The Last Supper and More

Partly from online sources::

In the Last Supper, done between 1494 and 1498 on the north wall of the refectory (the place where nuns ate--can you imagine seeing that every time a plate was passed) of the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent, Leonardo renewed the traditional imagery of the Cenacle (literally the holy supper) choosing the dramatic moment of doubt, when it is not yet known who will betray Christ and the apostles are deeply shaken. There are innumerable Last Suppers done by a variety of artists through the ages, but Leonardo not only used this familiar composition but, with an extraordinary use of perspective, created a sense of continuity between the real and the painted spaces.

The Last Supper was not done with the traditional technique of "good fresco"; on the dry wall Leonardo experimented with a technique similar to that used for painting on wood, ideal to get the best rendering of chiaroscuro (light and dark) effects and to allow a slow progression suited to making changes. But, the work proved extremely fragile because of unfavorable environmental conditions-- just a few vears after completion it already showed signs of deterioration.

In 1799, unbelievably, the convent and Cenacle were used by the Napoleonic army as a stable and barn!

Since 1934, the Cenacle has been a state museum, while the convent has gone to the Dominican fathers. In 1943, a bomb caused the collapse of the ceiling and east wall of the refectory; the Last Supper was saved thanks to protections put in place at the beginning of WWII and to prompt reconstruction work. Over the centuries, the fragility of the Last Supper has made restoration work necessary several times, often proving harmful. The last restoration (1978-1999) removed layers of color, glue and materials added in previous restoration work and recovered the painting fragments by Leonardo. To guarantee its conservation, a sophisticated protection system safeguards the painting against big variations in temperature, dust and polluting agents. In 1980, UNESCO made the Santa Maria delle Grazie complex and the Cenacle a World Heritage site.

Jan and I love museums, especially foreign ones. What's not to love about the Milanese take on silk weaving, faithful reproductions of Leonardo's many experimental machines, scientific discoveries, Italian communications innovations and radios, phones, TVs, plus one of the early, iconic Milan streetcars, even a sub! I think that might have been from the last world war.

The Ambrosiana is jewel of a museum, and should not be missed if you are staying for a length of time in Milan. Donated to the city by Charles Borromeo, a Jesuit leader who eventually was canonized, this former city palace is filled with centuries of art. But it also has two very significant installations: the 'cartoon' of the School of Philosophy, a huge, wall-sized painting in Rome by Raphael; and a library filled with original scientific and mathematical drawings by Leonardo.

Enter a small theater in the museum to view the story of the painting, Raphael's depiction of Western Civilization's great thinkers, through the hundreds of stencils that archivists discovered and that were used by Raphael and his studio to design and paint the masterpiece, section by section. The Ambrosiana actually has those original stencils, which you can view in the room behind the screen, now put together as a sepia drawing the same size as the original painting. Very impressive, and it shows how a museum can create a powerful visual experience.

The palace's library now houses a series of Leonardo's actual drawings, about 20 of them (from a collection of hundreds) under a type of glass that allows readability and protection, but does not allow them to be photographed. We were so lucky to be there on a day we had the room to ourselves except for the guard. You felt that Leonardo himself could walk in at any moment.