In Italy, it’s not odd to stumble across a church. You’ll be walking down a street that is choc-full of high-end stores and scantily clad mannequins, you’ll round a corner, and there’s a church that dates from the time before North America was even on the map.
In that respect, the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie is no different from any other Italian church (deh-leh graht-zee-ah; St. Mary of the Graces). Walking along Corso Magenta in Milan, there is nothing but bank buildings and apartment blocks. Occasionally, a storefront is occupied by a neighborhood café or deli. Every block or so, there’s a sign reading TRAM AL DUOMO, explaining what the tram tracks in the street are for and suggesting that there’s nothing of interest where you are. Suddenly, you pass a rather dark and imposing building, and there’s a piazza with a church.
Santa Maria delle Grazie, while being a twenty-minute walk from anywhere, is well worth the visit. It is a wonderful example of early Renaissance architecture, mixed with some older styles. When the church was built in the late fifteenth century, the Renaissance had just begun in Florence, and the ideas that characterized it had just barely reached Milan. The artists and architects at the time were a bit wary of the newfangled designs, patterns, and motifs that came with the Renaissance. Even so, they were excited to get on board with this new movement. You can see the half-hearted commitment to the Renaissance style in Santa Maria delle Grazie: The front of the church is rather staid, like a meeting house, while the cupola (koo-poh-lah) launches up above the main church, decorated in white and brown stone, circles, rounded arches, and windows galore.
The history of the church building itself is more interesting than its architecture, in my opinion. In 1460, Count Gaspare Vimercati was approached by Dominican friars, who wanted a place to live and conduct their ministry in Milan. He granted them a small chapel as a provisionary home until a monastery could be built for them. As it turns out, the Dominicans couldn’t have chosen a better benefactor. Count Vimercati was a military leader for the Sforza family – the family that ruled over Milan in the same way the Medici ruled over Florence. Through their connection with Count Vimercati, the Sforza family heard of the struggles of the Dominicans, and contributed the money necessary to build a monastery for them. In 1463, construction was begun on the complex. By 1469, the Dominicans had their monastery; by 1482, they had their church.
The Sforza family continued to be generous benefactors for the monastery, and the church grew in importance within the city. Wealthy families vied for burial rights in the side chapels, and in so doing paid for the decoration of those chapels. Some of the best artists of the time were called in to do frescoes, murals, and larger-than-life representations of the saints or biblical scenes. None, however, were as impressive as the artist that Ludovico Sforza called in: Leonardo da Vinci. From 1482 on, Leonardo da Vinci picked away at one of his masterpieces: Il Cenacolo (chen-ah-koh-loh), or The Last Supper.
A scary moment for art and architectural history came in 1943, when the Allies bombed Milan. The Allied invasion of the Italian peninsula was quick and vicious, and accuracy was often thrown to the wayside in the interest of keeping up with the rapidly retreating Axis forces. When Milan was bombed, a two-ton bomb dropped right in the middle of the monastery, leveling it almost completely. Two parts remained standing: one of the walls of the refectory – the one with The Last Supper on it – and the beautiful, Renaissance dome.
Work rebuilding the church began almost immediately. Across the street from the church lived Ettore Conti, a wealthy Italian gentleman who took an interest in the church. Before the war, he had financed a restoration project for it. After the war, he helped to pay for the rebuilding of the church and the restoration of the parts that had been left intact.
The church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, along with The Last Supper, have been inscribed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.