The Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie is one of the top tourist sights in Milan. It is largely deemed the one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture in Italy, but what truly puts it on the tourist map of Milan is the fact the refectory of the monastery (the religious complex also contains, besides the church proper, a monastery) is the place where Leonardo da Vinci painted his much celebrated Last Supper.
The refectory (Cenacolo Vinciano) is now managed as a museum, separate from the church (while the admission to the church is free, tourists must pay for ticket in order to have access to the museum; in fact, they must make reservations in advance in order to make sure they will not waste time on waiting in line – the interminable lines to the refectory). Yet, originally, the refectory was part of the religious complex, which is why the Last Supper can be rightfully deemed, at least historically speaking, and an integral part of the artistic patrimony of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
The construction of the complex was commissioned by Francesco I Sforza, somewhere in the mid 15th century, and while the monastery was completed quite rapidly (the works finished in 1469), the church still needed time in order to be completed, in particular because Francesco’s successor, Lodovico, decided to turn the church into an epic burial place for his kin. In all likelihood, the works at the church were completed in the late 15th century, under the supervision of Bramante (though the paternity of the design works allegedly carried out by him is not certain) who lent the edifice a strong Gothic outline with visible Romanesque quality influences.
Yet, however high might the artistic and architectural excellence of the church be (the proof of that is the fact Santa Maria delle Grazie was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site), its unique drawing card remains Leonardo’s Last Supper painted on one of the walls of the refectory. It took Leonardo 2 years (between 1495 and 1497) to complete the work, but the attention, the skill, the technique and the brilliance Leonardo poured in this work turned it into one of the most celebrated murals in the world. In the words of Aldoux Huxley, “the saddest work of art in the world” is nothing but one of the great achievements of Renaissance painting. In truth, the only thing sad about the Last Supper is its precarious state (the slow decay brought by the passage of time, as well as the inappropriate climate created by the damages of World War II): while the nowadays mural is but a shadow of the glorious original, tourists can have the satisfaction that, even for a moment, they had the chance of an encounter with one of the most praised artistic masterpieces ever created by the humankind.
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