I spent the first weekend of this year in Milan to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, aka the Cenacolo Vinciano, and a couple of other things to please those who were travelling with me. Cough cough, more on that later.
Because it was before the Epiphany, that in Italy marks the end of the Christmas season, streets were still adorned with Christmas lights and decorations, crowded with people meandering around after days of binging on panettoni, and dotted with roadworks and temporary signposts as the city was getting ready to host Expo 2015.
I had visited the city before, but I'd never had the opportunity to see the Cenacolo Vinciano, for this is the kind of attraction you are more likely to find in a list of works-of-art-to-see-before-you-die than an adventure generator for spontaneous travellers.
After the success of The Da Vinci Code – both Dan Brown’s novel and film, visitor numbers to this attraction has risen sharply. Besides, in order to preserve the fresco, only twenty-five visitors are admitted every 15 minutes hence, if you let me do the maths for you, about 320,000 visitors are allowed in per year. The long and the short of it being that, if you are thinking of paying a visit, you should book your ticket as soon as you can. I booked mine in mid-November, and then planned a trip around it.
Science has played an important role in the preservation of this unconventional fresco - Leonardo painted it on a dry wall rather than on a wet plaster, but learning that the work survived the Napoleonic regime when the refectory became a stable and the wall was used no less than for target practice, and World War II when bombs fell on the building, made me think of a miracle!
Leonardo’s Cenacolo is really what everyone says it is: a masterpiece of emotional insights to be read in the Apostles’ facial expressions. In the gift shop you will find these “moti dell’animo” (in the artist’s words) reproduced endlessly on all sort of souvenirs, from kitchen aprons to mouse pads to anything-you-like or dislike. Actually some are so tasteless you may find it hard to believe the Quadrilatero della Moda (Milan’s fashion district) is a stone’s throw away. But I didn’t walk away empty-handed as I bought a postcard of The Crucifixion (1495) by Donato da Montorfano, which stands on the wall facing Leonardo’s masterpiece (could you think of a more unfavorable place?) and therefore catch few people attention. I’m always one for supporting the underdog!
Santa Maria delle Grazie, the church where The Last Supper sits, has a superb brick-and-terracotta exterior, and below is a photo of the grandiose dome from one of its peaceful cloisters.
The historic heart of the city is compact. A short journey by metro was necessary to reach Santa Maria delle Grazie from our hotel, but then we moved on foot, passing by the imposing Castello Sforzesco on our way to the Pinacoteca di Brera, one of the finest collections of Italian masterpieces.
Let me digress for a moment and tell you something about travelling with an art historian: this is not for the faint-hearted! You might think that is because of a desire by part of the aforementioned art historian to tick off as many as possible cultural must-sees in the chosen destination, when actually it is quite the opposite as visits to monuments and art collections are more similar to thorough investigations. As a result, exhaustion by boredom more than by physical fatigue is likely to affect the poor ill-fated significant other, family and friends. However, every now and then, we too can be considerate and do our best to linger less in art galleries and the like. And this is exactly what I did while visiting the Pinacoteca di Brera.
Leaving Brera district, we strolled along Via Verdi, passed by Teatro alla Scala and entered Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, which is a light, airy, glass-and-iron 19th century shopping arcade known also as ‘Il salotto di Milano’ - Milan’s drawing room. Going through it, we found ourselves facing the Duomo, Milan's sumptuous Gothic cathedral. To be continued.