Looking for the Last Supper:
An Unusual Florentine Scavenger Hunt
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Tuscan food is all the rage in the United States now. Hearty, flavorful and richly varied, it deserves its glowing reputation, as you are sure to ascertain in practically any establishment you choose for your cena (dinner). But Florence is also the Italian capital of another kind of dinner, the cenacolo, or Last Supper. No less than nine masterpieces depict the biblical scene, described in Matthew XXVI, 21-24. These are all on the refectory walls of local monasteries, where their purpose was to remind the monks and their illustrious guests that the meal was providing spiritual as well as physical nourishment. Just as the gentry of Lucca seemed intent on having a more fanciful front door than the Joneses, so did the monks of Florence vie for the most beautiful, most serene, most inspiring cenacolo. Unluckily for the church, most of Italy's monastic orders were abolished by the state in the 18th century. Luckily for us, their refectories are now open to the public. As you walk around town, keep this list handy and pop in to view the frescoes. You can decide for yourselves whose scene you like best. In chronological order, they are:

Santa Croce (c. 1340). Originally attributed to Giotto, this first great representation of Christ's last meal was actually painted by Taddeo Gaddi. (Museo dell'Opera di Santa Croce, Piazza Santa Croce 16, 9am-12, 3-6pm in summer; 9am-12 and 3-5pm in winter; closed Sunday).
Santa Croce
Santo Spirito (c. 1360). It was only after World War II that this masterpiece of 14th-century painting was attributed to Andrea Orcagna. Unfortunately, only a few fragments remain, but the consolation is the same artist's breathtaking Crucifixion above it. (Piazza di Santo Spirito 29, 10am-1pm; closed Monday; 1.5 Euro). Incidentally, the square on which this unforgettable church is located is one of the best places to get an idea of what daily life in Florence is really like.
Santo Spirito
Santa Apollonia (c. 1450). If you're following this little tour in chronological order, you will be stunned by the progress a century brought to Florence. Andrea del Castagno's fresco is strikingly realistic and embellished with intricate architectural details. Note the exquisite perspective of the ornate niche inside of which the table seems to be tucked. The haunting figure of Judas is isolated outside, on the near side of the table. The Crucifixion and Deposition above are less famous, but just as memorable. (Via XXVII Aprile 1: ring the doorbell and cross your fingers!).
Santa Apollonia
Ognissanti (1480). A superb example of the highly decorative work and expert perspective mastered by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Note the trompe l'oeil arches opening onto the flowering garden in the background, the swallows streaking across the sky, and the peacock perched on a "niche" in the right "wall." A bonus here is Sandro Botticelli's Saint Augustine in His Studio, on the left wall. (Borgo Ognissanti 42; 8:30am-12:30 and 4-6pm).
San Marco (1482). At first glance, it might seem that Ghirlandaio merely copied his Ognissanti fresco in this small refectory. But closer inspection reveals the tiny but fundamental changes he has made, creating a far more stylized picture with even more perspective and detail. Not only was this fresco painted after its Ognissanti brother, but the action is also occurring later: whereas in the earlier scene, Judas was empty-handed, here he is holding the bread received from Jesus. (Piazza San Marco 1 [walk through the cloisters]; 9am-2pm; 9am-1pm on Sundays; closed Monday).
San Marco
Foligno (c. 1495). It took me years to see this Cenacolo by Il Perugino, but when someone finally answered the door, I found myself alone, magically transposed to an Umbrian hillside on a mystical, soulful 15th-century afternoon. The landscape and perspective are Perugino at his best (while the figures may have been executed by his followers). (Via Faenza 42; ring the bell).
Calza (1514). Down the street from Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens, just before you get to Porta Romana, you'll find a former monastery which now serves as meeting center. In its refectory is Franciabigio's well-restored Last Supper, highly influenced by Leonardo's recently completed Cenacolo in Milan. Peek into the lovely little church while you're here. (Piazza della Calza 6; better call ahead at 055-222-287 to see if visitors are still welcome!).
San Salvi (1519-26). If you are unfamiliar with the work of Andrea del Sarto, try very hard to see this 16th-century masterpiece. Vastly damaged by the 1966 floods, it has been in restoration ever since, and may prove to be the most elusive treasure of our little hunt. Dramatic, elegant, harmonious, heartbreaking and unforgettable, it was completed in only 64 days, clearly demonstrating why Andrea's contemporaries called him the "man who made no mistakes." Many consider this to be his most spectacular masterpiece, so even though it is not down in the historic center of the city, it is well worth the bus ride to see it. (Via San Salvi 16; ring the bell).
San Salvi
Santa Maria del Carmine (1582). The most "modern" of our dinner scenes was painted by Alessandro Allori (who included his own self-portrait on the far left end of the table, not seen here). Although less famous today than his contemporaries, Allori was wildly successful during his lifetime. He chose to paint a very down-to-earth scene, with food strewn all over the banquet table. Jesus hands the bread to Judas, who looks up at a wall plaque that reads, "Here is my traitor."
Santa Maria del Carmine

by Kristin Jarratt

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