Visit: 20th March 2016
In the city of Milan there is only one World Heritage Site, and it refers only really to one painting – a faded Renaissance wall mural inside a former dining hall of a relatively modest church (by Milanese standards). But the mural in question is one of the world’s most recognisable images, painted by one of its most remarkable geniuses: Leonardo da Vinci.
Leonardo’s painting is notable for a number of its pioneering features. First is his application of the newly-discovered rules of perspective. During the painting’s restoration there was discovered a hole for a nail in Jesus’s temple, next to his right eye. This marks the centre of the scene, and the rest of the composition flows out along straight lines from this point. It is easy to take these rules for granted, but before the 15th century no artists abided by them, so pictures from before this time look unnaturally flat. The sense of depth in Leonardo’s mural is enhanced by the painting of a landscape through the window to the rear of the diners.
Leonardo’s arrangement of the figures was also revolutionary. The Last Supper had been depicted before by other artists, but Leonardo heightened the tension and added realism by dividing them into four groups. Jesus has spoken the words, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.” We see the Disciples’ reactions varying from the angry disbelief of Batholomew to the melancholy resignation of John the Evangelist (seated next to Jesus on His right side). The latter is sometimes mistaken for a woman, such as Mary Magdalene, but John is traditionally depicted with feminine features to emphasise his purity. Judas – the only man not surprised by Christ’s utterance – leans forward clutching his money pouch as Peter reaches toward John.
From 1495 to 1497, as he worked on his painting, Leonardo went to great lengths to ensure its perfection. He scoured Milan for men with particularly expressive faces whom he could use as models, and even went as far as to procure models for the figures’ hands, too.
Below you can see the context of the painting within the refectory – or dining hall – of the monks of Santa Maria della Grazie.
Imagine the sensation they must have experienced when they walked into what had hitherto been a plain dining hall only to see it now ‘extended’ into the distance by Leonardo’s Biblical scene. It was as if they were now dining with Christ and the Disciples. For devoutly religious men of the Middle Ages this must have been an awesome experience.
Leonardo was experimenting with paint media at the time, and for The Last Supper he chose to use egg tempera. On the wall of the Refectory this did not prove durable, and signs of deterioration began to appear as early as the 16th century. The mural received numerous overpaintings over the centuries by well-meaning conservators, but it was not until the late 20th century that it was decided the best course of action would be to strip off all of the accumulated paint and expose the original brushwork of Leonardo. This, combined with delicate modern lighting, allows the viewer to appreciate it again in something like its original condition.
At the other end of the refectory is a painting by a different artist of the Crucifixion at Calvary. It is actually older than The Last Supper, but painted in a more durable medium. After it was finished Leonardo added tempera profiles of the donor and his family. These have not been restored, and they have all but disappeared as a result.
Santa Maria della Grazie is located in the centre of Milan and is notable architecturally for having been extensively rebuilt by the architect Bramante – one of the leading figures of the Renaissance. We visited it on the second day of a weekend break in the city, having redeemed air miles to book flights from Heathrow out to the city-centre Linate airport and back home from the larger Malpensa.
The food was fantastic there. After touching down in Linate we rode a bus to a classically Milanese restaurant in the east of Milan. Here we ordered the city’s signature dish – a Saffron risotto. It’s not the most exciting of risottos, since it contains no chunks of meat, fish or vegetables, but it is loved by the Milanese for its subtle flavours. My second course was a homemade salami with lentils. The third picture above shows a particularly delicious Mortadella panini from the following day. If I had a café like this one near my house I would eat there every day.
Milan’s most famous landmark is undoubtedly its Duomo, or cathedral. It sits right in the centre of the city and is at once recognisable for its audacious architecture. The cathedral is a bit of a mongrel in terms of architectural style, though the predominant one is Gothic. The space inside is immense, for it is the largest church in Italy (excluding St Peter’s in the Vatican) and the fifth largest in the world by area.
We went up on to the roof, where there is a reasonable view of the city. But Milan is no Florence, and the view is crowded with modern buildings that make it much less picturesque than its Renaissance-era rival to the south.
Nearby is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II – one of the world’s oldest shopping centres. It contains all the fashion brands you’d expect in Milan, as well as a mosaic in the centre. The Milanese apparently believe that spinning on the bull’s privates provides good luck (although a friend of a friend who is from the city had no idea what I was talking about when I asked him about it!).
We saw a few other sites on our weekend in the city. I had read that some of the old churches were very interesting. The first one we saw, after Santa Maria della Grazie, was the former convent of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore. Its interior is covered in frescoes, including a fairly uncommon depiction of a scene we all know well: Noah’s Ark.
We also went to the Sforza Castle, built in the 15th century by the Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza. The next Duke, his son Ludovico, was the man who commissioned Leonardo to paint The Last Supper. The castle these days is home to a number of museums and galleries, of which we went into one.
By this time the afternoon was drawing to an end and it was time to head off to Malpensa for the flight home. I bought a selection of Italian foods (mostly from Sicily, it later turned out) to eat on the journey or to use in cooking back home: blood oranges, green olives, capers, garlic and salami.