Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" ★★★

Leonardo da Vinci's Cenacolo (Last Supper), Da Vinci's The Last Supper, Milan, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
Leonardo da Vinci's Cenacolo (Last Supper)

Leonardo Da Vinci's fresco masterpiece, Il Cenacolo (The Last Supper), in Milan's Santa Maria delle Grazie church

Detail of the Last Supper showing Judas Iscariot, Peter, and John, Da Vinci's The Last Supper, Milan, Italy. (Photo Public Domain)
Crucifixion (1495) by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano, Da Vinci's The Last Supper, Milan, Italy. (Photo by Joyofmuseums)
The museum ticket office next to the church facade, Da Vinci's The Last Supper, Milan, Italy. (Photo by Joyofmuseums)

When Aldous Huxley called Leonardo's 1495-97 masterpiece "the saddest work of art in the world," he was not referring to the painting itself, but to the fresco's advanced state of deterioration.

It's one of the largest and most ingenious works created by the Ultimate Renaissance Man—but unfortunately, while that man possessed a formidable scientific curiosity he had not the discipline or inclination to experiment with new techniques before trying them out on a large scale.

Leonardo did not paint this scene in buon fresco (painting on wet plaster so the colors bind with the base), but rather experimented with oils on semi-dry plaster. The image started deteriorating even before he was finished, a state not helped when Napoléon's troops used it for target practice, or when World War II bombs ripped off the roof, leaving the room exposed to the elements for three years.

A 21-year restoration finished in 1999 removed centuries of over-painting by hapless early "restorers," and filled in the completely vanished bits with pale watercolor washes. But even the shadow that remains of this great work can teach us volumes about Renaissance ideals.

In short, The Last Supper is a mere shadow of the work the artist intended it to be, but the scene, which captures the moment when Christ told his Apostles that one of them would betray him, remains amazingly powerful and emotional nonetheless.

As was common in that era, the scene decorates the end wall of the refectory, or dining hall, of Santa Maria delle Grazie's adjacent Dominican convent. The work has been a touchstone of Renaissance art from the very beginning, and art students have journeyed here to study it since the day it was finished.

Across from it is a 1495 fresco of the Crucifixion by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano, to which Da Vinci added some kneeling figures bearing the faces of Sforza family members—also, like the Cenacolo, much deteriorated. 

Reserve ahead

Just be sure to book ahead, as the timed-entry tickets sell out days, weeks, or months in advance. No, seriously; see the "Tip" below.

Only 25 people are allowed to view the fresco at a time, with a 15-minute limit, and you must pass through a series of devices that remove pollutants from clothing. Accordingly, lines are long and tickets are usually sold out days in advance.

I'm serious: If you don't book ahead—preferably a week or two in advance—you'll most likely be turned away at the door, even in the dead of winter when you'd expect the place to be empty (tour bus groups swallow up inordinately large batches of tickets, leaving precious few for do-it-yourself travelers).

 
Tickets
 
Photo gallery
  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Detail of the Last Supper showing Judas Iscariot, Peter, and John, Da Vinci's The Last Supper, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Crucifixion (1495) by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano, Da Vinci's The Last Supper, Italy (Photo by Joyofmuseums)
  • The museum ticket office next to the church facade, Da Vinci's The Last Supper, Italy (Photo by Joyofmuseums)
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Tips

How long does The Last Supper take?
BOOK AHEAD! BOOK AHEAD!! BOOK AHEAD!!!

IT IS IMPERATIVE TO BOOK TICKETS IN ADVANCE.

This is all covered in the "Details" section, but it bears repeating.

The Last Supper has  limited tickets, timed entries, andd sells out days and days in advance. In summer, sometimes weeks or months in advance. This is not a joke.  

For example, today (which happens to be a June 26), I checked the online site, and it was sold out through September. That's more than three months. Seriously. Same went for the private booking site SelectItaly.com. The first opening I found, paired with a short tour at Viator.com, was for August 28. That's slightly more than two months from today.

If you are there in person, they post a sign out front letting you know the next day for which tickets will be available.

Here are some more details:

  • Even free tickets have to be booked in advance (incurring the €2 fee)
  • You must have a photo ID to pick up the tickets (when you buy the tickets, it asks for a name, and that designated person must be the one to retrieve them)
  • You must pick up the tickets at least 20 minutes before the entry time or you will lose them
  • You can only book up to 5 tickets
  • Even on the first Sun of the month (when it's free), you still have to book in advance
  • The official online booking site is often completely sold out, so you can try calling. Failing that, you can book through a private company like SelectItaly.com or Viator.com, but it will cost more (starting around €22, or €44 with a short tour). 
Cumulative ticket

In spring 2019, they introduced the excellent-value 5XLEONARDO cumulative ticket.

Sadly, it is set to be discontinued in January 2020 (hopefully it will get a stay of execution), but in the meantime, it gets you into most of the top museums in Milan:

Costs:

  • Adults: €40 (includes €2 booking fee)
  • Ages 18–25: €27.50
  • Ages 5–17: €6.50
Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
     
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
     
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
     
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
     
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
     
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
     
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
     
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
     
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah


* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).