The inspiration for this post was a much longer, more detailed paper I wrote as part of an undergraduate course on Medieval and Renaissance philosophy, which later I revised into my graduate school application writing sample.
The first time I saw Da Vinci’s last supper, I admit, I didn’t understand the fuss. Of course, what I was looking at was a grainy photograph on a web site, and not the real thing. I saw that it was beautiful, and that it was interesting, but as I was not at the time terribly interested in Renaissance painting, I couldn’t see how it differed much from other works in quality and magnitude. However, the first time I saw the original in Milan, I felt something much more powerful. Perhaps it was my relatively new interest in the Renaissance – it was first time I’d seen something so large and so famous and so old in person – that prompted this strong reaction, but in the presences of the painting, I nearly fell to my knees.
The rest of my short trip to Italy took me to Florence, where I saw Botticellis and Michelangelos and Donatellos up close. I walked the secret passageway of Medicis, the Vasari Corridor, and saw where Machiavelli lived. There was one central theme to my trip: I fell in love with the Renaissance when I saw it in person. When I saw the originals.
But these weren’t really originals, of course – they were representations of either real physical things or imagined phenomena, interpreted through the mind of the artists. And because images and stories are reconstructive devices, when ephemeral reality fades, the appearance of the event takes over and replaces it. When we step into an artist’s interpretation of an origin, we don’t just see the representation of some reality; we see that reality as it appears to one particular person – and that tells us at least as much about the artist’s perspective as it does anything else.
We don’t just want any depiction of the Last Supper, we want to see how Da Vinci imagined it. When it comes to art, we want the original replica so that we can get as close as possible not just to the original experience of something – we want to experience it as a genius would.