ONE August night in 1943, a British bomb fell on the little refectory of Milan's Santa Maria delle Grazie. Next day Milanese climbed out of their shelters to behold what seemed almost a miracle: the two side walls of the refectory had collapsed, but the north and south walls still stood—like playing cards on edge. The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, remained intact under the sandbags protecting the north wall.

Two years later the rest of the refectory was rebuilt, and the sandbags removed. But the mural was obscured by a newly formed crust of white mold, brought on by long...

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