The refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie forms an integral part of this architectural complex, begun in Milan in 1463 and reworked at the end of the 15th century by Bramante. On the north wall is The Last Supper, the unrivalled masterpiece painted between 1495 and 1497 by Leonardo da Vinci, whose work was to herald a new era in the history of art.
The city of Milan was founded by Celts and has seen four particularly splendid periods. Between the 4th and 5th centuries, it was the capital of the Western Roman Empire and became established as one of the hubs of the new Christian world. The period between the 11th and 13th centuries saw the constitution and consolidation of 'Free Communes' that were soon stronger than neighbouring territories and led to the fight for freedom against German rulers that came to a head with the battle of Legnano (1176). Between the 14th and 16th centuries, the city was governed by the Viscontis, then the Sforza family and was home to the dukedom of Milan. It was subjugated first by the French and then the Spanish: this was the time of the Renaissance that motivated Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Francesco Sforza and Ludovico il Moro to produce their greatest works like the Duomo, the Castello Sforzesco, Santa Maria delle Grazie and San Satiro. The two great artists Bramante and Leonardo were actively working at this time. Milan gradually became a modern city and during the 1800s magnificent neoclassical palaces began to be built. It became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy under Napoleon and was home to the patriotic movement during the political revival.
In 1463, the captain of the Francesco Sforza troops donated a piece of land to the Dominicans. On this land there was a cloister with frescoes depicting the Madonna delle Grazie. The monks commissioned Guiniforte Solari to build a church and convent and the work began in 1463. The new Lord of Milan, Ludovico il Moro, decreed that the apse and presbytery should be knocked down to enlarge the church and he commissioned Donato Bramante to supervise the work. Bramante, who came from Urbino, structurally enlarged the church and added large semi-circular apses, a wonderful drum-shaped dome surrounded by columns and a spectacular cloister and refectory.
The fresco was commissioned in 1495 and completed in 1487. The representation by Leonardo da Vinci depicted the moment immediately after Christ said, 'One of you will betray me'. The 12 Apostles reacted in differing ways; their movements and expressions are magnificently captured in Leonardo's work. He focused on the impact of Christ's words on the Apostles and on their reactions. This broke with the traditional representation of the past, upsetting some ideas.
The genius of the artist is seen especially in the use of light and strong perspective. The three windows behind the table companions and the landscape beyond create a luminosity that set against the backlight illuminates the characters from the side as well. The result is a combination of a particular classically Florentine and chiaroscuro perspectives.
If this work is compared with others by artists such as Castagno, the differences are obvious. In the classical interpretation, Judas is depicted alone whereas the other Apostles and Jesus are on the other side of the table sitting beside each other. Leonardo rejected this and had Jesus in the midst of the Apostles; he also created four groups of three figures on either side of Christ. From the left: Bartholomew, James the Younger and Andrew who are stunned by Jesus's declaration. The second group is made up of Peter, Judas and John. Peter is leaning towards John who is seated beside Jesus and is pushing Judas forward. The figure of Judas is highlighted without isolating the others. The group on the right is made up of Matthew, Thaddeus and Simon who are involved in an animated discussion and are not looking at Jesus. In the centre and perplexedly leaning towards Jesus are Thomas, James the Elder and Phillip who are engaged assuring Jesus of their allegiance. In the centre we find the figure of Jesus in the fresco vanishing point.
Unfortunately, Leonardo did not work in oil but in tempera on a two-layered surface of plaster that was not damp-proof. It was as early as 1568 when Vasari first pointed out problems with this painting technique. Repeated conservation programmes have been carried out, the most recent over the past 20 years.