The Last Supper

Three years after the death the last of the Viscontis in 1447, Milan came under the rule of the Sforzas. Ludovico Sforza, nicknamed 'Il Moro' (The Moor) because of his swarthy complexion, seized power in 1476, and set about trying to turn Milan into a model Renaissance city – a 'New Athens' – by inviting numerous artistic and intellectual celebrities to his court.

Among them was the architect Donato Bramante (1444–1514), and – above all – Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), who became Ludovico's court painter, architect and military engineer.

One of Leonardo's tasks, undertaken in 1494–98, was to decorate a wall in the refectory of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where the Sforzas had their family church. Leonardo approached this task with typical verve and originality: the subject for this dining hall was, appropriately enough, 'The Last Supper' (Il Cenacolo), which he attempted to paint so realistically that it would seem as though Christ and the Apostles were actually present in the room.

The painting was considered an absolute marvel even in Leonardo's lifetime. Unfortunately, Leonardo could not resist experimenting with paint, and instead of using traditional fresco, he tried instead to use a mixture of oil paint and tempera, which had started to deteriorate within a few decades. This vast masterpiece – one of the world's best known works of art – has been restored countless times, most recently over a period of 20 years to 1999. But it remains fragile and so precious that the numbers of visitors, and the length of each visit, are strictly limited. To see 'The Last Supper', advance booking is essential (you can do this on the Internet).

The monastery's fine church, Gothic in origin but remodelled by Bramante, provides another taste of Renaissance genius.

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