Due west from the Duomo, on Corso Magenta, stands the attraction that brings most visitors to Milan – the beautiful terracotta-and-brick church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, famous for its mural of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. More ancient exhibits are on display at the city’s Museo Archeologico, while the nearby Sant’Ambrogio is one of the city’s loveliest churches.
Santa Maria delle Grazie
The beautiful terracotta-and-brick church of Santa Maria delle Grazie was first built in Gothic style by the fifteenth-century architect Guiniforte Solari. It was part of the Dominican monastery that headed the Inquisition for over one hundred years in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Soon after its completion, Lodovico Sforza commissioned Bramante to rework and model the Gothic structure into a grand dynastic mausoleum. Bramante promptly tore down the existing chancel and replaced it with a massive dome supported by an airy Renaissance cube. Lodovico also intended to replace the nave and facade, but was unable to do so before Milan fell to the French, leaving an odd combination of styles – Gothic vaults, decorated in powdery blues, reds and ochre, illuminated by the light that floods through the windows of Bramante’s dome. A side door leads into Bramante’s cool and tranquil cloisters, from where there’s a good view of the sixteen-sided drum the architect placed around his dome.
The Last Supper
Leonardo’s The Last Supper – signposted Cenacolo Vinciano – is one of the world’s great paintings and most resonant images. Henry James likened the painting to an “illustrious invalid” that people visited with “leave-taking sighs and almost death-bed or tip-toe precautions”; certainly it’s hard, when you visit the fragile painting, not to feel that it’s the last time you’ll see it. A twenty-year restoration has re-established the original colours using contemporary descriptions and copies, but that the work survived at all is something of a miracle. Leonardo’s decision to use oil paint rather than the more usual faster-drying – and longer-lasting – fresco technique with watercolours led to the painting disintegrating within five years of its completion. A couple of centuries later Napoleonic troops billeted here used the wall for target practice. And, in 1943, an Allied bomb destroyed the building, amazingly leaving only The Last Supper’s wall standing.
A Last Supper was a conventional theme for refectory walls, but Leonardo’s decision to capture the moment when Christ announces that one of his disciples will betray him imbues the work with an unprecedented sense of drama.
Goethe commented on how very Italian the painting was in that so much is conveyed through the expressions of the characters’ hands; the group of Matthew, Thaddaeus and Simon on the far right of the mural could be discussing a football match or the latest government scandal in any bar in Italy today. The only disciple not gesticulating or protesting in some way is the recoiling Judas who has one hand clenched while a bread roll has just dropped dramatically out of the other. Christ is calmly reaching out to share his bread with him while his other hand falls open in a gesture of sacrifice.
If you feel you need any confirmation of the emotional tenor or accomplishment of the painting, take a look at the contemporary Crucifixion by Montorfano on the wall at other end of the refectory: not a bad fresco in itself, but destined always to pale in comparison with Leonardo’s masterpiece.