The Last Supper in Milan - 5 things you need to know
Italy is known the world-over for its incredible food scene, its fashion but most of all, its love of art. The country was at the forefront of the Renaissance artistic movement that took Europe by storm in the 15th century. Painting, sculpture, architecture, you name it ! Works of art by Botticelli, Michelangelo and Raphael left their mark on the history of art and inspired fellow artists and art-lovers throughout the centuries, establishing Italy as a country to be reckoned with when it came to setting up new trends.
And as far as new trends are concerned, few Italian cities are as daring as Milan. One of the world’s capitals of fashion, the second most populous city in Italy is also a major artistic hub and a city that hosted some illustrious minds over the years, including the infamous and yet quite mysterious Leonardo da Vinci, who lived in Milan for 18 years.
Humanist, painter, scientist, musician, engineer, da Vinci embodies the Renaissance spirit like no other. His scientific achievements baffle researchers to this day while art historians and imaginative authors still battle over the hidden significance of some of his paintings. Was the Joconde a man or a woman ? Does the Last Supper hold the key to a secret so powerful it could threaten the very foundation of the Roman Catholic Church ?
Although visiting Milan won’t deliver any answer on these burning questions, it will be an appropriate introduction to the life and achievements of this universal genius. The city celebrated the 500th anniversary of his death in 2019 and programmed a series of commemorative events until April this year, leading to an increase of tourists only too eager to delve deeper into da Vinci’s universe.
One way to do so is to come visit the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie that hosts the original Last Supper painting, or Il Cenacolo in Italian. Yet, there are some important things to know before your visit so here’s our advice to see the iconic Twelve Apostles in the flesh, so to speak.
Do not forget to book your tickets in advance
The Last Supper is one of da Vinci’s most iconic paintings and probably one of the most famous paintings in the world. It was already acclaimed as a masterpiece during da Vinci’s lifetime but it continuously rose to fame over the years, somehow culminating in the early 2000s in the aftermath of the publishing of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. The book was a phenomenon and so was the movie, inciting many more theories as to the real meaning behind the painting, if any.
In turn, this notoriety led the church of Santa Maria della Grazie, host of the original painting, to restrict its access in order to protect the painting. Only 35 people every 15 minutes are allowed into the refectory of the convent, between 8 :15AM and and 6 :30PM from Tuesday to Sunday. It is therefore compulsory to book tickets in advance on the website of the Cenacolo Vinciano (https://cenacolovinciano.org/) or through a tour operator, or you’ll risk getting turned down at the entrance.
Tickets can be bought three months ahead of schedule but be careful as you’ll probably need to check the website multiple times before getting a shot. We personally checked the site every day for two weeks before we managed to get tickets, an annoying endeavor that was all worthy in the end!
The refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie is a rather small place, which explains why so few visitors can enter it in one go. To protect the surroundings of the painting but also to make visits much smoother for visitors, bulky luggage is forbidden within the convent. Even backpacks are banned in the premises so you’d be wise to come prepared and travel light.
30-minute time lockers are available free of charge in the ticket office and you’ll be able to store your personal belongings after you have retrieved your tickets at the counter but those lockers are not particularly big so it might be better to pack your luggage somewhere else if you’ve come straight from the airport.
Do not miss the actual church
Of course, you’ve come all this way to see the Last Supper with your own two eyes. You’ve been on the lookout for tickets for weeks and the end of this journey is finally in sight. However, the Last Supper isn’t the only masterpiece around. The Church of Santa Maria della Grazie, the Holy Mary of Grace, isn’t all about da Vinci’s mural painting. Rather, it is a prime example of Renaissance art and architecture.
The Dominican convent and church was completed in 1469 and it served as the Sforza family burial site, this family being one of the most important dynasties in the history of Milan. The church is instantly recognizable thanks to its red bricks but it’s worthy going inside to admire its frescoes and vivid paintings. Besides, you’ll probably have to wait for a bit between the moment you retrieve your tickets and the moment you enter the refectory so it’d be a pity not to make the most of this beautiful church while you wait.
Bring your phone
Before our visit, we had read on a few websites that cameras were prohibited within the refectory and we were ready to give up on taking home shots of the Last Supper. However, there seems to have been a policy change as we were allowed to take pictures with our phones during our visit, provided we didn’t use any flash and we didn’t record any footage.
We were supervised by a guide and an employee of the museum throughout the visit so that we didn’t have to hide and grab some sneaky shots as they explicitly allowed us to. The hall is barely lit so the pictures were not of the highest quality though. On the other hand, no selfie sticks were allowed, which was a bit of a given, and taking photos was actually prohibited in the chapel and on the way to the refectory where the mural is.
Check the painting opposite the Last Supper
The Last Supper as it stands today is not exactly the same as it was when da Vinci painted it. The passing of time damaged it greatly and the convent’s dining hall was even half destroyed during World War II, leaving the mural painting exposed for a great many years. It wasn’t the only one to suffer though as the hall hosts another mural painting, much lesser-known but enticing in its own right.
The Crucifixion fresco by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano stands on the opposite side of the Last Supper, covering the entire wall, but it would be an understatement to say it doesn’t receive half as much attention as its counterpart. Da Montorfano’s painting is a true Renaissance work of art though and even if 15 minutes isn’t enough to enjoy both paintings at length, they both deserve some recognition.
Milan is one of the places to be in Italy to follow in the footsteps of one the most brilliant artists in history. Getting to see the Last Supper takes some effort but this iconic work of art deserves it. Da Vinci's work is also on display in more accessible museums throughout the city such as the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana and the Museum of Science and Technology so you should definitely pay a visit to this amazing city if you're a da Vinci enthusiast.
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