Luckily for posterity and everyone who loves art, the monks at the monastery attached to Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan were smart enough to take some precautions with their valuables during the Second World War. As the Allies swept closer to their city, they grabbed as many sandbags as they could carry and built up a wall around their most precious asset: the wall in their refectory.
In 1482, the wealthy families of Italy were also the ruling families. Those who claimed names such as Medici and Sforza also claimed the status of monarchy, in everything but title. The distance between Florence and Milan being rather small (only two hours by train, in modern times), it was prudent for the ruling families of these two cities to make nice with each other. In a generous display of friendship, Lorenzo de’ Medici, called “Il Magnifico,” sent one of his favorite artists, who had done so much work for his family in Florence, to Ludovico Sforza, called “Il Moro,” in Milan. Before setting out, this artist, who was only 30 years old at the time, wrote a letter to Ludovico Sforza, describing what kind of engineering feats he’d be able to achieve, if given time and space to work. He also mentioned that he could paint.
As it turned out, the young rascal from Vinci could really paint. He quickly became a favorite in the ducal court in Milan. Almost immediately, he was put to work beautifying one of the Sforza family’s pet projects: the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
Because of how church politics worked at the time, Leonardo da Vinci couldn’t work in the church itself. The rich and powerful of Milan who wanted to be buried in the side chapels of the church, which was a common practice at the time, secured their spots by paying for the decoration of the side chapel they wished to be buried in. Therefore, all of the places where Leonardo would have been able to work were occupied by other famous artists of the time, working on commission. As a result, Leonardo’s commission was to be painted in the monastery, in order to add some art to the simple lives of the Dominican friars.
The spot they chose for him was the refectory, the room in which the friars shared their meals. Being in a place of food and meal sharing, it seems appropriate that Leonardo would choose one of the most famous meals in history to adorn the wall: the Last Supper, as described in the Gospel of John. This was a popular subject at the time, but Leonardo, being Leonardo, put his own twist on it. Most artists focused on the part of the story in which Judas is revealed to be Jesus’ traitor. Leonardo, though, goes one step back. The moment depicted in the painting is the moment between Jesus claiming that there is a traitor and the big reveal (“Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” John 13:21).
At the same time, another artist, Giovanni Donato Montorfano, was hired to paint a scene on the opposite wall of the refectory. Luckily, it was a rectangular room and they were working on the short sides, as far away from each other as the room allowed – records from the time show that the two found each other extremely annoying. Montorfano particularly complained about Leonardo’s work ethic, which he found perplexing in the utmost.
Leonardo decided not to use the traditional style of fresco painting, but rather to allow the plaster to dry completely before painting over it. This allowed him to work at his own pace and contemplate every brushstroke. Some days, he worked like a madman; he’d paint for hours without pausing to eat, stretch, or even put down brushes that he wasn’t using. Other days, he’d come into the refectory, look at the painting, make one stroke with his brush, then leave.
Genius works in mysterious ways, some might say. And I believe that.
However, if I were working on the opposite wall, day and night, trying to get my massive (Montorfano’s Crucifixion is much bigger than The Last Supper) and extremely detailed painting up before the plaster set (he was using the traditional fresco method), I might be miffed by someone acting that way, too.
We should note that Montorfano’s hard work did not go unrewarded. During World War II, the monks picked which wall they wanted to protect, and surrounded Leonardo’s painting with sandbags, leaving the rest of the refectory open to damage. The monastery claims a miracle here: While most of the church and the two long walls of the refectory were decimated, the wall with Montorfano’s painting survived, despite lacking the sandbag protection the opposite wall enjoyed.
As questionable as were Leonardo’s working habits, his choice of painting style was even more so. Because he didn’t cover the plaster quickly and layered the paint in an irregular way, he left his painting vulnerable to premature decay. Mold and dust collected in the layers, to the point of deteriorating the painting at an alarming rate. Leonardo finished The Last Supper in 1498; by 1517, visitors were already noted that it was decaying. In 1592, it was described as being almost completely spoiled. It was so far gone that in 1652, the DAMNinican friars, who wished for an obscenely large door in that particular wall, decided that Jesus didn’t need his feet and chopped them off. They enlarged the door right into the painting, cutting out the bottom portion of the very middle.
The first attempt to restore The Last Supper to the glory in which Leonardo left it was made in 1726, but whatever good gained by that effort was quickly lost. In the 1790s, Napoleon’s troops used the refectory as stables. I’m not sure why someone would walk into a room and see not one, but two masterpieces on the walls and decide that it was a good home for horses, but, historically speaking, this happened with appalling regularity. Upon the removal of Napoleon’s horses, Austrian soldiers moved in, and set up camp in the refectory. This is another historical event that occurs with appalling regularity. In 1851, the academy at the Brera Gallery (one of the premier art galleries in Milan) kicked the soldiers out and began sticking the pieces that the soldiers had torn off back onto the wall.
After the Brera restoration, periodic maintenance was carried out on the painting. The last major restoration project was undertaken in 1977, and didn’t finish until 1999. The restorers removed layers upon layers of grime, mold, dust, and irreverent fingerprints in order to find the colors and lines that were painted by Leonardo’s own hand. Today, the refectory, along with Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (Cenacolo Vinciano, in Italian) and Montorfano’s Crucifixion, is sealed in a climate-controlled environment, which is carefully regulated.
Because of this heavily-regulated environment, the number of visitors to the refectory is strictly limited. Tickets must be purchased beforehand, and, according to the website, the only way to do so is to call their hotline. When I tried it, there was no answer on the hotline. My cousin and I went to the visitor’s desk in the morning and asked if they had any tickets available for later that day, and we were able to get it (but not on our own schedule). Tickets cost 6.50 euros, and the entrance is next to the main entrance to Santa Maria delle Grazie.
UNESCO World Heritage Site