If the walls of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan could talk, they’d tell of how between 1495 and 1498, one of the most talented humans of all time experimented with a tempera technique to paint what eventually became one of the most iconic images of all time: The Last Supper.
The walls would also recount how less than 20 years after Leonardo da Vinci completed his masterpiece, it began to peel and flake off. Several factors contributed to the deterioration, from the tempera itself to humidity issues to just thoughtless use of the room, such as Napoleon converting it into a stable. Additionally, locals heavily sandbagged the wall during World War II to shield it from bombings. As a result, they saved the painting, but two of the walls collapsed so today, it’s not held up by the support of its original bone structure.
The painting underwent several restorations over the centuries, and the work’s current iteration is the result of an intense 20-year restoration that ended in 1999. In short, this last restoration pretty much removed everything that the previous restorers piled on as well as all the other gunk that settled on top of it, revealing the iconic image as close to Leonardo’s original portrayal as possible. While still faded and peeled in places, the painting still bears the mark of Leonardo’s unmistakeable ingenuity.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the Last Supper three times, and it’s a very regimented process. You must go through a few airtight vestibules, with one door closing behind you before the front door opens to let you in. For each 15-minute time slot, just 25 people are allowed into the room.
However, time had eventually started to take its toll on the mural, and it’s thanks to Eataly that travelers and Milanesi alike will get to visit the Last Supper for (at least!) another 500 years. Together with the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities, Eataly has helped to implement an air-filtration system that, as of last week, lets 10,000 m³ of clean air inside daily as opposed to the previous 3,500 m³. This will not only extend the life of the painting by another 500 years, but it will also give more visitors a chance to see Leonardo’s masterpiece. The next four years will see a 16% increase in visitors every two years, allowing the annual visitors, currently 430,000, to increase by 33% with a final annual increase of 126,000.
The Last Supper is not only one of the world’s most iconic paintings, but it’s also the hottest ticket in town. Many don’t realize that reservations are required, and tickets sell out months in advance. They wind up quite disappointed in the ticket office when they realize they won’t get to check The Last Supper off their bucket list on this once-in-a-lifetime trip. While the new air filtration system might not help those last minute-travelers showing up at the box office so much, it’s gratifying for all those who haven’t booked as far in advance as they should have as their chances of getting in have just increased.
While I’m on the topic of the Last Supper, I’d just like to say don’t be discouraged if you can’t find tickets on their website. Additionally, third-party vendors such as Musement sell admission tickets and plenty of Milan city tours include a viewing of the painting. So if the website is sold out, don’t admit defeat yet…give Google a gander!
Also on the da Vinci front, next year marks the 500th anniversary of his death, and Eataly will be hosting some dinners and events in his honor. More to come on that!