Saturday, April 29, 2006

Il Cenacolo – Leonardo’s Last Supper

Milan is an interesting city, all the hustle and bustle of the financial world, the center of technology, tradeshows and fashion but few would associate Milan with art. This is the stomping ground of Leonardo da Vinci and numerous other renaissance artists. The De Medici family, recognized as one of the primary promoters of the renaissance, also has deep roots in this area yet the destruction of Milan in WWII and the successive rebuilding changed Milan’s artistic soul.

In the early 80s I lived in Milan and worked downtown. A poor man, I rarely would eat lunch at the restaurants opting instead for a toast, 1 slice of prosciutto cotto and 1 slice Swiss cheese between two very thin pieces of bread toasted on a hot grill. This left me with an hour to do something outside the office so I would walk. I found some amazing things, little piazza with arches from the Roman empire, churches from third and fourth century that were not accessible by car or taxi, and I stumbled into a little church with an insignificant metal sign on a fence post that said “Ultima Cena di Leonardo da Vinci”.

The sign was at least twenty years old, the pole rusted from time, and the sign bent by some passerby with nothing better to do. I thought this might be a mobile exhibit or some presentation on Leonardo’s works so I strolled in. The church was empty and rather dark. Three quarters of the walls were clearly of new construction. A deep musty smell of incense permeated the air. The floor was relatively clean for an old building but clearly did not have regular janitorial service. I continued to scan the interior in the dim light and my attention was drawn to several plaques in front a mural with a velvet rope hung from several bronze stands.

I had studied Leonardo’s works in my humanities 101 class, object of the worst grade I ever earned, in college and was vaguely familiar with the Last Supper. There it was, sitting there with a door cutting into the lower portion of the mural, no glass, no special lighting, no guards, just sitting there.

I could not believe it. I thought, this is a reproduction, several artists over the years had reproduced this famous work. I began to read the plaques. One began:

The Cenacolo, better known as the Last Supper, is one of Leonardo’s most famous works, created in 1497 and 1498. This work was commissioned by Ludovico il Moro in 1495….

Here I was, I had just stumbled into a small church and found the Last Supper. A priest wandered in and I began to ask a few questions. He explained that the church had been bombed during WWII, taking a direct hit. The church was completely destroyed except for the wall where Leonardo’s Cenacolo rested. Initially the priests had propped up the remaining wall but the reconstruction took many years and the mural was exposed to the elements. During the reconstruction of the church a door had been cut to allow access from the adjoining quarters and they had cut into the bottom portion of the painting directly in the center.

Few people ever visited the church, he explained, only the most devout lover’s of art and historians came. I had to return to work but promised I would return. Over the next couple of years I would go back and visit my friend every couple of weeks and just stare at this marvel, and marvel myself that such an important piece of history was just sitting here for the slightly adventurous to find.

In 1995, following an extensive restoration, the Cenacolo found its rightful honor among the works of art. Today lines are long, security is high, lighting is adequate and it will cost you 5 euro to visit. I will not attempt to describe the beauty of this masterpiece, my preparation is insufficient and anything I could say would simply demean both the masterful artist technique and the underlying emotional message that is this unique work.

When in Milan, visit the Cenacolo at:

Santa Maria delle Grazie
Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie 2 ( Magenta), Milano.
Tel: + 39 02 89 42 11 46
Santa Maria delle Grazie


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Blogger RennyBA said...

You have a great blog and I've red you're posts with great interest as I love traveling and getting to know new places.
Please response to my LinkedIn request.

3:31 PM

Blogger Travel Italy said...

rennyba - I have not received your invitation from linkedin.

If you will send me an email at I will be happy to link you in.

4:08 PM

Blogger a.c.t. said...

I love Il Cenacolo and was especially awe struck by it's size. I also love Corso Magenta, it has some beautiful buildings. I remember going with my Mum and peering through some of the gates to private gardens. By the way, keep up the prosciutto and cheese toasties, it's still nice even if you have money ;-)

4:07 AM

Blogger Travel Italy said...

ACT - it is truly beautiful, unfortunately several other beautiful murals were lost during the bombardment.

If you have not been to the Capella Sistina in Rome you should seriously consider a trip.

1:28 PM


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