Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper has been one of the most revered and well-known works of art in the world for more than five centuries. But during World War II, it almost became “history” in more than one sense of the word.
In August 1943, Allied leaders bombed a number of Italian cities, including Milan. Many historic churches and buildings containing pieces by master artists were either destroyed or severely damaged, including the Duomo, the Castello Sforzesco, the Teatro alla Scala, and Santa Maria delle Grazie.
The latter was the church where Leonardo had painted The Last Supper mural directly on one of the walls in 1495. On August 15, a high-explosive bomb landed a mere 80 feet away from the mural. The building was virtually demolished: The roof caved in, the cloister collapsed, and entire walls were blown out. You can see from the picture how much of the church was destroyed.
Miraculously, the wall the mural was on was still standing when the dust cleared. Hoping to protect Leonardo's work against just such an attack, officials had guarded it with sandbags and scaffolding years before. The precaution was one many museums and churches across Italy had taken when war broke out—even sculptures such as Michelangelo's David were encased in brick towers to protect them from bombs and shrapnel.
Because they didn’t want to expose the piece to the elements, Monuments Men and other officials were unable to assess the damage right away. "Leonardo's Last Supper may be in ruins," Monuments Man Deane Keller wrote in 1944. Amazingly, when the scaffolding was removed, da Vinci's masterpiece was in relatively good condition.
It’s actually not the first time The Last Supper has come close to destruction. During the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon’s soldiers bunked in Santa Maria della Grazie. When they got bored, they used The Last Supper for target practice, with Jesus's face as the bullseye. They hit the mark at least a couple of times, but the mural has since been restored.