The one item at the top of my list for Milan was one that I had missed 18 years ago. It had been closed back then, and this time I wasn’t going to leave Milan without seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s Ultima Cena, The Last Supper, at the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie.
It is no longer possible to just walk up and get in to see his masterpiece. About one month in advance I went to the website to get tickets (www.cenacolovinciano.net), and to my horror (and near panic) discovered that they were sold out for our dates in Milan. But my Fodor’s guidebook said that if you call the box-office in Italy, they save some tickets out for phone in requests. So that’s what I did, and I got us three slots for 11:30 on Sunday Sept. 28th. The number to call is (+39) 02 92800360. The museum is closed on Mondays.
It is a reasonable 8 Euros, and strictly controlled. This was the one place where no one tried to sneak a photo. You must pass through two sealed rooms prior to entering the Refectory. The doors open and close automatically every 15 minutes as the old group is herded out and a new group ushered in.
The number of visitors is limited to a small group. There was a nun in the room, and although she didn’t have a ruler, she certainly shushed our group several times as the conversation levels rose in excitement as visitors discussed the fresco with their fellow travelers.
It was beautiful and well worth the trouble to get there. We learned that Leonardo was experimenting with a new technique, one that allowed him time to contemplate and paint at a slower rate. Giovanni used the traditional method of fresco painting, and was finished much quicker with the colors lasting longer.
From History of Italian Renaissance Art, by Frederick Hartt (Fourth Edition 1994):
Leonardo’s Last Supper in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan is often known through prettified versions that conceal its poor condition, which is due to a disastrous technical experiment on Leonardo’s part. An artist as sensitive as Leonardo to the slightest throb of light in atmosphere was bound to be impatient with the fresco method, which could not allow the time needed to establish his customary shadowy unity to the painting and his perfect luminous finish to the details…Leonardo painted directly on the dry intonaco with an oil tempura whose composition is not yet known. According to literary accounts, he would sometimes stand on the scaffolding an entire morning without picking up the brush, studying the relationship of tone. When completed, the painting inspired extravagant praise, but in 1517, while the artist was still alive, it had started to deteriorate, and when Vasari saw it a generation or so later, he found it almost indecipherable. It was repainted twice in the eighteenth century, it suffered from the brutality of the Napoleonic soldiers and from the monks, who cut a door through it, and it was repainted in the nineteenth century. In 1943 Allied bombs destroyed much of the rest of the refectory but the painting, protected by sandbags supported on steel tubing, survived. Extensive conservation efforts after World War II disclosed more of the original under the repaint than anyone had dared to hope, and the picture is currently undergoing a cautious, scientific restoration that has already revealed Leonardo’s delicacy of touch and luminosity of color in the better-preserved areas.
The scientific restoration by Pinin Brambilla Barcilon described above was started in 1977 and took over 20 years. It would have been ongoing in 1996 when I was last in Milan.
We found ourselves in Milan the last Sunday of the month. It just so happens that a large antique market is held the last Sunday of the month, so we headed to the Navigli district to see it for ourselves.
It was huge and covered many streets and along the canal. The canal was dry and there was construction in the area, but the market was good. I purchased an antique Deruta water pitcher for 25 Euros, and within one hour had dropped it on the pavement. Oh well. I also found another Deruta ceramic piece which did make it all the way back to the US.
We had lunch at a stellar local place called Osteria del Gnocco Fritto. We enjoyed a long, leisurely lunch, starting with a cheese plate and followed by linquine with black truffles. It was mouthwatering good. http://www.gnoccofrittomilano.it/en/
Walking back through the antique market, still under way, we passed a vendor with chandeliers. I would have loved to take this one back to the states, but with only one day left of the trip I didn’t want to spend it worrying about logistics in shipping.