Milan’s greatest art treasure is also one of the most famous on earth, in part thanks to Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel “The Da Vinci Code.” Painted for Milanese ruler Ludovico il Moro by Leonardo da Vinci between 1495 and 1497, “The Last Supper” adorns the back wall of the refectory in the Dominican convent attached to the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Leonardo’s masterpiece depicts Christ revealing that one of his disciples will soon betray him; horror and disbelief are etched on every face but Jesus remains resigned. As we look at the fresco, Judas sits to the left of Jesus, leaning away from him with the bag of silver clearly visible in his right hand. Is that Mary Magdalene sitting between him and Jesus? (Most historians think it's actually St. John, who was typically depicted as a particularly beautiful youth.) Wherever you stand on the controversy, there is no doubt that “The Last Supper” is one of the world’s most poignant and beautiful works of art.
In experimenting with his painting technique, DaVinci applied tempera straight on to the walls of the refectory. As a result, his sublime fresco began to deteriorate virtually on completion. It suffered several ham-fisted restoration attempts in the 18th and 19th centuries and survived target practice by Napoleon’s troops plus a period exposed to the open air after Allied bombing in WWII. The latest clean-up of the fresco was completed in 1999, and while the colors are muted, they are thought to resemble Leonardo’s original fresco.
Unsurprisingly, “The Last Supper” is on almost every tourist’s itinerary of Milan. And with only 30 people allowed in to the Cenacolo Vinciano at a time, it is a challenge to get a ticket if you don’t book well in advance. Try the official website first (www.cenacolovinciano.net), or call tel. 02/9280-0360, at least 3 months before you are due to visit. Present your e-tickets at the booking office outside the Cenacolo in Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie at least 20 minutes before your allotted time slot. And remember that the Cenacolo is not in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie itself, but in the refectory behind it, with a separate entrance of its own.
If you’ve missed the opportunity to snag a ticket in advance, many tour companies guarantee admission to “The Last Supper” as part of their guided tours of the city, which range from 40€ to 70€ (see “Organized Tours”).
Don’t miss Leonardo’s Vineyard Museum across the street in the Casa degli Atellani, where da Vinci lived while he was painting “The Last Supper.” It is said that he would go back to the house at the end of the day and, given he came from a family of winemakers, tend to his vines in the garden to unwind (www.vignadileonardo.com; tel. 02/481-6150). The small vineyard has been revived today, and visitors can tour it and the noble palazzo. Tickets are 10€ for adults and 8€ for those aged 6 to 18.
- Michelle Schoenung