Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, housed in this church and former Dominican monastery, has had an almost unbelievable history of bad luck and neglect—its near destruction in an American bombing raid in August 1943 was only the latest chapter in a series of misadventures, including, if one 19th-century source is to be believed, being whitewashed over by monks. Well-meant but disastrous attempts at restoration have done little to rectify the problem of the work's placement: it was executed on a wall unusually vulnerable to climatic dampness. Yet Leonardo chose to work slowly and patiently in oil pigments—which demand dry plaster—instead of proceeding hastily on wet plaster according to the conventional fresco technique. After years of restorers patiently shifting from one square centimeter to another, Leonardo's masterpiece is now free of centuries of retouching, grime, and dust. Astonishing clarity and luminosity have been regained.
Despite Leonardo's carefully
preserved preparatory sketches, in which the apostles are clearly labeled by name, there still remains some small debate about a few identities in the final arrangement. But there can be no mistaking Judas, small and dark, his hand calmly reaching forward to the bread, isolated from the terrible confusion that has taken the hearts of the others. One critic, Frederick Hartt, offers an elegantly terse explanation for why the composition works: it combines "dramatic confusion" with "mathematical order." Certainly, the amazingly skillful and unobtrusive repetition of threes—in the windows, in the grouping of the figures, and in their placement—adds a mystical aspect to what at first seems simply the perfect observation of spontaneous human gesture.
Reservations are required to view the work. Viewings are in 15-minute, timed slots, and visitors must arrive 15 minutes before their assigned time in order not to lose their place. Reservations can be made by phone or through the website; it is worthwhile to call, as tickets are set aside for phone reservations. Call at least three weeks ahead if you want a Saturday slot, two weeks for a weekday slot. The telephone reservation office is open 8 am to 6:30 pm Monday to Saturday. Operators do speak English, though not fluently, and to reach one you must wait for the Italian introduction to finish and then press "2." However, you can sometimes get tickets from one day to the next. Some city bus tours include a visit in their regular circuit, which may be a good option. Guided tours in English are available for €3.50 and also require a reservation.
The painting was executed in what was the order's refectory, which is now referred to as the Cenacolo Vinciano. Take a moment to visit Santa Maria delle Grazie itself. It's a handsome, completely restored church, with a fine dome, which Bramante added along with a cloister about the time that Leonardo was commissioned to paint The Last Supper.
Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie 2, off Corso Magenta, Milan, Lombardy, 20123, Italy
02-4987588-Last Supper; 02-92800360-reservations; 02-4676111-church