The Mark Twain Papers & Project - Exhibit - Mark Twain Takes on Art - A "Mournful Wreck"


A "Mournful Wreck"

Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) made his first trip to the Old World in 1867, joining the prosperous—and very proper—passengers of the cruise ship Quaker City as they made a leisurely tour of Europe and the Holy Land, reverently visiting all the major churches and museums on their route. Clemens, traveling and writing as correspondent for the San Francisco Alta California, expressed his impatience with his companions' conventional appreciation for all that they saw. He later revised his travel letters for publication in his first full-length book, the immensely popular Innocents Abroad (1869). "In Milan, in an ancient tumble-down ruin of a church," he got his first sight of The Last Supper, "the mournful wreck of the most celebrated painting in the world":

       I recognized the old picture in a moment—the Saviour with bowed head seated at the centre of a long, rough table with scattering fruits and dishes upon it, and six disciples on either side in their long robes, talking to each other—the picture from which all engravings and all copies have been made for three centuries. . . . The world seems to have become settled in the belief, long ago, that it is not possible for human genius to outdo this creation of Da Vinci's. . . . The colors are dimmed with age; the countenances are scaled and marred, and nearly all expression is gone from them; the hair is a dead blur upon the wall, and there is no life in the eyes. . . . I am satisfied that the Last Supper was a very miracle of art once. But it was three hundred years ago.
                          From The Innocents Abroad (Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1869), 190-93

Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper
Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper. 1495-97. Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. Scan by Mark Harden.

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