In search of Leonardo’s Judas

March 15, 2011

Here’s yet another post triggered by a book I’m reading: A friend of mine recently insisted suggested that I should read Der Judas des Leonardo [Leonardo’s Judas] by Leo Perutz (1882-1957), an Austrian novelist whom I had completely missed out on so far. Like Franz Kafka, Perutz was born in Prague to German speaking parents of Jewish descent, but in 1901 he moved to Vienna where he soon picked up a career as a writer while also working as a statistician for an insurance company.  It was in Vienna, too, that he began writing Leonardo’s Judas in 1937. Work on the novel, however, was soon interrupted when, in March 1938, Nazi Germany seized Austria and Perutz had to leave the country, eventually fleeing to Tel Aviv where he would spend most of his remaining life. As things turned out, Perutz finished the Leonardo manuscript only six weeks before his death in 1957, and the book was published posthumously two years later.

Leonardo da Vinci: The Last Supper, Refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. - Image © Wikimedia Commons

The novel is set in Milan, Italy, in 1498 and speaks of events surrounding the creation of Leonardo da Vinci’s world-famous Last Supper in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Based on an anecdote related by Giorgio Vasari, Perutz’ tale is centered on Leonardo’s problems concerning the figure of Judas: Unable to create someone as evil as the treacherous Apostle merely from his own imagination, the painter sets out on a search for “the vilest man in Milan” to use as a model… Now, I don’t want to betray any more details about the book to you, in case you’ll want to read it yourself (which I strongly recommend). Instead, let me draw your attention to this:

Giacomo Raffaelli: Copy of Leonardo's Last Supper, Church of the Friars Minor, Vienna

Reading Leonardo’s Judas made me remember that right here in Vienna, in the Minoritenkirche [Church of the Friars Minor], we have one of the most splendid copies of Leonardo’s Last Supper, a mosaic done by Roman artist Giacomo Raffaelli (1753-1836) in the years 1809-1814. With its bright, intense colours, the mosaic gives a good impression of what Leonardo’s painting probably looked like when it was still fresh and new, and with its measures of 9,18 x 4,47 metres, the copy is even (almost) exactly the same size as the original.*

Giacomo Raffaelli: Copy of Leonardo's Last Supper, Detail: The Apostles Thaddeus and Simon, Church of the Friars Minor, Vienna

Raffaelli’s mosaic, though, isn’t only of interest as a copy of Leonardo’s work, but on a closer look proves to be an outstanding piece of art and craftsmanship in itself. Raffaelli, it ought to be noted, was well versed in the extremely sophisticated technique of micromosaic, and this experience clearly surfaces in the Last Supper. For a mosaic, it’s incredibly rich in detail, and the way the artist manages to create almost sfumato-like colour gradients is simply stunning:

Still, for all its merits, the mosaic itself probably isn’t half as interesting as the history of its making. It was commissioned by none other than Napoleon who liked Leonardo’s Last Supper so much that he wanted a life-size copy of it for his own living room. Well, maybe not for his living room, but you get the idea. But of course, creating a mosaic of that size takes its time, and when Raffaelli finally finished his meticulous work in 1814, Napoleon had been defeated and exiled to Elba and was no longer in any position to take the work with him. So, rather ironically, one of Napoleon’s main opponents, Emperor Francis I. of Austria, snatched it up, i.e. bought it off the artist and had it brought to Vienna. This proved a bit tricky since the mosaic is laid on slabs of stone and therefore weighs about twenty tons. So it had to be sewn into several pieces for transport, and when it was put back together there remained visible seams between its single parts:

Giacomo Raffaelli: Copy of Leonardo's Last Supper, Detail: The Apostles Thomas, James and Philip, Church of the Friars Minor, Vienna (note the seam running down along the left window frame, through Thomas' raised hand and James' arm)

It wasn’t put back together until 1845/1847, though. Francis I. had intended to install the mosaic in Vienna’s Belvedere palace which at that time held the Imperial Art Collections**, among them paintings by Italian Renaissance masters like Raphael, Giorgione and Titian. A copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper would therefore have fit into the Belvedere remarkably well. In a more literal sense, however, it did not fit into the Belvedere: As it turned out, the thing was way too big for its assigned place and an alternative had to be found. This quest was brought to an end only in 1845 when Emperor Ferdinand I. of Austria, the son and successor of Francis I., bequeathed the mosaic to Vienna’s Italian Congregation which has its seat at the Minoritenkirche. Here, it was installed in a costly Neo-Gothic marble frame which was completed two years later: On March 26 1847, the mosaic was finally inaugurated.

Ever since, Raffaelli’s mosaic has remained in that same place, and I wonder if Leo Perutz was aware of it. Certainly, it is known that Perutz visited Milan in 1947, and he had travelled extensively through Italy in his youth before World War I, so he probably knew Leonardo’s original painting. And then, of course, even at Perutz’ time the Last Supper was known from numerous reproductions. But still, when he started writing his novel in Vienna in 1937, Raffaelli’s copy would definitely have been his best chance to get a good look at Leonardo’s Judas:

Giacomo Raffaelli: Copy of Leonardo's Last Supper, Detail: The Apostles Judas, Peter and John, Church of the Friars Minor, Vienna

* I say “almost exactly” because the available information regarding the size of Leonardo’s painting is somewhat contradictory, though the most reliable sources claim a size of 8,8 x 4,6 metres. This means that the copy in Vienna is actually slightly bigger than the original, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the “official” measurements given for the mosaic include the frame as well…

** Only in 1891 were they transferred to the newly built Kunsthistorisches Museum [Museum of Art History] where they still are today (though, of course, they aren’t “Imperial” any more).

3 Responses to “In search of Leonardo’s Judas”

  1. What an incredible idea for a book..I must try and get it…although I always felt pity for Judas this was the part he had to play innth e last days of Christ ..great post..Eliza Keating

  2. That sounds like a fascinating topic. Although my German is so poor I would have to read it in an English translation.

  3. [c] said

    Thanks, Eliza and Cindy. From what I understand, an English translation of the book was published in 1989. Though it appears to be out of print, used copies should be easily obtainable online (e.g. from abebooks.com or abebooks.co.uk).

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