in a highly sophisticated manner, as did Leonardo.

What is rather unconventional in Gaddi’s work is the illusion of the scene being in high relief, especially when other aspects of the painting (Judas’ diminution and portrayal of the evil as ugly and the good as beautiful) are traditional for the 14th century. (See Figure 2). The ambiguity of where the legs of the table meet the ground and the dark illusive background make it feel as if the image is protruding from the wall and expressed in the terms of Paolettii, ‘the painter has thrust the figures into space in front of the wall’.[2] In contrast to this, Leonardo adopts a ‘spherical perspective’ which the art historian Chastel asserts he is the credited inventor[3]. This play on perspective tricks the human eye into readjusting an image in order to retain the correct proportion. Therefore Leonardo’s last supper if considered in a flat perspective is arguably out of proportion; but because ‘we have an image of the world seen in a slightly concave mirror’[4] we naturally adjust the flat surface and replace it with a spherical surface therefore the proportion remains true. The two however, were clearly deviating from what was conventional in their respective time periods.

To conclude, both Gaddi and Leonardo clearly have different styles. However the misconception that Gaddi’s last supper is simply an older or degenerate style can be disputed. This is because Gaddi, although clearly influenced by what was accepted and popular in the 14th century, he began to experiment in the confines of what was possible in early renaissance art. This is comparable to Leonardo; even though he is clearly more advanced he was much the same in that he was too experimenting.

Figure 1: From left to right: Bartholomew, James son of Alpheus and Andrew are surprised; the following group of 3 include Judas who is notably clutching for his bag of silver whilst Peter holds a knife in anger (to represent the knife he used to cut off the ear of a Roman soldier) and John faints. To the right of Jesus is Thomas who appears upset, James the Greater who is in disbelief and Phillip who is pointing inwards and pleading for an answer whilst Jude and Matthew are turned towards Simon who appears to be shrugging.

Figure 2

[1] H. Wolfflin, Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art (Dover Publications, 1986), 13.
[2] J. Paolettii, G. Radke, Art in Renaissance Italy (Laurence King, 2005), 93.
[3] A. Chastel, Leonardo on Art and the Artist (Dover Publications, 2002), 99.
[4] A. Chastel, Leonardo on Art and the Artist (Dover Publications, 2002), 99.

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