The Last Supper

Piazza S. Maria delle Grazie • M1 Conciliazione, M1/M2 Cadorna; tram 24

€15, booking obligatory
 Last Supper tickets
discount for EU citizens under 18 or over 65, and for EU citizens between 18 and 25.
Open Tues-Sun 8.00-19.00, closed on Mon. Opening times are variable.

Leonardo da Vinci’s world-famous fresco, recently restored (restoration completed in 1999). Advance booking obligatory: places are limited. To book, phone 02 92800360: the number answers Mon-Fri 9.00 to 18.00, Sat 9.00-14.00. Operators speak English. (From abroad, phone +39 02 92800360). It is not possible to book direct at the Last Supper itself. The phone number is often engaged: you just have to keep trying. The operator will give you a code number and the time of the visit. It is necessary to pay by credit card.

At a cost of €15 including the on line booking charge and credit cards percentage, the “A Friend in Milan” service can book your visit for you, in combination with a personalized guided tour (50 € per hour) that includes a visit to the church Santa Maria delle Grazie, Bramante’s cloister, and other sights in the vicinity.
Visit the church itself, Santa Maria delle Grazie, with its lovely apse and dome by Bramante, and the little courtyard by the same architect.
As soon as you know when you are going to be in Milan, book a visit: at certain times of year it is hard to find slots even 3 months ahead.

The website seems to have a calendar showing availability but I don’t think that the system is working properly. There doesn’t seem to be the chance of booking.
All in all it is a tourist-unfriendly system. Large numbers of tickets are allocated to tour organisers, and often the only hope is that there will be some cancellations. The best day to call for cancellations is Monday.
There is a visit every 15 minutes for 25 people. At the end of the itinerary there is a shop selling cards, posters and books on the Last Supper (restored state) and Leonardo da Vinci. It is well worth reading something about this painting before your visit, as there is the risk that such a famous sight becomes something of an anticlimax: if not, the audio guide provides a lot of good information. The audio cassette guide (in English, Spanish, German, French, Japanese) are available at the ticket desk: €2.50 single, €4.50 double.

Background information on the Last Supper
While you are going in on your way to the fresco, a series of sealed and air-conditioned chambers gently hoovers visitors to ensure that dust and humidity levels in the refectory itself do not rise. Photography is not allowed: in any case, the shop on the route after the visit has a wide selection of postcards, posters and books on the painting in its restored state.
The latest restoration operation ended in 1999 after 20 years’ work, and it has revealed the enormous study that Leonardo dedicated to the subject. Previously, the heads were all smoky, blurred patches of colour, but now each character is depicted with precision. Facial features, hands and bodily position are used to express the reaction of each disciple to Christ’s revelation that he will be betrayed by one of them. Christ himself, as can now be seen, is actually in the process of speaking, with an expression of resigned sadness, as he gestures to the wine with his right hand and to the bread with his left. Judas is clumsily clutching a bag of money in his right hand; Peter, just behind him, is gripping a knife, that he will use later in the garden of Gethsemane to attack the servant of the high priest; Philip, third to the right of Christ, is an incredible portrait of emotion notwithstanding the damage; Matthew, next right, is another figure to whom the restoration has given back its eloquence, a talking mouth, and beautifully rendered hands. Thomas, to the right of Christ with finger pointed upwards, is making a gesture that was familiar to monks during the Renaissance: as meals in the refectory had to be taken in silence, in order to indicate God there was a conventional sign, thumb and index finger extended, the others closed.

All this suggests that Leonard painted not just a picture, but a scene that depicts a segment of time, like a film, with the emotion travelling in waves outwards from Christ’s momentous declaration. Many clues were added to enable the monks to identify the characters.
Contemporary observers wrote that Leonardo spent hours in front of the painting while it was in progress, meditating on one or other aspect of his work. Dominated as it is by human figures, one of the principal problems he must have had was reconciling the traditional appearances of the disciples with their psychological reactions to Jesus’ announcement. Over the centuries, the disciples had acquired a habitual iconographical appearance, used and re-used by generations of painters. Leonardo had to comply with this, while adding his more refined research on individual character. In addition, it seems highly likely that he also gave them an astrological significance. There are twelve disciples, and likewise twelve signs of the zodiac. Thus the first disciple Bartholomew corresponds to Aries (a sign characterized by the high forehead), then James the elder (Taurus, powerful neck), Andrew (Gemini – note his “double” gesture), Judas (Cancer – it is interesting how Leonardo has him leaning back to slot him into this sign in the astrological sequence), Peter (Leo), John the Evangelist (Virgo, perfectly expressed by his almost feminine features), and then, to the right of Christ, there is Thomas (Libra, scales, quite apt given Thomas’ attitude of perpetual doubt and indecision), James the younger (Scorpio), Philip (Sagittarius), Matthew (Capricorn), Thaddeus (Aquarius) and Simon (Pisces).
Why did Leonardo da Vinci want to incorporate astrology into his painting? This is bound up with the Neoplatonic school of philosophy – Marsilio Ficino – and the attempt to combine Plato’s philosophy with Christianity. The fresco incorporates references to numerology and cosmology so that as well as being a depiction of a Biblical scene, it is also a portrait of the universe in this particular philosophical interpretation. If you are interested in this subject, you will enjoy the visit with A Friend in Milan, the only tour organisation that has developed this area of study.
The items on the table, glasses of wine, little rolls of bread, and pewter plates, gave Leonardo the chance to demonstrate his skill in still life. But before even starting the painting, he had to come to grips with the problem of perspective. The fresco is conceived as a realistic extension of the actual room, but as it had to be placed high on the wall (in order to be visible to all the monks eating in the refectory, and also because the Last Supper is described in the New Testament as having taken place in a first-floor room), if Leonardo had used a viewpoint corresponding to normal eye-level height, it would have been impossible to see the top of the table, and we would have seen all too much of what is underneath (such as the disciples’ legs). So he used a perspective that is correct when seen from about twelve feet above the floor level.
During your visit, take a look at the entire refectory. The ceiling is nearly all white, because it, and most of the right-hand wall, were destroyed by a direct hit from a bomb during the Second World War. The Last Supper had been protected by sandbags from ground to ceiling, but nonetheless this episode underlines how incredible it is that it has survived until today. Above the Last Supper, there are coats of arms also painted by Leonardo: on the wall at the other end of the refectory, the Crucifixion by Donato di Montorfano, painted in 1470, includes three figures added by Leonardo that have now completely disappeared. At bottom left and right, they depicted Ludovico Sforza and two of his children: Ludovico was duke of Milan from 1480 to 1500, founder and benefactor of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. You can see a likeness of him in Bramante’s courtyard, on a slab on the end wall.
The terrible condition of the painting is often attributed to Leonardo’s experimental technique, but this is something of a fallacy. In the German city of Erfurt, the Catholic cathedral has a large fresco depicting Saint Christopher, in excellent condition, recorded as having been painted “à l’huile sur le mur préparé au moyen d’une couche d’huile et d’une couche de blanc de plomb”. This corresponds to the preparation of the wall on which the Last Supper was painted, a very fine plaster mixed with an oily substance, possibly wax, and then coated with a layer of white lead. The technique therefore was not an invention by Leonardo, but a method that had been described previously, in particular, by Cennino Cennini in the 14th century. In fact, according to Cennini, the traditional fresco painting technique, using pigments direct on wet plaster, was the safest, but had the disadvantage of restricting the range of colours that could be used. Cennini in fact recommented the use of pittura a secco, namely painting onto dry plaster, for the final touches alone. Leonardo had evidently heard about the techniques used in northern Europe, and decided to use the oil-based technique for his fresco. This was also important for his desire to work slowly on the painting, giving him sufficient time to develop the gradual shading or chiaroscuro that was essential in his style.

Unfortunately, the wall was subject to rising damp. In the years following the completion of the work, the layers of preparation began to crack, and gradually parts of the paint surface began to fall off. In many areas, the individual pieces of plaster between the cracks took on a concave shape, like a series of shells, within which dirt accumulated. During the innumerable restoration operations that have been performed over the centuries, the painting was scraped with spatulas and metal brushes in an attempt to force the plaster back into shape, buit this just damaged the edges of the individual concave chips, exposing the lead white ground. By 1969, many scholars believed that there was nothing at all left of Leonardo’s original work, but just accumulated dirt and the paint added during successive repainting operations. Only in 1977 did the first trial areas of cleaning demonstrate that it was possible to remove the extraneous layers and reach Leonardo’s original paint. And this is what was done in the operation that lasted from 1978 to 1999.
Several copies of the Last Supper were made, starting from the 16th century, when deterioration had already set in. One is in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, in Milan: another can be seen in the church of San Lorenzo, a fresco also dating to the early 16th century that was however covered over and re-frescoed later on.

Henry Neuteboom