Visiting Leonardo's Last Supper in Milan

One important thing I can tell you upfront about visiting The Last Supper in Milan is that you must book your tickets weeks, if not months, in advance. We booked ours six weeks before we’d be in Milan and only managed to secure the last two available tickets for the weekend; which were for 8:30 AM on a Saturday. We thought we’d have our pick of time-slots but demand is so high, and availability so limited, that you’re only allowed 15 minutes in the room with the mural (tickets are strictly timed). So plan accordingly.

If you miss your 15 minutes you’re out of luck – there’s no way to see it that day. The staff people at the desk play hardball and the security is impenetrable. They’ve probably heard every excuse imaginable, and been begged and pleaded-with in every language spoken (I heard an Italian woman and a Japanese man both trying to get inside during the few minutes I was there), and they’re not going to be moved to change the rules. So book in advance, and get there early!

The mural is located in the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan, near the old city center. It’s widely considered to be one of the most famous paintings in the world.

The most striking thing about our visit (aside from the mural itself) was – for me – the security they’ve got in place. I’ve got to give you the caveat that I used to work in a museum, in the security department, so I’m probably more conscious of the security situation in an art setting then your typical visitor might be. But this was like something totally over-the-top and right out of a movie! From the lobby, where you first walked in and presumably showed your ticket, you’re let into a long, empty hallway. There is nothing on the walls or floors and there are video-cameras mounted both in front of you and behind; everything else is white. In front of you is a thick glass door, tinted so you can’t see the other side. You have to stop at that glass door because it’s locked. Only once the door behind you, that you were let-in through, audibly clicks shut and is firmly locked… does the door in front of you audibly click again and unlock, allowing you to proceed. Once through that second door you find yourself in another hallway. This one is shorter but it’s the same situation. Once the door behind you clicks shut and audibly locks, the next massive, steel door unlocks… and you’re let into a short hallway and waved toward a dimly lit room by one of several guards. There, finally, on the wall to your right… is The Last Supper. Painted to appear as if it's really part of the room.

I’ve heard it said that it’s bigger than people thought it would be and I’ve heard it called smaller. Personally, having read quite a bit about it, I was expecting it to be large. That said - parts of it were bigger than I expected. There are three large insignias, each representing one of the branches of the house of Sforza, painted above the actual scene of Christ and his disciples. These are original to the time of the painting and were done by Leonardo himself. Those, specifically, are bigger than I thought they would be.

The history behind Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper is unique and worth reciting. He started it around 1495 when he would have been 42 years old. Leonardo had already been living in Milan for the better part of 20 years. He was the court artist of Ludovico Sforza, who was the Duke of Milan and had inherited both the city and the title from his father (who’d taken it by brute force).

Leonardo’s chief responsibility during that time (aside from being Art Director and Stage Designer for the many pageants and plays put on for the royal court; as well as an engineer, surveyor, and amateur scientist); the job for which he was ostensibly hired; was to create a massive bronze sculpture of the Duke of Sforza’s father, Riding on horseback.

This statue was meant to be massive… absolutely beyond the scope of anything anyone had ever seen before. They wanted a statue so huge and glamorous and seductive that it would be one of the modern marvels of the world; famous all throughout Europe for its audacity, technical complexity (forging something so huge from molten bronze was very dangerous), and unparalleled beauty. It would put Milan on the map as a modern and cosmopolitan city-state, ruled by a happening and cultured Duke!

To make a long story short, Leonardo da Vinci dithered too long, took 18 years to cast the thing, and eventually the French began invading Italy like a hot knife cutting through butter; using superior artillery power (read as: massive, modernized, cannons) to blast through any and all defenses which stood in their way.

The threat of French invasion meant they had to use the literal tons of hard-to-find bronze earmarked for Leonardo’s horse (which had been collecting dust for decades) to forge their own massive cannons. Since that much bronze was almost incalculably expensive it was understood immediately that the loss of the bronze meant the loss of the horse. There would never again be enough bronze, or enough money, to create the grand vision. So after 18 years of Leonardo da Vinci planning this giant equestrian monument, he was left with nothing but the sketches in his notebooks; beautiful drawings of horses, elaborate engineering diagrams detailing the machinery he intended to use to enable the forging of something so large… but nothing physical. No great work to be admired through the ages. Nothing 'permanent.'

Instead, the Duke of Sforza asked Leonardo da Vinci to turn his attention to painting a mural at the local convent, Santa Maria delle Grazie. Sforza had recently been renovating the buildings and the grounds; he'd just lost his wife and this was the church where she’d been laid to rest, a 10-minute walk from his castle; so he was spending a lot of time there and was feeling generous toward the clergy there. But this change in focus... from horse monument, to mural, upset da Vinci mightily: instead of working on a public commission so grand it would be one of the centerpieces of European art and culture, he was going to simply paint the wall of a convent.

And it wasn't even a public wall – not a commission which the public would ever see or know about – because this was going on the wall of their dining room; where only clergy ate. This was a private comission to be seen by the inhabitants. And even the subject matter wasn’t very interesting… there were dozens of murals of The Last Supper on the walls of dozens of refectories. It was, quite simply, the expected subject to put up on the wall of the dining room; while the clergy ate their meals they’d meditate upon and contemplate the last meal of Jesus. How was he going to prove his genius with a mural?

I imagine he was keenly feeling pressure to leave a legacy. Having come to Milan in his late 20’s after leaving the shop of his master Verrocchio in Florence, da Vinci had an excellent reputation as an artist and ‘outside the box’ thinker. He was hailed as an inventor and engineer… but – rather importantly – hadn’t created a bona-fide masterpiece. He was a genius who hadn’t proven his genius. He had yet to create the Mona Lisa. He had yet to begin his anatomical studies in earnest. He was 42 years old and although highly esteemed he had not yet cemented his place in history as the artist and supreme genius that we all know and respect him as today. He owed his contemporaries a masterpiece and thought it would be his statue of the horse; but it wouldn’t be sculpture, at all, where he made his name. It would be with this painting.

I won’t bore you with those technical details about The Last Supper which scholars have written extensively about; the placement of the hands and the expressive gestures used by each saint… the massive deterioration of the painting due to da Vinci’s insistence on untried and “novel methods" of combining fresco and oil-painting (suffice it to say: it was a massive disaster); but what I do want to express is that enough of Leonardo da Vinci’s vision and painting exists that even today we get a feel for what he intended. We can also reconstruct the original painting based on copies made soon after it was completed. Unfortunately, as soon as it was completed, it began to crumble, flake, and fall off the wall and consequently it has been retouched, over-painted, restored, and just generally fussed with for the better part of 500 years. Yet – miraculously - it retains its magnificence. It’s beauty is unquestionably diminished – but not it’s magnificence. It is a magnificent work of art.

Seeing this painting is worth the journey. Yes, you will have to plan your visit and book tickets FAR in advance; yes, you should plan to get there early; yes, you will go through a rigorous set of security protocols before you get into the actual room… but when you finally do see this mural, you’re able to place Leonardo da Vinci very firmly in a time and a place in a way that you can’t when you’re just reading a history book, or looking at postcards. This, of course, is the benefit of *all* travel and not just travel to see this particular painting. There’s no alternative to ‘being’ someplace; and here at the refectory that seems to especially be the case. There’s just no alternative to seeing this in person.

One last thing I’ll leave you with, which is probably the thing I found personally to be most interesting: there is another painting in the same room, which was done concurrently with da Vinci’s.

At the same time that Leonardo da Vinci began his mural on the North wall of the refectory, a fresco painter by the name of Giovanni Donato Montorfano painted a Cucifixion scene on the South wall. The reason this is so interesting is that unlike da Vinci’s insistence on trying to oil-paint on a dry plaster wall… Montorfano used the established fresco technique, “true fresco." This is the same method that Michelangelo used to fresco the ceiling and altar-wall of the Sistine Chapel. It's the same technique Raphael employed to fresco the Vatican; and which all great artists have used for many centuries. Basically, it involves painting directly into wet, white, plaster, so that when it dries your painting is now ‘part of the wall.’ The technique has been in use for thousands of years because it provides a permanent and very legible painting.

So both murals were begun in the year 1495. Which means that the 2 artists were very likely painting in the same room at the same time. And while da Vinci famously took over 3 years to complete his mural… Montorfano’s went up in just one year (the average time one would expect for a painting of that size). 500 years later not only is Montorfano’s Crucifixion still as vivid and easy to 'read' as the day it was completed… but it took a lot less time to complete, and is actually quite a bit larger. Of course he was no da Vinci; but he was an artist who was using his tools properly and there’s one hell of a lesson to be learned in between the lines here. A better parable for the utilitarian benefits of practical knowledge vs. the unfettered romantic ideal of ‘unchained genius’ is hard to imagine.

I enjoyed imagining them painting their respective murals at the same time while curiously monitoring each-other’s progress. The looks over his shoulder that Montorfano must have thrown back at da Vinci’s mural as it slowly progressed… knowing full well that his own technique was foolproof but that his ‘roommates’ was dubious at best. You have to wonder if he didn’t shout across the room, “Hey Leo… are you SURE you want to paint in thin layers, on a dry wall? I don’t think that’s going to last very long…” Or “Dude, that’s TOTALLY going to flake and fall off as soon as you’re done. Why not paint it on panel and then mount it to the wall?”

Unfortunately we'll never know what Montorfano thought of da Vinci's strange tecnhnique... but it sure is fun to imagine.

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