Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece is the hottest ticket in Milan. And it has been that way since the late 1490s! So, what makes Leonardo’s Last Supper so famous? Read on to find out more!
This article isn’t meant to replace a guided visit—quite the opposite! Reading up on an attraction will make a guided tour more memorable and interesting! You will impress your travel partners and engage more with the guide. Check out our guided tours of Milan!
The Fascinating History Behind The Last Supper
Few artworks are as instantly recognizable as Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. There are many reasons why da Vinci’s work is notable. As fellow Tour Guy historian Lillian Cespedes Gonzalez stresses, unlike most famous paintings, it is a mural. Furthermore, you’d be hard-pressed to find any single artwork with more scholarship than the Last Supper.
Art historians and other scholars are far from the only people fascinated by this work. For instance, art historian Ian Chilvers says the Last Supper has attracted widespread attention since its completion in 1498. As a result, it’s always commanded preservation efforts. Furthermore, as we’ll see below, Leonardo’s Last Supper consistently requires careful restoration. Art historian Joseph Polzer tells us da Vinci’s work has been restored on no less than seven occasions.
This short article introduces Leonardo da Vinci and the background to this legendary work of art. It then discusses three major components that together make Leonardo’s Last Supper so famous.
A Little Bit About Leonardo da Vinci
Artist | Engineer | Musician & More
Studying the life of Leonardo da Vinci from any perspective reveals he was a true visionary. Moreover, the label “Renaissance man” certainly applies to da Vinci’s career and talents. Like so many other famous Renaissance names, da Vinci’s life and career began in Florence. However, as art historian Ian Chilvers explains, Leonardo really left his mark on Milan.
Personally, I feel Milan’s monument dedicated to da Vinci perfectly encompasses this Renaissance man’s multiple talents. The statue captures Leonardo’s varied skills that extended far beyond artistic abilities. For example, young Leonardo’s musical talents attracted many admirers. And art historian Ross King explains da Vinci’s engineering abilities also brought many work opportunities.
However, for all these talents, da Vinci is best remembered for his art. While he produced many acclaimed portraits (the Louvre’s Mona Lisa is but one example), arguably Leonardo’s most famous work is the Last Supper. As Chilvers tells us, the Duke of Milan Lodovico Sforza commissioned the Last Supper located in the refectory of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
Sforza | Art Scene | Powerful Patrons
To better understand Leonardo’s Last Supper, let’s take a glance at Milan in da Vinci’s time. As historian David Gilmour tells us, Leonardo first arrived in Milan from Florence in the early 1480s when the Sforza family ruled Milan.
Historian Lauro Martines explains mercenary captain Francesco Sforza conquered Milan in 1450. Thus began a dynasty that certainly left a mark on Milan and the world of Renaissance art. And Chilvers tells us Leonardo primarily worked in the court of Duke Lodovico II (Il Moro). Lodovico ruled over a wealthy city from the massive Sforza Castle.
However, Milan’s fortunes, as well as those of the Sforzas, declined shortly after da Vinci completed the Last Supper. In fact, as historian Jeremy Black explains, Milan fell to French invaders in 1499. As a result, Chilvers says Leonardo embarked on a winding journey through multiple Italian cities and France.
Moreover, da Vinci did return briefly to work in Milan during the early 16th century. However, according to Gilmour, Milan experienced several centuries of foreign rule.
For a deeper dive into Milan’s fascinating history, check out our brief history of Milan! Now, on to our three reasons why the Last Supper is so famous!
Sfumato | Unorthodox | Deterioration
You could say that Leonardo’s Last Supper should not exist. In fact, da Vinci encountered major hurdles before work even began. Why? Well, Chilvers explains that Leonardo’s slow-working style meant that from the onset, creating the Last Supper to its planned dimensions and location would be challenging.
In fact, the traditional fresco method of mural painting required an approach Leonardo proved unwilling to make. The difference partly has to do with Leonardo’s choice of materials. Rather than paint in the more durable fresco method of mixing pigment with plaster, da Vinci relied on tempera.
Thus, as art historian Tara Heffernan explains, da Vinci turned to an experimental technique to complete the project. Heffernan tells us Leonardo pioneered the blurring tones from light to dark. Furthermore, art historian Ross King tells us the process is referred to as sfumato. Leonardo himself described the process as “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke.”
Leonardo’s technique certainly proved a gamble. In fact, Polzer says that much of the mural deteriorated by the late 16th century. For instance, the art historian Vasari described Leonardo’s work in 1550 as a “dazzling blotch.” In other words, people like Vasari reluctantly gave up on believing the Last Supper would survive. Yet survive it did.
Accidents | Target Practice | Bombardment
Leonardo’s technique is not the only challenge to the Last Supper and its durability. For example, here we’ll learn about three more cases in which Leonardo’s masterpiece survived potential destruction.
For starters, the Last Supper endured multiple accidents. Art historian Tara Heffernan tells us a door once accidentally knocked out the bottom part of the mural. Moreover, da Vinci’s masterpiece persevered through military occupations. Milan and much of Italy became a battleground for major European powers for several centuries.
However, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic military occupations in Milan proved particularly dangerous for da Vinci’s work. Historian Andrew Roberts tells us that Napoleon’s troops used the refectory’s walls for target practice. Thus, French actions put the Last Supper in peril.
Finally, Leonardo’s Last Supper miraculously survived devastating bombing raids during WWII. In fact, Gilmour tells us one raid in 1943 nearly destroyed the entire structure. The one area that stood when the smoke cleared contained the Last Supper.
Gestures | Emotion | Authenticity
Finally, arguably the most significant aspect of Leonardo’s work is its striking realism. This fascinated contemporary observers, later scholars, and generations of visitors. For example, Polzer says early viewers marveled at the mural’s realistic and emotional depiction of Christ and the Apostles.
Polzer also notes that Leonardo’s Christ in the Last Supper is steeped in his last sermon. However, much ink has been spilled over the question of the precise moment da Vinci captures in the Last Supper. Nevertheless, Chilvers explains scholarly consensus is that Leonardo depicts the moment when Christ tells of betrayal on the part of one of his disciples.
As a result, da Vinci’s genius is evident in the emotions and expressions captured in the piece. In fact, Polzer also tells us that many critics say the reactions are so authentic it is as if da Vinci’s subjects are speaking to viewers.
Moreover, much has been written about da Vinci’s inspiration for such facial expressions. For instance, art historian Tara Heffernan tells us scholars often say da Vinci drew inspiration from studying faces he passed in Milan’s streets. Heffernan believes many related sketches survive today at the Royal Library in Windsor, UK.
Now you’re all set for your visit to Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper! Heading to Milan? Don’t miss our guide to the must-see art in Milan!