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Santa Maria delle Grazie and Cenacolo Museum: A Guided Tour - Milan Cultural Guide

Updated: Feb 19






In the historical center of Milan lies one of the masterpieces of art history, the Last Supper painted by Leonardo da Vinci between 1495 and 1498.


The iconic artwork can be visited at the Cenacolo Vinciano Museum, built inside the refectory of a Dominican convent, part of the larger complex of Santa Maria delle Grazie.


As it often happens when iconic masterpieces are involved, the place that hosts them gets easily overlooked, and Santa Maria delle Grazie is no exception - people tend to visit the Cenacolo and not always give the church the time it deserves!


In this guide you will find all the information you need to visit the Cenacolo Museum, but special attention will be given to its host Santa Maria delle Grazie - as you will soon find out, this place witnessed the vicissitudes of some of the most significant figures in the Renaissance history of Milan and is definitely worth a visit! However, for all those who wish to discover more about Leonardo's work, a complete profile of the Last Supper is available here, on a separate page.



 

In this article:


Santa Maria delle Grazie and Cenacolo Vinciano Museum: Why Visit
Santa Maria delle Grazie and Cenacolo Vinciano Museum: Your Visit
Santa Maria delle Grazie and Cenacolo Vinciano Museum: Plan Your Visit
Santa Maria delle Grazie and Cenacolo Vinciano Museum: After Your Visit

 

Santa Maria delle Grazie and Cenacolo Vinciano Museum: Why Visit



OVERVIEW & WHY VISIT


Imagine strolling across Milan's city center, reaching the Sforzesco Castle and its park, then heading southwest. You are in the very heart of the city, moving around its historical streets and squares, where bishops, dukes and artists used to walk and make their city great.


Moving forward you will most likely meet Corso Magenta, and soon you might catch sight of small crowds - you are getting closer to Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie, with its homonymous church.


Santa Maria delle Grazie is actually an architectural complex, composed of a church and a Dominican convent, which refectory is the container of the Cenacolo, the Last Supper painted by Leonardo Da Vinci in 1495-98.


At first glance, the complex may look as if divided, composed of three parts merged after their completion: a large Late-Gothic church, with its triangular façade and elongated shape, an early-Renaissance structure with its imposing dome, and a small, light-painted building on the right side of the church, which is the entrance to the Cenacolo Museum. As we will see, this is simply the result of changing tastes in art and architecture, and of unfortunate events such as destructions and bombings!


Today, the reason why you should definitely visit Santa Maria delle Grazie is surely connected to the uniqueness of Leonardo's Last Supper but is not limited to this - the entire complex has been a vital center in Milan, attracting the attention of its Duke and Lord, Ludovico il Moro, hosting one of the most important Inquisition Tribunals in Italy for more than two centuries, and representing a superb example of early Renaissance art in the city and in Lombardy.


If you are planning a visit to the Cenacolo, do not miss the opportunity to check out the church and witness the change of epochs with your own eyes!


HISTORY OF THE CHURCH AND THE CONVENT


The Foundation: When & Why


Santa Maria delle Grazie was born as a Dominican foundation, meaning that it was owned and used by the friars of the Dominican order.


A first Dominican convent was already active in Milan at Sant'Eustorgio, but its position in the city was not central nor impactful enough, so in 1459 both the citizens of Milan and the Dominican order pleaded to find an additional location, which was handed over in 1460 by Count Gaspare da Vimercate in the form of a plot of land.


This land was occupied by an ancient chapel dedicated to Santa Maria delle Grazie (Holy Mary of Graces) and, therefore, the name was later kept out of respect for the Virgin Mary (normally, any Dominican convent would be named after the founder of the order, St. Dominic).


Three years after the donation of the land, on September 10, 1463, the foundation stone was laid.

Count Gaspare da Vimercate (1410-1467) was an Italian warlord who fought at the service of the Sforza family, at the time ruling over Milan. Known as one of the most influential figures in the Sforza's entourage, he served both Francesco and Galeazzo Maria, gaining their respect and trust and receiving the title of Count in return. His position brought important commissions and offices, and by the end of his life he was playing a vital role in the city of Milan.


The Solarian Basilica seen from the inside - at the end of the central nave you can see Bramante's tribune opening up
The Solarian Basilica seen from the inside - at the end of the central nave you can see Bramante's tribune opening up | Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

The Solarian Project


The Dominican friars and Count da Vimercate had to find an architect for Santa Maria delle Grazie. The decision was not the easiest, as the friars wished to keep the project traditional and non-frivolous while the Count was hoping for a more lavish design. They eventually opted for Guiniforte Solari.


Guiniforte Solari (1429-1481) was an architect, sculptor and engineer who worked hard around Lombardy and was even appointed chief engineer of the Duchy of Milan. He was however a convinced traditionalist and not too open to innovation. The complex he designed, the so-called Solarian Convent, was to be spectacular but built in the traditional Late-Gothic Lombard style.


The convent was ready in 1469, while the church was completed in 1482.


Ten years after its completion, in 1492, Ludovico Sforza, better known as Ludovico il Moro (1452-1508), regent and then duke of Milan, was looking for a place to become his own mausoleum and Santa Maria delle Grazie seemed to suit him well. However, as a man who was to be the patron of the early Renaissance in Milan, he could not accept the current traditional Late-Gothic appearance of the complex and requested a new plan.



From Ludovico il Moro to Napoleon: Santa Maria delle Grazie in Modern Times


Today, what remains of the original Solarian Convent is mostly the church itself which kept its overall Late-Gothic characteristics. But this was not how things should have gone, according to Ludovico il Moro's plans.


Ludovico had most likely in mind a full reconstruction of the entire complex and he probably hoped the newly appointed architect, Donato Bramante, could return him a majestic early-Renaissance monument.


Just to clarify, the project for the new Santa Maria delle Grazie has been traditionally attributed to Bramante, but in fact there are still doubts on whether he might have followed the entire construction or, as it seems more plausible, he might have worked on the initial plan, later to be substituted.

Donato Bramante (1444-1514) was an Italian architect, engineer and painter. One of the protagonists of the Renaissance epoch, he introduced the new artistic and architectural styles to Milan and played a major role in Rome, working on the plans for St. Peter's Basilica, at Palazzo della Cancelleria and Santa Maria della Pace. In Milan, he notably worked at Santa Maria presso San Satiro and Sant'Ambrogio.

Anyway, a grandiose reconstruction was not possible because, in 1499, Ludovico il Moro fell from power.


After Ludovico's debacle, Milan fell into foreign hands, interrupting most construction works going on in the city. For the next three centuries, the city would be governed by foreign powers, but Santa Maria delle Grazie would get a stage of its own: in 1558 the local Inquisition (the Inquisition was traditionally operated by the Dominican order) was moved here and was to become so active as to necessitate the construction of its own tribunal, right next to the Convent.


Today, the tribunal is no more, demolished in 1785 after the end of the Inquisition's activities in Milan in 1779, but its resonance is still found in historical records.


The end of the Inquisition and the flourishing of new liberal ideas did not bring any good to Santa Maria delle Grazie: the convent was abolished by Napoleon in 1799 and the complex was occupied by Napoleonic forces, who used it as military barracks, inevitably damaging the structures and architecture.


We would have to wait until 1860 to see it coming to a new light.



Renovations & Bombings: Until Today


From 1860 to 1937, some major renovation works took place in Santa Maria delle Grazie, mostly directed by Luca Beltrami, art historian and architect among the most respected of his time.


Those were decades when the glorious medieval past of Italy was sought after and resuscitated at all costs, even if that meant rebuilding monuments to forcibly give them a medieval appearance they had lost over time. And that's exactly what happened to Santa Maria delle Grazie under Luca Beltrami, who rebuilt all the missing parts (especially the cloisters) in a neo-Gothic or neo-Renaissance style, purged the complex from the Baroque additions, freed the apse from recent buildings, rebuilt the bell tower and lowered it.


Finally returned to the Dominicans in 1924, in 1937 the restyled complex was complete but, with another World War approaching, it was once again not meant to last: on September 15, 1943 Anglo-American bombers hit Santa Maria delle Grazie, seriously damaging the convent and the overall structure.


Luckily, the Last Supper had been previously protected by layers of steel tubes and sandbags so it survived, but much of the refectory was destroyed, and so were the library and the structure between it and the refectory, a fact that will cause major static issues to the Cenacolo in the coming decades, calling for constant renovations.


The entire Santa Maria delle Grazie and its Cenacolo will be later carefully repaired, with good and less good results. In any case, today they still look magnificent despite what they went through and, since the last major intervention in 1999, the Cenacolo Museum now offers a great experience and allows everyone to enjoy the sight of its fragile masterpiece.


The convent currently hosts a small community of Dominican friars and the Sacrestia Vecchia (Old Sacristy) is the seat of the Centro Culturale Alle Grazie ('Alle Grazie' Cultural Center), organizing performances, concerts, talks and more.


Portrait of Ludovico il Moro
Portrait of Ludovico il Moro | Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

LUDOVICO IL MORO & LEONARDO: RENAISSANCE IN MILAN


When Ludovico il Moro ordered the reconstruction of Santa Maria delle Grazie into a new form and called Leonardo Da Vinci to paint the refectory, he had big plans for Milan.


A true patron of arts and culture and a man with an infinite curiosity, during his rule over the city he transformed it and initiated a golden age that would survive him and last until the late 1520s, although his years are considered its peak.


Leonardo himself came to Milan in 1482, attracted by the winds of change and the opportunities the Sforza, and Ludovico in particular, offered to artists and literati. Although the master would have to wait a few years before he could receive the first important commissions, Ludovico il Moro did not fail to see his talent and make the most out of it.


Without knowing, Ludovico il Moro was also to lead Milan through its last years as a free city (meaning not under the control of bigger entities or nations) and witness the last chance it had to stand out independently in the fields of arts and engineering - three centuries of domination and the inclusion in the newborn Kingdom of Italy will follow.


Born in a time when intellects like his could flourish, Ludovico il Moro is the reason why many of you are reading this guide today or taking a guided tour through Leonardo's Milan: without him, Santa Maria delle Grazie would not have its monumental dome and the Cenacolo would not be there to testify the human genius (and maybe Dan Brown would not be this famous??) - that's good food for thought when visiting this place!



 


Santa Maria delle Grazie and Cenacolo Vinciano Museum: Your Visit



An overview of all parts of Santa Maria delle Grazie
An overview of all parts of Santa Maria delle Grazie | Translated from Wikipedia


THE BASICS


  • What: Religious complex made of a basilica and a Dominican convent + museum within the convent with the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci.

  • Where: Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy

  • Why: Late-Gothic and Renaissance architecture, great significance for Lombard Renaissance and history of Milan, art masterpieces.

  • Who: Guiniforte Solari (architect), Donato Bramante (architect)

  • Building Period: 15th century (Solarian & Bramante complex), 19th century (restorations and some minor additions), 20th century (post-war restorations)

  • Current Status: church mostly intact in its 15th-century form except for the north chapels, convent badly damaged over time and during the 1943 bombings - several parts restored.


The Solarian Basilica with its façade and Bramante's tribune in the background
The Solarian Basilica with its façade and Bramante's tribune in the background


ARCHITECTURE & EXTERIOR


We have just got into Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie, our reservation for the Cenacolo Museum is due in one hour and we have enough time to explore the entire complex! Let's start our visit from the first thing we can notice: its external appearance.


Looking at Santa Maria delle Grazie from the outside, what you see is a brick church with a triangular façade opening on the square and then, flanking Corso Magenta, an elongated cross-shaped structure ending with an imposing tribune and its dome.


On the north side of the main portal (so on your left if facing the portal from the square) is a small civic-like building, which used to be part of the Dominican convent but today is the entrance to the Cenacolo Museum. Behind its door also lies what remains of the convent, inhabited by a small community of friars.

As we mentioned, the construction of the complex started in 1463 from the church. For the project, architect Guiniforte Solari stuck to the Lombard Late-Gothic tradition and designed a 3-naved church with ogive vaults (so with intersecting arches) and a gabled façade (so triangular)


The materials he used also came from the local tradition and included terracotta for the walls and granite stone for the columns and the capitals.


The triangular façade is divided into 5 sections by 6 buttresses and its width is almost double its height but, since this latter still exceeds the height of the internal naves, the oculi you see here (so basically the circular little windows) are blind. Its decoration appears sober and it mostly consists of some terracotta reliefs.


The portal looks more articulated because it was originally designed by Solari but retouched under Ludovico il Moro, who wished it to have a more Renaissance form. So, between 1480 and 1490 he had some white marble columns on cubic pedestals and frescoed decorations added. Today, the fresco you see in the lunette is an 18th-century work and the images you may notice are the "scopetta", a symbol of Il Moro himself.


The architect is not known but should not be Donato Bramante.


The side doors since the late 19th century do not have ornaments: Luca Beltrami, in his attempt to restore the original Late Gothic/early Renaissance appearance of the church, removed all Baroque additions.



View of Bramante's tribune from outside
View of Bramante's tribune from outside


If we now move to the side of the church overlooking Corso Magenta and Via Caradosso we encounter Bramante's tribune, which is a cube with a hemispherical dome on top.


The difference if compared with the rest of the church is tangible, and it is evident that the two structures come from different artistic traditions: the tribune was designed by Bramante (but not executed by him) a few years after the completion of the Solarian complex and follows the early Renaissance style.


Its decoration is made of terracotta, granite and stone and consists of ornamental discs and niches, windows with terracotta frames and panels with floral decorations, medallions and busts of saints.


View of the interior with the hall layout and ogive vaults
View of the interior with the hall layout and ogive vaults | Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons


THE CHURCH


It is now time to go inside the Solarian basilica and begin our visit through the main building of the complex!


As we will soon notice, we are in a 3-nave hall church (meaning that the central nave is the same height as the lateral ones, giving a sense of unitarity of space), and the naves are separated by stone columns to facilitate the passage of light. However, despite this expedient, the ambient must have looked quite dim, and the addition of Bramante's tribune was thought to illuminate the building.


The church is mostly intact and has not been heavily hit by the 1943 bombings, except for the north nave. The decoration you can see is rich and was made soon after the completion of the structure (1482-85), a perfect example of the passage from Late Gothic to early Renaissance - it is still largely visible today and consists of floral and geometric motifs and tondos with saints' busts.


Before we move forward and reach the bottom of the church with Bramante's tribune and the choir, let's have a brief tour around the chapels on both lateral naves! - there are 7 chapels in the south nave (so on your right when you enter the church) and 6 in the north nave (so on your left).


Map of the church with the internal divisions in nave and chapels - on the top right corner is the Cloister of the Frogs
Map of the church with the internal divisions in naves and chapels - on the top right corner is the Cloister of the Frogs | Image Credits: Il Cenacolo by P. Marani, R. Cecchi and G. Mulazzani



The Chapels in the South Nave

Let's start from the south nave (on your right when you enter) as it lies in a better state than its opposite, and contains more chapels and the most significant artworks!


The first chapel you encounter if you start from the closest to the entrance is the Cappella della Torre (Della Torre Chapel).


Gaudenzio Ferrari, San Paolo
Gaudenzio Ferrari, San Paolo

▶ It was originally dedicated to Saint Paul, who was depicted in a Gaudenzio Ferrari painting. Unfortunately, the artwork was looted by French troops during the Napoleonic domination and never restituted (it is now in Lyon).


Today, the chapel hosts a 17th-century fresco depicting the Vergine Adorante con Santi (Adoring Virgin between Saints), probably by Bernardino de Conti, and the funerary monument of Giacomo della Torre (1483), from which the chapel's name.

Gaudenzio Ferrari (ca. 1475-1546) was a prolific Italian painter and sculptor and a primary figure in the Renaissance scenario of the 16th century. Mostly active in the then-Duchy of Milan, his first artistic years are still characterized by an adhesion to the Lombard traditions, later to grow steadily apart from them and embrace the new styles. Among his notable works are: the decorations for the Sacred Mount of Varallo in Piedmont, the Sant'Anna Altarpiece divided between the Galleria Sabauda in Turin and the National Gallery in London, and Santa Caterina d'Alessandria at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan.


Next is the Cappella di San Martino de Torres, containing a 1962 altarpiece depicting St. Martin, some 16th-century tombstones and a baroque altar.


Third is the Cappella Marliani, also known as "degli Angeli" (of Angels). It hosts 16th/17th-century frescoes and an altarpiece, all telling the story of the Archangel Michael.


Moving forward we find the Cappella Santa Corona, its name coming from the Brotherhood Santa Corona, a wealthy association founded in 1494 which seat and burial site was indeed this chapel.


Gaudenzio Ferrari's frescoes in Cappella Santa Corona
Gaudenzio Ferrari's frescoes in Cappella Santa Corona

▶ The accommodating financial conditions of the Brotherhood allowed its members to call the best artists in town to decorate the chapel, and therefore Gaudenzio Ferrari frescoed the entire space in 1539 with religious scenes such as the Crucifixion, the Ecce Homo and the Angels bearing the instruments of the Passion.


Incoronazione di Spine by Titian, today at Louvre in Paris
Incoronazione di Spine by Titian, today at Louvre in Paris

▶ The altarpiece was commissioned to none other than Titian, who painted the Incoronazione di Spine (Crowning with Thorns) in 1542-43. This artwork was also stolen during the Napoleonic invasion and never returned - today it can be seen at the Louvre. After it left in 1797, it was substituted by the Deposizione (Deposition) by Caravaggino, made in 1616.


The fifth chapel is the Cappella Sauli, all frescoed in 1541-42 by Giovanni Demio.


The next is the Cappella degli Atellani, first entrusted in 1508 and frescoed with the current decoration in the 17th century.


Last on the south nave is the Cappella di San Giovanni Battista (Chapel of St. John the Baptist), containing 17th-century frescoes. It was entrusted to a Milanese family before 1513, as documents report.


The Chapels in the North Nave

Now that we are done with the south nave, we can go back to the main portal of the church and start exploring the other side - the north nave (on your left if your back is to the main portal) hosts just 6 chapels and has been unfortunately badly damaged during the 1943 bombings, so that much of what we see today has been reconstructed right after the end of the Second World War.


The first chapel we find is the Cappella Bolla or di Santa Caterina. The name "Bolla" comes from the first family it was entrusted to in the late 15th century, who was extremely close to the Sforzas, lords of Milan.


Today, it mostly contains 21st-century works and, in a marble niche, a precious St. Catherine of Siena relic. The altarpiece is a 1520 triptych and since the late 15th century the walls have been frescoed, but today only a few traces remain (the frescoes were rediscovered in 1928, then damaged by the bombs).


The second chapel is the Cappella di San Pio V, which has been fully rebuilt in recent times following the bombings. You can still grasp the view of a few 15th-century tombstones.


The next is the Cappella di San Domenico which carries the name of the Dominican order founder and was likely the first to be assigned, probably to Giovanni da Vimercate himself for his burial (he died in 1467).


It would later pass on to the Borromeo family, one of the most important in Milan during the 16/18th centuries, who retouched its appearance and built a small dome for themselves. Fourth is the Cappella Conti (or of St. John the Evangelist), first entrusted in 1491 but probably more ancient than that.


Initially, the family to take care of it was the Simonetta, and this is why on the vault we see the depiction of Giovanni Simonetta. However, the decoration is now fragmented, but a 1520 triptych is still visible as altarpiece.


Proceeding forward we find the Cappella di San Pietro Martire (of St. Peter Martyr), which first mention dates back to 1501.


Despite the chapel's name, the figure we may notice on the wall is not St. Peter but St. Ludovico Beltran, a 16th-century Dominican friar who is said to have been heavenly spared death when the weapon supposed to kill him turned into a cross.


We have now reached the sixth and last chapel on this side, which is the Cappella di San Giuseppe (Chapel of St. Joseph): once entrusted to the Borromeo family as well, today looks fully rebuilt, a consequence of the 1943 events.


▶ The Sacra Famiglia (Holy Family) we see is believed to be a 1540-55 work of Paris Bordone, Titian's disciple.



The Cappella della Madonna delle Grazie

A special mention goes to the last chapel in Santa Maria delle Grazie, which is not exactly located in the north nave but rather at the end of it - once you are done with the Cappella San Giuseppe, go back to the central nave, continue straight on then turn left and you will find yourself in the most ancient spot of the church.


As we saw, Santa Maria delle Grazie complex was founded on a plot of land where a precedent chapel dedicated to the Madonna delle Grazie (Holy Mary of the Graces) was already present - and this is exactly where we are standing now!


Since once a space had been consecrated it was preferable not to alter it, the original chapel was kept and inglobated within the church, then changed and readapted to fit the new structure's style.


La Madonna libera Milano dalla peste by Cerano
La Madonna libera Milano dalla peste by Cerano

▶ Today, this chapel welcomes us from the central nave with a lunette and a large stucco relief with the 1632 Incoronazione della Vergine (Coronation of the Virgin), and above the entrance arch we see Giovan Battista Crespi's (Cerano) La Vergine libera Milano dalla Peste (The Virgin frees Milan from the Plague), a 1631 work made to thank the Virgin for the end of the plague in Milan. That same plague was narrated by Italian classic writer Alessandro Manzoni in his Promessi Sposi (1827) and in Cerano's work here is reported with crude details, such as dying or dead children and people showing their infected bubos.


Once inside the chapel, you may notice the altarpiece, which is a 15th-century work called Madonna con il committente Gaspare da Vimercate e sua moglie (Holy Mary with commissioner Gaspare da Virmercate and his wife) - it misses some parts (look at the angels), cut off over time.


The frescoes here are dated to the late 15th century and depict the Eterno circondato da Angeli (The Almighty surrounded by Angels). The stained-glass windows are a recent work (they were not often seen in medieval Italy), made in 1963.


Bramante's Tribune & The Choir

Reaching the end of the central nave we find ourselves in Bramante's tribune.


What you should be looking at is a cube with a hemispherical dome on top, connected to each other by pendentives with tondos inscribed - the tondos contain portraits of the Doctors of the Church (saints who have significantly contributed to Christian theology and doctrine).


The dome itself rests on a loggia-like drum, and it was given a circular form as a symbol of perfection. It is flanked by two apses.


Built from 1492 based on a project by Donato Bramante, the tribune was one of the starting points of Ludovico il Moro's new plans for the church, as the surface space was supposed to be used as his mausoleum.


While moving around you will also spot the choir (the area with seating for the clergy) with the friars' wooden stalls. They are arranged in two rows and show the signs of different ages:

  1. The lower row is more archaic and ancient (late 15th century)

  2. The upper row's decoration is richer with floral motifs and figures of saints. It was made in the 16th century.

Here in the choir is where the mausoleum of the Sforza's family was initiated but never completed: in 1497, when the young wife of Ludovico il Moro, Beatrice d'Este, suddenly died, she was buried here and a majestic white-marble funerary monument was commissioned to Cristoforo Solari. Her husband was supposed to be put to rest beside her in good time, and the tombstone would have included his portrait.


Unfortunately, after the fall of Ludovico and his death in exile (1508), the monument was dispersed and his remains would never reach the church - the superb lid is now hosted at the Certosa di Pavia and is visible.


➜ The Certosa di Pavia can be reached in less than one hour by car or by train from Milan and it's the perfect one-day trip!




A view of the small Chiostro delle Rane and the Sacrestia Vecchia
A view of the small Chiostro delle Rane and the Sacrestia Vecchia | Image Credits: paolavillarestauri.it


CHIOSTRO DELLE RANE & SACRESTIA VECCHIA


Once you reach the end of the church, it is almost time to see the Last Supper, but your visit is not finished yet!


Even though Ludovico il Moro could not see his new church fully built, in addition to the Bramante's tribune, he initiated the construction of a new cloister (the complex already had three, which today are mostly lost) and a Sacristy, that you can both visit and can find at the end of your stroll through the church!


Both structures, completed by 1497, are once again said to be Donato Bramante's design, but the execution did likely not happen under his supervision.



Chiostro delle Rane

The Chiostro delle Rane (Cloister of the Frogs) can be accessed from the church or externally, from via Caradosso (the entrance is from the white, low building, under the frame with the Latin inscription LAVS DEO).


This cloister got its name from the sculpted bronze frogs placed on the central fountain to adorn it, spilling water from their mouths. It was hit by an incendiary bomb and took fire in 1943 but, luckily, the friars were quick to tame the blaze and the damages were minimal.


It is square-shaped, with five arches on each side supported by marble columns with floral motifs-decorated capitals. The decoration may at times appear incomplete: it was in fact only sketched, then supposed to be refined, but this last step never took place.


On the north side you will notice a construction, which is the Sacrestia Vecchia (Old Sacristy), accessible from the cloister - let's move inside.



Sacrestia Vecchia

The Sacrestia Vecchia (Old Sacristy) is a rectangular room decorated with frescoes and wooden cabinets.


Located opposite the church and originally used as a room to store the sacred instruments used for liturgy and for the dressing of the friars (this is what a sacristy is used for actually), today often hosts exhibitions and is also the seat of the Centro Culturale alle Grazie.


Before we enter, we can take a look at its portal: it has marble decorations and a wooden swing door with a monochrome lunette depicting the Vergine con il Bambino tra Santi (Holy Mary with the Child between Saints) by Bramantino (1456-1530).


Once inside, we can notice the wooden cabinets for storing the furnishing and some nice frescoed decorations, so good as to being sometimes attributed to Leonardo himself, who was working at the Last Supper when the Sacristy was in the making.


Oh, and speaking of Leonardo, we are now officially done with the visit to Santa Maria delle Grazie and we can head to the Cenacolo Museum!



THE CONVENT AND THE CENACOLO VINCIANO MUSEUM


Get out of the church from the main portal - on your right you will find a light-painted building with a red panel signalling the entrance to the Cenacolo Museum.


Your visit starts here and takes you inside the Dominican convent, the part of Santa Maria delle Grazie complex destined for the friars' rooms and living spaces, among them the refectory, where Leonardo da Vinci was called in 1495 to paint one of the walls with the scene of the Last Supper, later to become a world masterpiece.


Originally, the convent was structured around three cloisters: the Chiostro dell'Infermeria, the Chiostro Grande (the friars' cells looked out to it), and the Cloister of the Dead (looking out to the church). Today, what remains of them is basically a post-war reconstruction of the latter, as the conventual area has been harshly damaged by the 1943 bombings and came to the 20th century already heavily restored.


Some other parts of the convent, such as the library, were fully destroyed by the bombs and could not be rebuilt.



View of the Last Supper from the refectory
View of the Last Supper from the refectory | Image credits Wikimedia Commons

The Refectory - Cenacolo Museum

The Cenacolo Museum's visit path is actually quite brief, and this is because the exhibition rooms are state property, while the remaining part of the convent is still inhabited by the friars.


It mostly consists of the refectory, the room where the friars used to gather to consume their meals, which was damaged by the bombs but partially spared thanks to the preemptive protections set up by the friars. The Last Supper, covered by two layers of steel tubes and sandbags, survived, the opposite wall was mostly spared and the others got close to collapsing.


If you are in the refectory, you already know that you need to book your tickets in advance and that getting them is not the easiest of the tasks! In fact, new tickets get available every three months (for example, in mid-September you get your chance to book a slot for Nov-Dec-Jan) and they are quickly gone - this is because the Last Supper is an extremely fragile artwork and for conservative reasons visits can only last for 15 minutes and groups cannot exceed 35 people each.


Booking your ticket is mandatory to enter the Museum and there is no possibility to just get there and try your luck!


Here you can learn more about tickets, booking procedures, prices and more.

Here is the complete profile of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper with all the information you need to get the most of your hard-won visit.



The Last Supper - detail on the main door and the cut off of Jesus' feet
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci - detail on the main door and the cut off of Jesus' feet | Image credits: Wikimedia commons


So now that you managed to enter, it is about time to take a look around - what you will see is a rectangular-shaped room (4x1 sides and a length of 35.5m / 116,46ft) covered with barrel vaults and lunettes.


The construction of this place took place between 1487 and 1488 and immediately brought some static issues, as the space is long and does not have any column/pillar to sustain it. The issues are still a thing today, since the 1943 bombings destroyed the nearby library, thus leaving this room without solid support.


Also, it quickly looks clear that this room has been changed frequently over time: you may notice some lunettes on the long walls that may recall the presence of windows, which anyway are no more but got substituted with others.


The traces of frescoes scattered all around suggest an ancient presence of a rich decoration, almost cancelled by the 1943 bombings. The largest fragments are still visible at the base of the vaults and present geometric/floral motifs, festoons and ribbons, while under each vault are plaques with biblical quotes and depictions of Dominican saints and blessed.


In fact, this was a place visited daily by the friars, who could get inspired by what they saw on the walls. And this is why, besides the plaques, the short walls had also been decorated to motivate the eating friars: on one, the episode of the Last Supper was to remind the friars of the most important meal consumed by Christ, on the other the Crucifixion should help them bear in mind the sacrifice of Jesus that followed that very meal. These were among the most typical iconographic choices for refectories.


The wall with the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci was executed between 1495 and 1498, and was at times also the access point to the room: a now walled-up door, centered, was clumsily enlarged during the 17th century, thus damaging the feet of Jesus.


The complete profile of the Cenacolo can be found here!



Crocifissione by Donato Montorfano - on the bottom corners the two almost-faded portraits of the Sforza family
Crocifissione by Donato Montorfano - on the bottom corners the two almost-faded portraits of the Sforza family | Image credits: Wikimedia commons

The other short wall, facing the Last Supper, is fully covered by a fresco painting. It is the Crocifissione (Crucifixion) by Donato Montorfano.


Donato Montorfano (1460-1513) was an Italian painter, active mainly in Lombardy, who painted the Crucifixion in 1495, as the signature and date at the base of the cross testify.


The best work we have of him, the Crucifixion clearly lies in a way better state than its neighbour the Last Supper, as it was painted in the traditional fresco technique and therefore did not experience any specific conservation issue. This is also clear by looking at the bottom corners of the main scene: here is where the portraits of the Sforza family stood (a soft reminder to the friars of who was sponsoring them...) and today, that's the only portion of this wall which is not visible anymore because painted by Leonardo in 1497 with the same technique he used for the opposite wall. The Crucifixion resisted, the portraits didn't.


Anyway, the main scene, besides portraying three high crosses (of Jesus and the two thieves), includes Mary Magdalene under Jesus's cross and the Virgin Mary with the so-called pious women, all there to mourn the death of Jesus. In the rocky background is Jerusalem (but it looks like a 15th-century Milan).



 


Santa Maria delle Grazie and Cenacolo Vinciano Museum: Plan Your Visit


HOW TO REACH


Santa Maria delle Grazie and the Cenacolo Museum are very easy to reach if you are strolling around Milan, as you can find them right at the heart of the city center:




Also, this area of Milan is very well served by public transport, and reachable in several different ways:


  • By subway: lines M1 and M2, stop Cadorna, then it's like an 8-minute walk. Or alternatively, M1, stop Conciliazione, then another 7/8-minute walk.

  • By tram: line 16 (Direction: Monte Velino - San Siro Stadium), stop Santa Maria delle Grazie. Hop off and find the church right there.

  • By bus: lines 50 and 169, stop Via Boccaccio, then walk for 5 minutes.

  • By car: moving by car in Milan is definitely something I would not suggest. Traffic is heavy, many areas are restricted (LTZ zones) and it's very easy to get a fine. If you are traveling in Italy with your car, leave it at one of the parking areas just outside Milan's Metropolitan Area (like here, for example), then take the subway to reach the city center.



SANTA MARIA DELLE GRAZIE: OPENING HOURS AND TICKETS


Like many other churches in Italy, Santa Maria delle Grazie is free entry to all visitors and no tickets are required.


Some fees may be included in case of special events, performances, concerts and more, but this will be signalled.


⬤ As for the opening hours of Santa Maria delle Grazie (church and cloister), here is an overview:

Monday - Saturday

Sundays

​7AM - 1PM

​3PM - 7:30PM

​7:30AM - 12:30PM

​3PM - 9PM


Visits during mass celebrations are not allowed, so pay special attention on Sundays, when masses are more frequent: 8AM - 9:30AM - 10:30AM - 11:30AM - 6:30AM - 8PM.



CENACOLO VINCIANO MUSEUM: OPENING HOURS AND TICKETS


Unlike the church, to see the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci you will need to buy a ticket and booking your visit in advance is mandatory to access the masterpiece.


The Cenacolo is an extremely fragile artwork and, for conservative reasons, visitors must follow precise rules:

  • Visits last 15 minutes

  • Groups of max. 35 people are allowed inside

  • Security checks are mandatory before getting in

  • Bulky luggage/bags are not allowed inside

  • Professional videos/photos are prohibited and, in general, the use of mobile phones is not welcome


Due to this peculiar visiting process, of course tickets are hard to find and finish quickly - new ones become available every three months and can be booked in one of the following ways:

  1. ONLINE: from this website (max. 5 tickets can be purchased)

  2. CALL CENTER: at this number +390292800360 (Italian number, your carrier conditions apply) - max. 9 tickets purchasable

  3. EMAIL: write to cenacologruppi@adartem.it (use this option if you are a group - min. 10 tickets can be purchased via email)


➜ In case you are planning your trip to Italy in advance, I would definitely suggest checking the availability of tickets at the Cenacolo Museum as soon as you know your traveling dates! Also, if you don't manage to find tickets, try checking out the website again, new ones may become available from time to time.


Here is an overview of the pricing options (all prices updated 2024):

​PRICE

CONDITIONS

​FULL

15€

​//

​REDUCED

2€

​Young people aged 18 to 25

​FREE

​//

​People under 18, disabled people, teachers, ICOM members, etc.

Complete information can be found on the Cenacolo Museum official website.


As for the opening hours, here is what you need to know:


  • From Tuesday to Saturday: 8:15AM - 7PM (last visit starts at 6:45PM)

  • Closed on Mondays

  • Closed on January 1 and December 25


Check the official website for updates and possible extra opening times!


GUIDED TOURS


The Cenacolo Vinciano Museum collaborates with a Milanese association called Ad Artem, organizing guided visits to the Last Supper.

Guided tours are available in Italian and English, and come with an additional 9€ cost (so it would be 15€ for a full ticket + 9€ for the guide). Included in the price is the radioguide.


The booking of your guided tour happens when you purchase your ticket to the Cenacolo Museum here - just select the option "Museum Ticket + Guided Tour".


Tours in English are available at the following times: from Tuesday to Sunday at 9:30AM, 11:30AM, 3PM, 5PM and max. 25 people are allowed to take the guided visit at a time.


➜ Alternatively, audioguides are not available but you can download the official Cenacolo Museum App (iOS, Android) and enjoy your visit with their content!



View of the frescoes in Cappella Sauli
View of the frescoes in Cappella Sauli | Image credits: paolavillarestauri.it


USEFUL INFO


Before we say goodbye, just a few important websites and a couple of materials that may turn useful for your visit to Santa Maria delle Grazie and the Cenacolo:


  • Santa Maria delle Grazie Official Website: the website of the church and the Dominican convent - it includes info about the church and the activities carried on by the friars. Check it for news, special events, conferences and more. Available in Italian only.

  • Cenacolo Museum Official Website: on this nice-looking and highly optimized website you can find all details about your visit, tickets, special events going on, possible news and available is also material to prepare your visit + some insights about the Last Supper, Leonardo, and Sforza Milan!

  • PDF with a pocket guide to the Cenacolo is available here and is provided by the Museum itself - unfortunately, this feature is only available in Italian.

  • Official App for the Cenacolo Museum can be found on the Apple Store and Google Play - it includes a guided tour through the Last Supper and some useful insights that you can enjoy at the time of your visit.

  • Cenacolo Museum plan is downloadable here and available in Italian/English.



 


Santa Maria delle Grazie & Cenacolo Vinciano Museum: After Your Visit



EVERYTHING YOU CAN REACH IN LESS THAN 20 MINUTES


If you are here, reading this guide, you may be sharing the idea of pursuing a conscious way of traveling, limiting the rush and the hit-and-run experiences that fill your bucket lists but leave you culturally empty in the end.


To keep up with this purpose, here I would like to suggest you a few amazing places to check after you are done with your visit to Santa Maria delle Grazie - no more than 20 minutes on foot to reach them so that you can enjoy the district you are in and maybe discover something new!


  • Fondazione Stelline: this foundation is the closest destination you can find on your way back from Santa Maria delle Grazie. It regularly hosts contemporary art exhibitions, conferences and events. 3 minutes on foot.

  • La Vigna di Leonardo (Leonardo's Vineyard): a newly-established museum, it rotates around a historical vineyard that was donated to Leonardo by Ludovico il Moro and it's all about Leonardo's world! (When I was writing this post, in October 2023, the Vineyard was temporarily closed. I will regularly check for updates). 3 minutes on foot.

  • Museo della Scienza Leonardo da Vinci (Museum of Science): yes, this area of Milan can't get enough of Leonardo, also because it was right here that he spent much of his time in the city. This museum is increasingly becoming an institution of Milan and provides a highly educative experience through the worlds of science and technology - perfect for children! 6 minutes on foot.

  • Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio: probably the most significant religious site in Milan (even more so than the Duomo itself), Sant'Ambrogio is definitely a place you cannot miss both for the artistic and architectural masterpieces it hosts and for the pivotal role St. Ambrose played for the city (he is Milan's city patron)! 12 minutes on foot.

  • Museo Civico Archeologico (Civic Archeological Museum): located in the former San Maggiore monastery, this place is worth a visit for this reason alone but is also a great chance to discover its rich collection of Roman, Greek, Germanic art! 10 minutes on foot.

  • Rossana Orlandi Gallery: a contemporary design gallery that you can visit by appointment - a must-see if you are into art and design! 7 minutes on foot.

  • Church of Santa Maria Segreta: stop here for a quick visit - this super Rococo-like church is unfortunately a reconstruction of the original 18th-century version (it was demolished in 1911) and hosts several sacred music concerts! 6 minutes on foot.


Always keep your nose up while walking around looking for the next place to visit - you are in an elegant district, where architecture is curated and can surprise you with its virtuosity!



➜ Congrats on finishing your tour through Santa Maria delle Grazie and the Cenacolo Vinciano! Are you looking for more information about Leonardo's Last Supper? Check out the complete artwork profile!





 


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