One of the main reasons we picked Milan as a travel destination was our desire to see Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest work, the “Last Supper”.
It’s not easy getting the opportunity to see this masterpiece in person. There are a limited number of timed tickets issued for viewing of the Last Supper, so it is vital that you try to reserve your tickets just after they are issued because they sell out quickly — often within a day or so of being released. I got up in the middle of the night to buy ours — successfully, thank goodness. If you can’t arrange the purchase of your tickets in advance, it is likely you can take a city tour in Milan that includes Last Supper viewing as one of several stops, but you will pay a significant premium for this. Still it is a unique work of art that is one of the most copied and reproduced paintings ever. The site is recognized by UNESCO World Heritage.
You’re allowed to enter the building about fifteen minutes before your scheduled viewing. There are a few items displayed for your review in the antechamber, but they are not that interesting. Then you enter an air-conditioned room that begins dehydrating you for about 5 minutes before you are allowed into the refectory to view the actual painting.
A human guide is included in the price of admission who is quite informative, spending about 10 minutes explaining the story of the Last Supper’s theme and how da Vinci created it (for example, there is a nail hold in the middle of the painting, from which da Vinci drew string to allow focus and perfect balance while he was painting.
Surprisingly, non-flash photography is allowed, although the low light environment makes photography challenging. You’re allowed a total of 15 minutes to view the painting before you’re literally chased out and the next group enters.
Leonardo lived in Milan for several decades during what were the most productive years of his life. He was commissioned to paint the Last Supper onto a wall in the refectory (dining hall) of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, adjoining a church of the same name
Between 1495 and 1497 da Vinci worked intermittently on crafting The Last Supper as part of a renovation of the church and convent. This work was all paid for by Leonardo’s patron, Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. The painting’s theme is the last meal Jesus had with his disciples before his capture, trial and crucifixion. Leonardo da Vinci chose to depict the moment immediately after Jesus said, “One of you will betray me”, with the disciples showing varying reactions ranging from shock to the shadowed frown of Judas. Unfortunately, Leonardo painted in tempera — in the hope the colors would be more brilliant — on a two-layered surface of dry plaster that did not absorb paint well, and not in fresco (painting onto west plaster — a more lasting technique).
The painting is larger than I had thought, measuring 8.8 x 4.6 m (350 x 180 inches) and covers the end wall of the dining hall. The arches above the painting contain the Sforza coat of arms. We had ample time to study it — the poses, the looks, the colors. I took photos from different angles and I tried to freeze the mental image of the Last Supper into my memory bank.
Over the centuries the painting has suffered much deterioration due to the effects of time, temperature, pollution and humidity. A door was added to the dining room after the Last Supper was completed, built right into where Jesus’ feet would have been. The site also suffered damage during the second World War, although the painting did not suffer direct injury. The work has been restored a number of times, with a major restoration occurring from 1978 to 1999. At that time the refectory was converted to a sealed climate-controlled environment.
On the opposite wall is the Crucifixion fresco by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano, to which Leonardo added members of the Sfroza also painted in tempera.
It is a unique experience which was the highlight of our visit to Milan, followed by visiting its magnificent Duomo.
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