This is a guest post by Gabi from The Tiny Book on how to tour the UNESCO World Heritage Site the “Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie with “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci” in Milan, Italy, including everything you need to know to plan your Last Supper tour and get Santa Maria delle Grazie tickets. See below the post for a few of my Italy travel tips!
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How to Visit Milan’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie with The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci
Here’s everything you need to know to plan your visit, including an overview of the painting’s history and renaissance roots.
My Visit to The Last Supper
The first time I got to see the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie it was by pure chance. Back in 2006, when I was a student in Milan, one of our assignments needed me to visit the area to pick a rare book from a shop nearby.
I had been living in Milan for 4 years but still haven’t had the chance to see The Last Supper. I remember taking a look at the somewhat hidden church and thinking, It’s a shame that I still haven’t been here.
Life happened. I graduated, had two kids and I still hadn’t visited. When you live in a place and you know that there are millions of things to do, you just put them on a sort of bucket list. But then you don’t do them because you know that those things will still be there on the next day.
That’s how time goes by. That’s why I only visited this church in 2016, when I knew I was moving countries again. And I wished I had seen it earlier.
Santa Maria delle Grazie and the House of the Sorza
The site is located in the north of Italy, in the center of the city of Milan, about 15 minutes away from the spectacular — and famous — Duomo, the cathedral of Milan.
The full name of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie with “The Last Supper.” That means that you will visit a complex of buildings and not just the refectory with the painting on its wall.
During the 15th century, the duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, chose the former small chapel standing in the area to be the place where the Dominican Convent and the Church Santa Maria delle Grazie where to be erected. These would be the place for the religious celebrations of the house Sforza, as well as the burial and final resting place for the Sforza family.
Therefore, works of restoration and enlargement of the existing convent started approximately in 1462, as well as the construction of a church with side chapels next to the Convent.
Leonardo da Vinci
When Leonardo arrived to Milan, in 1482, Ludovico Sforza summoned the artist as he was an expert in war machinery. However, when his talent in other arts became obvious to his patron, Leonardo was commissioned to decorate one of the walls inside the refectory of the convent.
Da Vinci worked on The Last Supper between 1494 and 1497. Owner of an unpredictable nature, he would sometimes spend whole days working on the walls, high in the fragile scaffolding, testing new painting techniques. While on other days, he would not even get close to the convent.
The large room you access to admire this work of art is the refectory. It was the place where the Dominican friars used to eat their meals.
The two opposite, smaller walls of the refectory host the paintings of the first and the last episodes of the Passion of Christ, with the moment of the last supper on one of the sides and the crucifixion episode right in front. This second painting is The Crucifixion, a work by another Italian Renaissance master, Giovanni da Montofano.
The refectory also houses frescoes depicting important coats of arms and the elegant figures of Ludovico Sforza and his wife Beatrice d’Este, both presumed to have also been painted by Leonardo.
Today, the whole complex represents one of the best examples of the Renaissance in northern Italy. The church, for instance, includes completely frescoed walls and several richly decorated side chapels.
The group of the basilica, the refectory and the painting was the second site in Italy to have been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1980.
Leonardo da Vinci impressively depicted the scene of the last supper of Jesus with the apostles, according to the Gospel of John (13:21).
The painting well brings into life the consternation and affliction of the apostles when Jesus announces that one among the twelve would betray them in a short time.
The Backstage of The Last Supper
Leonardo didn’t just create the painting out of nowhere. Before actually starting his works, he prepared himself sketching preliminary drawings and notes. Besides, he also observed and studied other famous works of art depicting this particular episode.
In fact, what makes The Last Supper unique and special is that while most artists of the time would usually represent the moment when Judah has already been identified as the traitor, Leonardo chooses to paint the immediately preceding episode.
In Leonardo’s Last Supper, Jesus has just pronounced the fateful words “… One of you will betray me.” Therefore, the expressions of the apostles include surprise and restlessness.
This way, Leonardo was able to focus his attention on the apostle’s gestures and postures, concentrating on a range of human emotions that are vivid and visible through the apostle’s body language.
The position of their bodies, especially their hands and the expression on their faces make the scene even more dramatic. Leonardo’s genius manages to convey the tragedy of the moment.
The Precarious Work of Art
The main characteristic of The Last Supper is its fragile condition. Leonardo’s eagerness to experiment with new techniques made him paint on dry instead of wet plaster, which is the traditional fresco technique.
This way he was able to resume the works at any given time. Some sources confirm that he deliberately chose to do because frescoes require a very quick execution. This wouldn’t have allowed him to achieve the level of detail that The Last Supper presents.
Painting on a dry wall gave the artist time to change his mind and modify the painting during the execution period so as to achieve the desired level of perfection.
However, this painting technique proved precarious and fragile. Only a few years after completion, the painting was already showing the first signs of deterioration.
It should be also added that The Last Supper never had an easy life. First of all, Leonardo’s work took place during the French occupation of Milan, a period of instability and agitation.
Moreover, the friars who enlarged a door connecting the Refectory to the convent’s kitchens cut a part of the painting as well. Finally, the refectory underwent heavy bombing during WWII.
To make matters worse, during the turbulent years of Milanese history, the refectory was also a barn, and military barracks. Neither of these helped in the conservation of the already delicate painting.
Several interventions of restoration took place over the years, the last important one, in 1999, brought to life a plethora of details and gave a new life to The Last Supper.
The Importance of the Site
The church of Santa Maria delle Grazie stands as one of the best examples of Renaissance in the north of Italy, with its frescoed and smaller but richly decorated chapels.
The basilica, as well as the convent and the refectory including The Last Supper, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1980
The Church, Santa Maria delle Grazie
When I booked my visit to the complex it was at the end of July, the high season in Europe. So it was really crowded. My scheduled time for entry was 5 pm but I had been told to arrive at least 25 minutes ahead of time to pick my tickets. I chose to arrive an hour before, and visit the church.
Once I had picked the tickets, I headed into the church. If you’re also planning to see the church, bear in mind that from 12:30 to 4 pm it’s closed to tourists, so plan accordingly.
Now, you might be wondering whether the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie is also worth a visit. Indeed it is. Despite being known mostly for Leonardo’s masterpiece, there’s a lot more to this World Heritage Site than just the fresco.
Santa Maria delle Grazie, which was completed about ten years after the convent, is one of Italy’s landmarks as well as an emblem of Renaissance.
The impressive building includes eight square chapels on both sides of the church, all of them richly decorated by artists of the period. Just as the refectory, inside Santa Maria delle Grazie there are also unique frescoes full of color and detail.
Other than those, do check the impressive engravings that decorate the interior of its dome, they are a true masterpiece in detail and refinement.
How to Go On a Last Supper Tour
As I mentioned above, I arrived about an hour prior to my scheduled tour so as to the rest of the complex. After visiting the church, me and my group stayed in a waiting area. Five minutes before the scheduled entrance time the staff of the site collected our tickets and we accessed the first of the rooms.
For those unaware, you simply can’t just show up, wait in line, and then visit the refectory for as much time as you want. First of all, there are endless people coming from all over the world wanting to visit. So it’s always advisable to book ahead of time, in any period of the year.
Secondly, only 25 visitors at a time are allowed to view the painting and this lasts for exactly 15 minutes. The idea behind the restriction is to protect the painting against further deterioration. Don’t worry, though, 15 minutes is plenty of time.
The fragile condition of this place requires that before entering the actual refectory, you go through two separate dehumidification chambers to remove the excess of moisture from your clothes and your body. This whole process took us about 10 to 15 minutes.
Once inside, everyone is kept at a safe distance from the wall, but you’re still able to appreciate much of the details in the painting. But don’t get obsessed! My best piece of advice would be for you to let go of any obsession for details and step back. This is the only way to get a real grasp of the whole picture — no pun intended!
There will be a strict announcement once your time is up. As you will be going out you might catch a glimpse of the next entering group, so there’s no way you can linger a few minutes more. Avoid the unpleasant experience of being escorted out by the guards.
Once outside, you can buy a reproduction of Leonardo’s Last Supper in a small gift shop.
Is a Visit to The Last Supper Worth It?
When we finally entered the refectory, I found myself in front of a painting that we’ve all seen thousands of times, even in satire reproductions. However, I was truly not expecting the impressive size and perfect perspective of the painting and the magnificent effect it has inside the room.
The stunning details of the faces, as well as the hand gestures, remain impressed in my memory, as well as the colors, the proportions, the perfection.
But, most of all, knowing that I was in front of such a fragile structure was what made me realize how smart of me it had been to visit the site before leaving Milan.
Useful Information for Visiting the Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie with “The Last Supper”
A few pro tips:
The Church, the Convent and the Refectory is a complex located in Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie 2, Milan
How to Reach the Complex
The best way to get there is by subway, if you take the red line MM1 or the green line MM2, the station you should get off is Cadorna, and then walk for a few meters along Corso Magenta.
Instead, if you prefer a more traditional way to reach the church and enjoy the views of the city, take the tram 18, and get of at the Corso Magenta Santa Maria delle Grazie stop (fermata Corso Magenta, in Italian).
Buying Santa Maria delle Grazie Tickets
Tickets can be bought on the phone (02 92800360) or online on . When booking this way, it’s only possible to buy just 5 tickets at a time, so take this into account if you’re traveling with a bigger group.
However, I found it was more efficient for me to book a visit with a skip the line ticket.
Remember that, in both cases, the tickets are usually sold out months in advance, so if you already know now that you’ll be visiting Milan in a few months, go ahead and book as soon as you can.
The price of the ticket is 12 € (10 € plus a booking fee of 2 €) while there is a reduced entrance ticket available for young UE citizens between (18-25), as well as for teachers.
The ticket is free for children under 18, students of Art schools, journalists, and people with disabilities, however booking and paying the 2 € booking fee is mandatory for all.
The visit is free on the first Sunday of every month, yet the booking fee is still to be paid. A guided visit has an extra cost of 4 €, (10 am and 4 pm in Italian, 9.30 am and 3 pm in English).
The ticket office is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 8.30 am to 7 pm, with the last entrance to the refectory at 6.45 pm.
Once you’ve bought the tickets online, you need to arrive at the site at least 25 minutes before the chosen entry time and present the receipt at the ticket office located a few meters from the entrance to the refectory.
Other Things to do in Milan and Northern Italy
Let’s tell it as it is, I may not have visited The Last Supper soon enough, but I did visit many other impressive landmarks in Milan during the 18 years I lived in northern Italy.
Some of my favorite include the building of the State University (via Festa del Perdono st.) as well as the Duomo, Milan’s famous Gothic cathedral and the Torre Velasca, a magnificent contemporary building that resembles the Medieval castles of Italy’s past.
The northern region of Lombardy, in Italy, might not be as popular as Rome or Florence, however, there are plenty of places to visit and endless day-trips to take from its capital, Milan.
Train travel in Italy is quite efficient and within a short time, you can reach the magnificent canals of Venice, the spectacular city of Bergamo, and some of the most stunning and snow-capped mountains.
Where to Stay in Milan
There are several neighborhoods great for a stay in Milan, and your choice should largely depend on the things you plan to see and do in the area. Those interested in visiting Milan’s museums, churches and, why not, doing some shopping, would be better staying in the central area. Duomo or Castello Sforzesco are two nice quarters where you can book a stay.
For the ones interested in day-trips from Milan, the area of Stazione Centrale is not bad, there are plenty of shops and hotels to book. Yet, it’s wise to be aware that wandering at night can be a bit risky in the immediately adjacent area of the station.
If, instead, you want to discover a more traditional side to the city, you should book a stay in the Navigli, a hidden gem to most tourists since many believe that canals can only be admired in Venice.
Yet, this neighborhood is known for the Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese canals which were originally built in 1179 to transport goods from the nearby lakes, especially the white and valuable marble from Candoglia, mainly used to build Milan’s cathedral.
A curious legend about the Canals wants precisely Leonardo da Vinci to be behind the renovation plans of Milan’s canals.
Today, the area comes alive at night and during the weekends, with its unique restaurants, bars, and shops which make the Navigli one of my favorite areas in Milan.
Gabi Ancarola is a translator and travel journalist. She graduated from the State University of Milan, where she lived for 18 years. She currently resides in Greece, and works as a freelance journalist and travel consultant. She also blogs at The Tiny Book. You can follow her Pinterest account.
5 Things to Bring with You to Italy
The Lonely Planet Italy guidebook or the Rick Steves Italy guidebook for your trip. It can be kind of a pain to find the major guidebooks once you arrive in Italy, or you’ll find them overpriced. I always like to pick mine up ahead of time.
An Unlocked Cell Phone so that you can use an Italian sim card while here to help navigate the trains.
Backup Charging Bank for your cell phone since you’ll be using it as a camera, GPS system, and general travel genie.
A Great Day Bag so you can carry what you need with you (like your camera, snacks, water, sunscreen, cash, etc). My current favorite is the Pacsafe Citysafe, which is especially great for Italy because it has many anti-theft features.
Italy Travel Resources
Here are some resources to help you plan your trip to Italy. While you’re in Milan, you should make time to see these other beautiful Milan Churches.
First, check out my interview with Mike Duncan on the history of The Roman Forum. I also have several episodes of my travel podcast, Rick Steves Over Brunch about Rome and Venice. Plus I have 101 Italy Quotes for Italy Instagram captions.
If you love history memes, check out the Roman history section of my gigantic 250 Hilarious History Memes to Soothe Your Dark Soul.
Finally, check out my list of books to read before your vacation in Italy.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!
Before you leave for Italy make sure you have a valid Travel Insurance Policy because accidents happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’ll be hanging out in cities (like Milan…ahem) where tourists can be the victims of pickpockets. Italy is the only country I’ve been to (out of almost seventy) where I’ve had someone try to pick my pocket!
I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for two years, and I happily recommend them. If you get sick, injured, or have your stuff stolen, you’ll be happy to have the ability to pay for your medical bills or replace what’s stolen or broken.
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