Our winter vacation began in Milan on a pre-ski tour to see The Last Supper. I had always thought of Milan as a Renaissance city, despite its reputation as a world-class business and fashion center, famous for its shopping gallery. Which indeed it is.
But I love to delve into the past and Milan’s Renaissance history appealed to me. When Jim invited me to join him on his pre-ski trip specifically to view this painting, I happily accepted. The Last Supper was commissioned of Leonardo da Vinci by the Duke of Milan Ludovico Sforza, also known as il Moro, around 1495-96. Leonardo worked on it until 1498.
Ludovico Sforza had caused much turmoil in Italy during the period in which The Last Supper was being painted. In 1494, he allied himself with the French king Charles VIII, who had a claim to the throne of Naples. This city had, about fifty years earlier, passed from French to Spanish rule. Moreover, the Spanish king had established an alliance with the Pope so that Naples would be inherited by his son. To protect Milan against this Spanish-Papal alliance, Sforza invited Charles III into Italy so that he could make his way to Naples to re-claim it for France. This opened the way for French aggression in Italy. Ultimately, in 1498, Charles VIII’s successor claimed the throne of Milan. In 1499 both Sforza and Leonardo fled Milan; in 1500 Sforza was captured by the French, living the rest of his life as a prisoner in France, where he died in 1508. Leonardo also spent his last years in France, at Amboise, one of the Chateaux of the Loire Valley, under the patronage of Catherine de Medici. And his greatest painting remains in Milan.
Our visit to The Last Supper was scheduled for late in the afternoon. That gave us a large part of the day to explore the city and learn something of its history. Our visit began, normally enough, with a visit to the cathedral.
A visit to Italy is always a trip back in time, however, and Milan was no exception. Besides, we are always on the lookout for Roman ruins. Were there any in Milan, a city noted for its Renaissance culture and contemporary design? Anyone who has studied Latin in high school has heard of Cisalpine Gaul, as the region in which Milan is located was known to Julius Caesar. The city itself had been conquered in 222 BC and from then on was under Roman administration. And, yes, there were traces of that time, though not many.
Very impressive nevertheless were the Columns of San Lorenzo. They are believed to have been part of a pagan temple or a bath house of the second century AD. Two hundred years later, they were moved to the parvis or the area in front of the Basilica of San Lorenzo.
By the fourth century AD, Milan had been Christianized. In fact, it was from Milan in 313 AD that the Emperor Constantine issued the edict that allowed tolerance for all the various religions of the Roman Empire. From that point on Christianity could flourish openly.
Emblematic of this history, are the vestiges of this 5th-6th century church which we saw on the way to the Columns. According to the signpost in front, it was built over “the remains of a lavish Roman residence.”
And also this niche that we found on our way to Maria delle Grazie.
It was now the end of the day and we were making our way to see The Last Supper. As we passed from ancient to modern times, we came upon a very interesting public building, the Stock Exchange.
It is a wonderful example of “fascist architecture.” It is imposing and stark. Very little of its structure is given to decoration, but what is, exemplifies Roman power and virtue. This building calls attention to the authority of the State. In front is an award-winning sculpture from 2000. Its visual statement says it all.
It was the end of the day and growing dark when we finally arrived at our purpose – viewing The Last Supper. Ludovico Sforza had purchased the monastery Santa Maria delle Grazie around 1494. The mural was originally intended as decoration for the family mausoleum. It was only later that the room containing the mural became the rectory for the monks, the subject of the painting being appropriate for them to contemplate while dining.
The Last Supper was a Passover Seder at which Jesus announced that one of the Apostles would betray him. Our guide pointed out the various expressions of suspicion and horror on their faces, each man wondering who it would be and trying to assert that he himself would not be the one. Judas is depicted as holding a purse, representing the thirty pieces of silver and reaching for Jesus’ bread.
Jim had a question: Why was the bread not unleavened instead of the round loaves depicted since it was a Passover Seder? We have not been able to find the answer.
It was dark when we made our way to the metro and back to our hotel and a delicious dinner. A great ending to a great day. Tomorrow I would be on to Paris, where I had decided I would spend part of my time looking at still more Roman ruins.