Veni, Vidi, da Vinci: Leonardo's The Last Supper & How To See It in Milan
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
"Once you have tasted the taste of sky, you will forever look up." -- Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1495-98 -- in the Refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan
The Last Supper is one of the world's most iconic paintings, housed in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan Italy. No, it's not in Rome! The Last Supper is in Milan. No painting is so familiar, save for the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.
Painted by Leonardo da Vinci, the billboard size painting is a Renaissance masterpiece. Not only is The Last Supper famous, it's a fascinating and spellbinding artwork surrounded by mysteries and legends. The Last Supper is as renowned for its fragility as its power. It's a violent art history tale of great triumph and great tragedy.
In this guide, I describe The Last Supper and its controversial history. Perhaps more importantly, I explain everything you need to know about how to see The Last Supper -- what to expect, how to get tickets, how to get to the church's museum, and other details for your visit. Scroll down for all the practical information and tips on to how to see Leonardo's The Last Supper.
Description and History of The Last Supper
The Last Supper is a fresco telling a bible story. Leonardo painted The Last Supper in 1494-98. The work is enormous, measuring 15 by 29 feet. It covers the entire wall of the refectory (dining hall) in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
The Last Supper depicts the last meal Jesus took with his apostles. The long table is crowded. Each figure is unique and memorable, all facing the viewer. Judas holds a bag of silver that was his bribe money.
Christ is in the center, with a window frame serving as his halo. The fresco shows the climactic moment after Christ announces his imminent death, saying "One of you will betray me."
Doubt is in the air. No one knows who the villain is yet. A wave of emotion roils through the group. Thus begins the Passion of Christ, that ends with his crucifixion.
the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie
The Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, commissioned the painting for the Dominican friars of Santa Maria delle Grazie. At the time, Leonardo was 42. He was well known, but had had a rather mediocre career, failing to finish many commissions. Leonardo sought to repair his reputation with The Last Supper.
Even though The Last Supper was a wall painting, Leonardo didn't paint it the favored fresco style, buon fresco. In buon fresco, an artist must paint rapidly on wet plaster (like Michelangelo did in the Sistine Chapel, for example.) The color becomes part of the wall itself and is very durable.
Apprenticed under Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo never learned this technique. Buon fresco also didn't suit him. Leonardo was a perfectionist, a slow painter, and wanted the chromatic brilliance and variation of oil paint.
Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk, 1512
Ever the inventor, Leonardo used an experimental medium and stone primer to accommodate his preference. He used a mix of tempura and oil paints to paint fresco-secco, or on dry plaster. But dry plaster isn't as stable as wet plaster. The paint isn't melded into the wall.
Leonardo's new technique backfired spectacularly. It was a poor choice of materials for the damp refectory hall. Leonardo's paint began to flake off the wall during his lifetime. After only 20 years, the painting was in bad shape.
After the Renaissance, the church was largely ignored. A door was even cut into the bottom of The Last Supper, eliminating part of the table and Christ's feet.
The refectory flooded. Napoleon's occupying troops threw bricks at the painting. The church was bombed in WWII. But the refectory survived intact, just damaged from damp, decay, neglect, and abuse.
the Refectory that houses The Last Supper
Restorations of Leonardo's The Last Supper
Time hasn't been kind to Leonardo's ravaged mural. It became an endangered species, despite its fame. By 1951, there'd been 8 attempted restorations. Most were botched. Mistakes piled up. By the 1970s, art historians were concerned that The Last Supper would crumble into oblivion.
In 1978, a new team, led by renowned Italian art restorer Pinin Brambilla, tackled the masterpiece once again. She removed five layers of paint, grime, grease, and dust -- all of which were eating away at the Leonardo original -- and did some overpainting.
Brambilla estimated that 50% of Leonardo's brushstrokes remained. For the unsalvageable parts, she and her team used daubs of beige watercolor paint to fill in the blanks. The marathon restoration took more than 20 years, during which the public couldn't view the fresco.
Not surprisingly, the restoration received mixed reviews. Some critics dubbed it "The Lost Supper." They despised the overpainting and hated the "purist shedding" of earlier repaints, which they argued distorted the historical whole and integrity of the painting.
Others loved the restoration, not wishing to see a Leonardo "fake," contaminated by other artists. They thought the luminosity and beauty of Leonardo's original shone through once again. Previously obscured details also reappeared, including the background landscape, the original white paint of the faces and hands, and the glasses and bread on the white tablecloth.
In 2019, Italian marketplace chain Eataly introduced a further restoration. It sponsored installation of an air filtration system to filter cool clean air into the refectory and control its microclimate.
It was designed to reverse the years of air pollution, biological contamination, humidity, and mass tourism. Still, humans are still a threat. Airborne fatty lipids from human skin can combine with dust in the air to soil the painting.
Giampietrino, The Last Supper, 1520 -- copy of Leonardo's Last Supper
Copies of The Last Supper
Leonardo's painting was hugely popular in his lifetime. It was the most copied painting of the century. There are two known exact replicas of The Last Supper.
One is a long forgotten, and reasonably well preserved, copy produced by Leonardo and his workshop. The effort was led by his student Andrea Solario. Created in 1506-07, the replica may have been commissioned by Louis XII, who wanted his own Last Supper. But it never made it to France.
In 1545, the painting was purchased by the Abbey of Tongerlo in Belgium. The painting is nearly identical to Leonardo's ruined original. It's suspected that Leonardo painted Christ and St. John. There are no telltale underdrawings. And the face of St. John resembles Leonardo's Mona Lisa.
There's also a full scale copy of Leonardo's The Last Supper in the Royal Academy of Arts in London. It's an oil on canvas executed circa 1520, attributed to Leonardo's student Giampetrino. Brambilla studied it for her restoration. The painting includes several lost details, such as Christ's feet.
The Tongerlo Last Supper, by Leonardo and his workshop, 1506-07
detail of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper
Interpretation of The Last Supper: Why Is It Important?
The biblical story of The Last Supper had certainly been painted before. But Leonardo's version was groundbreaking. Leonardo amped up the drama and eschewed the typical staid and lifeless renditions of the scene.
Leonardo's painting seems alive. It's a tour de force of emotional realism. The apostles reactions run the gamut of emotions. They're in upheaval, using agitated gestures. Only a serene Christ is calm in a sea of chaos.
The villain Judas is shown in shadow and below the others. His head is slightly twisted, foreshadowing his suicide by hanging.
Thomas holds up his index finger questioningly. Interestingly, Raphael used this exact same gesture when he painted Leonardo as Plato in School of Athens, which is in the Vatican Museums.
Even more revolutionary, Leonardo portrays the apostles as everyday people, without the indicia of saints or holy men. To underscore the realism, Leonardo set the world's most iconic meal in 15th century Milan. The table, utensils, and tablecloth match those the friars used when they ate in the refectory.
detail of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper
Legend holds that da Vinci used faces of the people he knew or found on the streets for the apostles. He visited jails looking for the perfect person to embody the evil Judas. Some art historians think St. John the Less is a self portrait.
Leonardo also depicts the founding moment of the Eucharist. Christ expansively reaches out to the bread and wine. He gives the disciples explicit instructions on how to remember him in the future using the metaphor of food and drink. Christians consider it the first celebration of the Eucharist.
A mathematician as well as painter, Leonardo's The Last Supper is also a masterpiece of single point perspective. Every element directs attention to Christ's head. To achieve this effect, Leonardo placed a nail hole in the middle of the painting and pulled strings in radial directions to aid in his execution of the painting.
Hidden Meanings In The Last Supper
Unlike Dan Brown, da Vinci wasn't into obscure symbols. But, like any painter, he us left us some tantalizing details in The Last Supper.
St. John, at Christ's right
First, many have pondered who really sits at Christ's right arm. The figure of St. John isn't bearded or otherwise "masculine." In fact, he looks quite feminine. This led some scholars to speculate that Da Vinci wasn't depicting John at all, but rather Mary Magdalene.
But this is dubious. It would've been a blatant heresy on Leonardo's part ... in a room where monks would see the painting daily. Further, the bible itself places John, not Mary Magdalene, at the dinner. Leonardo was also well known for painting androgynous men with luxuriant curls, and other artists have depicted St. John in a similar fashion.
The bread on the table is also an interesting tidbit. In 2007, an Italianmusicianfound that the bread rolls and the apostles’ hands line up to make a 40 second musical composition. The painting's architecture also reflects Pythagorean musical ratios.
The Last Supper contains a number of allusions to the number three. In Catholic art, three represents divinity or the Holy Trinity. There are 3 windows, the apostles are in 3 groups, and Jesus is given a triangular shape.
It's also theorized that The Last Supper is a representation of the solar system and the zodiac. Each apostle reflects the characteristic the 12 signs. For example, Christ is the Sun illuminating the scene with his divine light. Judas stands in for Scorpio in the position of Mars, a sign of death.
It's a a fascinating bit of complexity, designed by a brilliant polymath.
detail of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper
Know Before You Go: Practical Information & Tips for Seeing Leonardo's The Last Supper
1. Where Is The Last Supper?
The Last Supper is housed in the Museum Cenacolo Vinciano of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. The church and the museum are a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's an easy 10 minute walk from the Milano Cadorna station, next to Castello Sforzesco. Or just a 15 minute walk from the Duomo.
The museum is open Tuesday though Sunday from 8:15 am to 6:45 pm and closed Mondays. Here's the Google Map address:
piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie, 2
20100 MILANO (MI)
2. How To Get Tickets For The Last Supper:
The church is open to the public and can be visited year-round. But admission to The Last Supper is highly regulated and tickets sell out immediately. Only 25 people are allowed in at for each time slot.
You MUST buy tickets in advance. You won't see the masterpiece without pre-booking your tickets. The Last Supper is one of Europe's most in demand sites.
You can book online through the official website of the Museum. The website shows the dates and times for which tickets are available. You can only buy a maximum of 5 tickets. Tickets cost 10 € per person, plus a 2 € advance booking fee.
I suggest booking a month in advance. But you can book up to 90 days in advance, to be on the safe side. The Last Supper is "Cenacolo Vinciano" in Italian. That's how it will be listed on your ticket.
When purchasing your ticket, you'll have to register your name with an account. You'll be required to show a valid ID at the start of your visit. Show up at least 15 minutes in advance. If you're late, you'll miss the show.
If you can't get tickets on the official website, you have a couple options. You can also get tickets via Get Your Guide or you can try Tiqets, a re-seller of The Last Supper tickets (it will be much more expensive, of course). If you've purchased the Milan City Pass, it includes Last Supper tickets. If you purchased a guided tour, allow ample time to find your guide.
3. What To Expect On Your Tour of The Last Supper
When you get to Santa Marie della Grazia, you enter via a side door. You can also go in the main church later for free. But you can't access the refectory, which houses the The Last Supper, from the front door or the church itself.
Giovanni Donato da Montorfano, Crucifixion, 1490s -- opposite The Last Supper
You're not allowed to bring any backpacks, handbags, or drinks into the refectory. There are small lockers at the ticket office to leave your items.
Once inside, you'll go through security. Everything is strictly time controlled, with doors opening to let you into different waiting rooms via timers. The Last Supper is hermetically sealed to prevent more damage. You'll pass through an airlock intended to de-humidify and purify you.
The painting is in a low lit sparsely decorated refectory. You can't get too close. There's a barrier. You can take photos without a flash.
On the opposite wall is another fresco, the Crucifixion, painted by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano in the 1490s. It's believed that Leonardo painted the figures of the Duke of Milan and his consort. You might consider looking at the Crucifixion first, while everyone rushes headlong to The Last Supper.
You only get 15 minutes inside the refectory. You'll definitely feel rushed. Given that time limit, I would read up on The Last Supper (or pin this guide) before your visit so you know precisely what you're looking at and can enjoy the moment.
If you'd like to see Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper in Milan pin it for later.