“Santa Maria delle Grazie. Do you know it?” I said to the taxi driver as I hopped into his cab. He scoffed and looked at me like I was mad. Of course he knew it.
I was going to be in the very capable hands of Serena from Walks of Italy for the day so I had been a little bit lazy about prior research. She had given me very specific instructions on where to meet so I relayed them to the driver, unknowingly referencing one of the cities most famous churches. The Santa Maria delle Grazie has an adjoining convent and that convent has a dining hall. And on the wall of that dining room is one of the world’s most famous paintings by a world-renowned artist. Yes I had asked the Milanese taxi driver if he knew where the church that housed Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper was. Awkward.
Outside the church, to the left of the entrance if you are facing it, we found Serena where she had promised she would be. She introduced herself and then prepared us for what we were about to see. Tickets to view the Last Supper are restricted (Walks of Italy were kind and lucky enough to secure mine at the last minute but booking far in advance is always recommended) and your time with the painting is limited to 15 minutes. She gave us a few pointers for things to look out for and thoughts to consider and then in we went.
Security is surprisingly tight compared to visits to other works of art, like the Mona Lisa, for example. At Museo Cenacolo Vinciano visitors are herded into a secure room and held there whilst the last group clear the refectory. Then once the room is clear and the exit sealed, the waiting group are released.
I’m pretty sure that the first thoughts of 99% of visitors who come to see the Last Supper are ‘Wow it’s huge’. The mural measures 15 × 29 feet and covers one whole end wall of the dining hall. The work was completed in 1498 and it’s age shows, not least because Leonardo decided to paint it on dry plaster. Frescoes are usually painted on wet walls, which is harder to amend as the work is created but is much more longer lasting. The area down the bottom of the mural is the most faded, probably because it was most heavily exposed to the steam from the kitchen.
Da Vinci has depicted the exact moment in the Last Supper passage of the Bible when Jesus utters the words ‘One of you will betray me.’ His 12 Apostles have all reacted in different ways but what is most interesting (enough so for Dan Brown to write a whole series of books on it) is the very female face of the Apostle, said to be John, immediately to Jesus’ right. Compared to all the other figures this one seems very deliberately beardless and feminine, and angled away from Jesus so as to form a V shape between their bodies. For me this was one of the most striking parts of the painting and you do have to wonder what Da Vinci meant by it.
All too soon our time with the Last Supper was up and as photos are banned I have none to share with you. You shall just have to go and visit for yourself!
Serena was patiently waiting outside for us when we enthusiastically emerged and she had something she was keen to show us in Santa Maria delle Grazie itself. Walking through the church she pointed out her favourite paintings whilst leading us towards the back. Exiting the church to the left she bought us into a hidden courtyard and turned us around to look back at the full decorative dome of the building.
“In Milan”, she said, “Much of the beauty is hidden. You just need to scratch behind the surface.”
This became the theme of the rest of our morning’s walk. She took us to churches I would have walked straight past had Serena not been there to show the way. She guided us into the Chiesa di San Maurizio and we marvelled at the frescoes in the front of the church, and then were blown away by the even better ones hiding in the back half.
Then on we walked to Castello Sforzesco, a massive fort housing historical artefacts which we could easily have got lost in for hours. Serena quickly led us to the important bits though; more of Da Vinci’s stunning work and then onto Michelangelo’s last ever work – he died before completing the marble sculpture of Jesus and Mary known as Pietà Rondanini.
Our time with Serena was coming to an end all too quickly. All that remained was for her to point us in the direction of the Duomo so we could take in the iconic Milanese cathedral in our own time.
Of the Duomo, I cannot decide if it is more impressive on the outside or the inside. Even the floor is hypnotising! Entry is free so you can wander around as much as you like. I recommend you make a visit to the crypt; entry is down the stairs at the far end of the cathedral. To see the Duomo from another angle, make a visit to the 7th floor food section of the Rinascente department store, their restaurant and terrace has unrivalled views of the cathedral.
Last stop on my one day walk of Milan was to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, Italy’s oldest and one of the world’s finest shopping malls. Home to domed ceilings, marble floors and the Prada flagship store; this Galleria is Milan all over. I loved it.
For more on the superb shopping in Milan visit the Milan Shopping Guide on Travelling Shopaholic. To have Serena and her colleagues show you the hidden beauty of Milan visit the Walks of Italy website.