Visiting an Italian Masterpiece

by Nancy Bestor

When Leonardo Da Vinci painted The Last Supper, on the dining room wall of the Dominican Friars in 1498, it’s unlikely he knew that it would one day be one of the most famous paintings in the world. Apparently the Dominican Friars didn’t know it either, because in about 1650, they cut a door right through the mural wall (maybe it took too long for their food to come from the kitchen, and they were tired of waiting hungrily?), cutting off Jesus’ feet in the process.

We visited the Last Supper in Milan this past summer, and even though Jesus’ feet are missing, the Last Supper is truly one of the most incredible paintings I’ve ever seen.

First of all, the Last Supper mural is HUGE. I had no idea. It measures about 15 x 29 feet and takes up an entire wall in what is now the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. I remember seeing the Mona Lisa in Paris for the first time, and being somewhat disappointed at how small it is. Well this baby is not small by any standards.

Then of course there’s the story that goes along with the painting. There is something a bit sinister about seeing Judas with his thirty pieces of silver, and looking maybe more than just a little guilty, while Jesus informs the group that one of them will betray him.

The build-up to a visit of the Last Supper is also worth noting. Tickets can be very hard to come by and reservations are mandatory. Only 900 visitors a day are allowed in an effort to slow deterioration. Originally, when I tried to reserve tickets over a month in advance, they were sold out. But on the suggestion of my dear friend Rick Steves (It was actually thanks to his Italy book, I wish we were friends), I called the day before we would be in Milan to see if there were any cancellations, and luckily there were! We had to take the 15-minute tour in Italian, but we had read up (in our Rick Steves’ Italy guide, of course) on all the details of the painting, so we didn’t feel like we missed much.

We checked in 30 minutes before our scheduled tour and killed time in a waiting area that offers detailed information (in English and with photos!) on the Last Supper. Before our group of 25 was taken in to see the painting, we first had to pass through two air-conditioned dehumidifying chambers. Once in the dining area, we had exactly 15 minutes to take in Da Vinci’s Last Supper to our heart’s content, and listen to the guide speak (in Italian). 

For a church that houses such a famous work of art, The Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie is surprisingly unassuming. It’s about a 25 minute walk from the Milano Centrale train station and there weren’t any people outside the building, save for a lone souvenir hawker with Last Supper t-shirts, postcards, and canvases for sale. This visit was well worth the 11.5 euros each that we paid. If you’re in or near Milan, this site is not to be missed.