One of our great desires on this trip to Italy was to see The Last Supper. So, on Sunday, we drove about an hour and a half to the outskirts of Milano, parked and took the tram into the city center.
A word of warning if you plan to see The Last Supper – we had heard that tickets were difficult to come by, and you had to reserve them early. We started trying to get tickets about two months ahead of our visit and found they were sold out. We later heard of others who had the same problem starting six months ahead of their visit. We solved our problem by arranging a walking tour of Milano with a guide, which included tickets to The Last Supper.
It seemed like wherever we went in Italy, certainly the popular destinations, we were always in the midst of tour groups of about 20-40 people with headsets on, lumbering behind a guide holding a flag on a pole to keep the group together in crowds. Every time I saw one of those groups, I thought, “That doesn’t look like much fun.” Now, we found ourselves part of just such a group. I still wouldn’t choose these group experiences, but in this case, it was a necessary evil, and nevertheless had some value.
We met our guide across the street from the Piazza del Duomo. Milano is a full-fledged city with all the traffic and congestion that entails, so it’s complicated enough to get around on a normal day. Our guide’s plans were immediately thrown into disarray, because this turned out not to be a normal day. It turned out that the National Alpini Association was holding their annual reunion in Milano this hear, and this happened to be the 100th anniversary of the association. The celebration brought more than 100,000 people to Milano, and this morning, they were having their parade right through the center of the city. The Italian Alpini are much like America’s 10th Mountain Division, a specialized , mountain-warfare infantry corps.
The first stop on our walking tour was Milano’s Duomo, a beautiful, late-Gothic, marble cathedral constructed between1397 and 1812. The Duomo is massive, impressive and beautiful at the same time. Everywhere you look, you find spires, ornamentation and statues. It is apparently the third largest cathedral in Europe and can accommodate about 40,000 people for a service.
Also on the Piazza del Duomo, on a side adjacent to the Duomo, stands the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. The Galleria was built as a shopping mall and showcased the most modern design. Glass and iron arched domes cover about a city block on each of the four sides of an intersection. Originally built in the 1800s, it is thought to be one of the first glass and iron buildings in Europe and one of the first buildings in Milano to get electricity. Today, the Galleria houses some of the most upscale shopping in Milano with all of the major fashion houses represented. The current Galleria has been almost entirely reconstructed, as it was destroyed by bombing in World War II.
Our walk through Milano continued past La Scala and then the Castello Sforzesco. Castello Sforzesco has been used as a defense for Milano’s rich and powerful since the 15th century. It was originally part of Milano’s city wall, set in rich, green fields. Those fields are now just more city, but the castle is still surrounded by lush lawns.
We finally made our way to Chiesa di Santa Maria della Grazie, home of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. The experience was well worth the difficulty in acquiring tickets. One reason the tickets are hard to come by is that they have chosen to manage the crowds by controlling the front end. When you arrive, only 25 people are permitted to enter for a 15-minute time period. We found 15 minutes was adequate. There are really only two works of art in the room. Limiting the group size allowed a much more intimate, personal and powerful experience.
Leonardo was commissioned to paint a wall of the dining hall for the Dominican nuns from the convent at Chiesa di Santa Maria della Grazie as a bribe from the ruling Sforza family (the same family as the castle above). It turned out to be a pretty nice dining room decoration. We were told the rectory was destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, but the wall with the Last Supper remained standing.