‘The Last Supper’ by Leonardo da Vinci gets some help from USC

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

Leonardo da Vinci completed ‘The Last Supper’ in Milan in 1498. Almost immediately, the fresco started to deteriorate. Over the centuries, the famous work has suffered from human carelessness, humidity, pollution, a war-time bombing and more.

The fragility of ‘The Last Supper’ has been the subject of numerous studies. Preservation efforts have focused on minimizing human contact and keeping pollution out of Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie, the church where the fresco is located. Recently, researchers from the University of Southern California traveled to Milan to conduct a study intended to aid preservationists in their eternal fight to save the masterpiece.

Costas Sioutas, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at USC, said his objective was to determine the effectiveness of the church’s new filtration system, which was installed in 2009 to eliminate pollutants from the refectory where ‘The Last Supper’ is on display.

Milan has long had an air-pollution problem. ‘The city is polluted enough to impress someone from L.A.,’ said Sioutas in a recent interview. ‘It’s not as bad as Cairo or Calcutta... or even Beijing. But it is pretty polluted.’


The team of researchers from USC and other organizations installed equipment to measure the seasonal variability of outdoor pollution that can find its way into the church. Their objective was to test the efficacy of the existing filtration system as well determine the sources of unknown indoor pollutants.

The study, which took a year to complete, found that the current filtration system provides a significant reduction in outdoor air pollution. The results show that fine and coarse particulate matter concentrations were reduced around the painting by 88% and 94%, respectively, from their corresponding outdoor levels. ‘The bottom line is that the local authorities have done a remarkable job of keeping the place clean,’ Sioutas said.

Indoor sources of pollution were fairly small, he said, and came from organic vapors from fire retardants and cleaners. But, researchers found that humans still pose a threat to the fresco in the form of fatty lipids from the skin of visitors that continue to appear in significant quantities around the painting.

Visiting ‘The Last Supper’ at the Santa Maria delle Grazie is regulated by timed entries, with only a handful of people allowed in the refectory at any given time.

The equipment used by the USC team was a lightweight system that made little noise and operated on batteries.

Sioutas is scheduled to present the findings in Milan in December. Detailed results of the study can be found this month in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.


Peter Greenaway talks about ‘The Last Supper’

Leonardo da Vinci gets his first museum show of paintings

Getty Museum denies interest in Leonardo da Vinci painting

-- David Ng