Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 7, 2002
Leo Steinberg Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper New York: Zone Books, 2000. 320 pp.; 4 color ills.; 201 b/w ills. Cloth $43.00 (1890951188)

This book advertises itself as a simple republication of the book-length essay, “Leonardo’s Last Supper,” that first appeared in the Art Quarterly in 1973 (Art Quarterly 36, no. 4, 1973: 297–410). Steinberg interlards the introduction with italicized passages; the first mentions Jonathan Crary’s invitation, in 1997, to republish the essay as a book, and another begins: “At this point, I might as well reprint the rest” (13). But the book is far from a reprint: The majority of paragraphs are revised, there are wholly new pages, the notes altered and the chapters renumbered and rearranged, and the catalogue of copies is now a small monograph in its own right. I lost count of Steinberg’s emendations midway through the second chapter, at which point I had noted 120 changes.

Steinberg has apparently kept an assiduous record of the literature occasioned by this essay since 1973, yet the sad fact is that it has been often mentioned but little discussed. (The exception is Georg Eichholz’s Das Abendmahl Leonardo da Vincis [Munich: Scaneg, 1998]; see Steinberg, 168 n. 9.) Even the essay’s (and the book’s) principal opening claim—that Leonardo’s painting, in Steinberg’s words, ambiguates between the Last Supper and the Institution of the Eucharist—has received little direct discussion. In a recent review of four other books on Leonardo’s Last Supper, Charles Hope says that the painting could not have both meanings, because that would render “Christ’s own action and the response of the apostles ambiguous and incoherent.” (New York Review of Books, August 9, 2001, 10) In the original essay and in the book, Steinberg answers that objection in many ways (31–53), and he distinguishes rigorously between ambiguity and incoherence.

Ernst Gombrich also rejected the idea that the painting alludes to the Eucharist. Steinberg cites the 1993 edition of Gombrich’s Story of Art: “The apostles are all supplied with bread and wine; there is no loaf, no chalice” (39 n. 12). Yet Gombrich has also argued in “The Repentance of Judas in Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ” (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 22, 1959: 172.) that the three enigmatic figures at the right in that work represent Judas and the thirty pieces of silver, despite the fact that there is no silver present. Gombrich’s evidence was a drawing, not by Piero, that depicts Judas with invisible silver. Steinberg presents several dozen pieces of evidence that the Last Supper was taken as an allusion to the Eucharist, which makes sense for a work painted in a refectory. A typical and convincing argument is that the portrayal of St. James’s “shock and revulsion” need not mean the picture must only refer to the moment when Christ says, “One of you shall betray me”—as shown by Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus at the National Gallery, London, where St. James’s “outflung arms” in the Last Supper are “assigned” to a disciple witnessing the blessing of the bread (46 n. 19). (It does not matter, in Steinberg’s view, that the Supper at Emmaus is a post-Resurrection event; what counts is the witnessing function itself.) It should be enough to plant seeds of doubt in any monothematic interpretation that Leonardo’s friend Luca Pacioli understood the picture as part Last Supper and part Institution of the Eucharist (32). Steinberg also traces the history of interpretations that shrink the meaning to secular drama; they begin with Giuseppe Bossi’s seminal treatise Del Cenacolo di Leonardo da Vinci (1810) and continue to the present.

And so the literature goes: citations are common, but arguments are harder to find. I think Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper is easily the most intricately argued work in the discipline, and that is one of two reasons I find it the most important art-historical text written in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. (I will mention the other reason at the end of this review.) Another way of measuring its importance is by comparing it with earlier interpretations. Steinberg’s book is as different from Bossi’s as Bossi’s is from what went before. First came more inclusive interpretations; then the painting was secularized; and now, with Steinberg’s book, the Last Supper has been re-processed as a repository of ambiguities.

I have written at length about the original essay and Steinberg’s penchant for ambiguities in my book Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? (New York: Routledge, 1999, 49–51, 110–20). I will not repeat that analysis here, but it is necessary to say a little about it because this review is a continuation and emendation of what I wrote then. My concern was the proliferation of texts in late twentieth-century art history that find dense ambiguities and multiple meanings where previous generations had found few or none. Steinberg’s essay, I wrote, is an extreme case of the postmodern penchant for treating pictures as intellectual puzzles. The puzzle I set myself was to explain why pictures, which had seemed to earlier viewers such docile carriers of simpler meanings for so many centuries, had suddenly expanded into objects of daunting difficulty.

Because my primary purpose then was to answer that historiographical question, I did not stop to say what I thought might actually be true in Steinberg’s essay, and I want to make good on that now. I am not a “unitarian,” as Steinberg jokes of people who deny the painting’s multiple meanings. I have long been persuaded that the painting puts into practice what Steinberg terms a “sfumato” of scales and of moments in time. Pacioli and Bartolommeo da Siena (32) offer persuasive evidence that sixteenth- and seventeenth-century viewers could see the Institution of the Eucharist together with the Last Supper. I am convinced of the book’s major claims and many of the minor ones, including the idea that a central stripe on the floor (now lost) would have created the illusion of a crucified Christ (this, despite Steinberg’s reading of my comment on page 65 n. 11). The lengthy perspectival analysis (set out even more forcibly in the book) is also convincing, in its own modernist terms. It goes against the Renaissance grain, for example, to posit that a viewer’s task might include the reconstruction of what we now call fictive space in any rigorously quantifiable sense. Plans and elevations extracted from painted rooms, the notion of infinite “vanishing points” (although see page 130 n. 5), diagrams drawn over paintings, and in general the notion that paintings encode quantifiable information—such practices were virtually unknown in the Renaissance. But many of those anachronisms are unavoidable, and Steinberg’s perspectival analysis is exemplary, particularly the analysis of the sanctifying function of the degradato, the foreshortened “trapezoid” common in Renaissance perspectival constructions (191).

The book and the essay—I think they have to be read together—are ruthlessly convincing. What continues to bother me is the picture of Leonardo as a champion logician, totting up multiple meanings. It seems correct to insist that Christ’s hands can be read seven different ways (139–51), but implausible to say that there might be more than seven. Steinberg explains his enumeration by citing John Ruskin in Fors Clavigera; Ruskin half jokes that only “ingenuity” prevented him from making the Seven Lamps into eight or nine (148 n. 13). Why implausible? Because Steinberg’s book is predicated, rightly so, on the assumption that Leonardo was wiser than we are, that he had control of his meanings—in short, and by strong continuous implication, that Leonardo also collected meanings and worked in sevens (or more). Lesser artists (including some who copied the painting) and lesser mortals (such as scholars) are let off the hook: they might or might not have intended to simplify the Last Supper (23). So it is implausible, judged by the logic of ambiguity proposed by the book itself, that Leonardo would have had such an astonishingly clear, precise, sequential, numerical grasp of the many meanings of his work and yet not have been sure when to stop finding meanings—or, to be very precise, not have been sure in a way analogous to the way Steinberg is not sure.

Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper relentlessly analyzes: it pictures painting as a thing with a logical form equivalent to a commentary on Aristotle’s Prior Analytics. This scholastic approach (Steinberg’s book also reminds me of Aquinas, Buridan, or even Anselm) precludes any blurred perceptions on Leonardo’s part. (It also prohibits accidental meanings, which tend to find themselves sequestered in footnotes, as at page 118 n. 11.) Leonardo, Steinberg says, “intended what he produced,” and even copyists knew enough that they “dodged” complexities in favor of simpler versions (173, 171).

It is entirely right to give Leonardo the benefit of every doubt. But can’t an artist produce a work that bears up under unsurpassably analytic attention and yet be intermittently less than clear about what he is making? William Empson provides an excellent model of how intricate ambiguities can be generated from confused states of mind in his Seven Types of Ambiguity. (This is another book where analyzed complexity finds itself divided in seven. Look, for example, at page 151, where Steinberg revives the word “septemfluous” to describe one of his sevenfold divisions.) Empson resembles Steinberg in his love of subatomic divisions of meaning, but differs in that he allows his poets to work in confused frames of mind, where many meanings are suspended in a cloud, and none can be plucked down and inspected by itself.

That avenue is closed to Steinberg because he does not want to represent Leonardo’s experience or speculate about the ordering of his thoughts. Yet it is not necessary to guess Leonardo’s frame of mind, as Empson does in regard to Wordsworth or Shakespeare: the evidence for Leonardo’s less than crystalline perception of his painting is in the painting itself. The many meanings could not possibly have been held in mind without an ars memorativa: a) the half-dozen cases of the “sfumato” of time and space; b) the seven meanings of Christ’s hands; c) the seven reasons the space appears trapezoidal as well as rectilinear; d) the twelve reasons (my count) why the scene benefits from right-left asymmetry (130–32); e) the six hypothetical original contexts of Christ’s feet (66); and others. The meanings rarely exist in the painting itself as coequal alternatives, so the painting (again, not speculation on the painter’s frame of mind) provides the evidence that Leonardo did not splice his work from impeccable Thomistic categories. (Leonardo’s perfect awareness is doubted only once in the book, in a trivial instance; see page 109.)

It is the rigorous, “thankless” (Steinberg’s word, 133) counting of meanings that marks Steinberg’s book as a product of the ambiphilic late twentieth century. As Steinberg himself points out, ambiguity is one of postmodernism’s central tropes, and this book presses harder on it than any other I know: that is the other reason I think it is twentieth-century art history’s most important work.

It can be said that the logical portion of Leonardo is what has caught Steinberg’s eye. But when is omission distortion? If I cut off the hydra’s seven heads, and pull out their teeth, and count every one of them, what has become of the hydra?

I will close with a word on the delicate subject of publishing. Several of Steinberg’s texts have been published or republished in recent years by Zone Books and the journal October. Those occasions, although different, are not unrelated. The question to be asked—in some future history of art-historical publishing—is what role Steinberg has been taken to play on the lists of publishers whose other authors include contemporary art historians, along with Bataille, Bakhtin, Blanchot, Benjamin, and Lacan—but relatively little writing on Renaissance art. It is not easy to pin down something as elusive as the tenor or coherence of a publisher’s list, because so high a percentage of it is happenstance. But in some sense Steinberg’s texts have been understood as complementing Zone’s list. Only a few other art historians who write on Renaissance art have been published in the same venue: Leo Bersani, Ulysse Dutoit, and Aby Warburg. Interesting company, and telling for Renaissance art history.

James Elkins
E. C. Chadbourne Professor, Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago