Working on large commissions across Northern Italy in the 14th Century, the painter Giotto di Bondone created brilliant frescoes that challenged the age-old manner of depicting on a flat surface the human figure and its surrounding space. In the Arena Chapel in Padua, Giotto covered the walls with a series of life-like figures from the New Testament, creating a paradigm shift from the Medieval to the modern worldview. His breakthroughs began the movement in art to more and more realistic renditions of reality, and for the next hundred-and-fifty years other Italian artists, such as Alberti, Brunelleschi, and Masaccio took up Giotto’s cause and expanded on his innovations. During this period, scholars and cartographers borrowed the new innovations in perspective and also rediscovered the writings of the ancient Greeks about the earth’s surface, among many other things. This intellectual furor brought together art, science, and scholarship and ushered in the Renaissance and profoundly affected the Age of Discovery.
Leonardo did not want to paint The Last Supper. He had been working for years on a colossal equestrian statue for the Duke of Milan Ludovico Sforza, when in 1494 the Duke redirected the bronze for the statue to the making of cannon. Although he had no experience with fresco painting and was loathed to stop work on the statue, Leonardo was commissioned by the Duke to decorate a wall in the refectory at Santa Maria delle Grazie depicting Christ and his apostles around a long table. Paintings of the Last Supper had been created by artists since the Early Christian period, however Leonardo infused his rendition with a sense of humanism and beauty unseen before. For centuries, Leonardo’s figures in The Last Supper were the models for the way artists attempted to portray the personalities and the souls of people through their outward appearances.
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