Christians have a long tradition of portraying their savior. Over the centuries artists have illustrated hundreds of episodes from the Bible and one of the favorite scenes is the Cenacolo or Last Supper. Monasteries and convents frequently commissioned Middle Age and Renaissance artists to paint the iconic image. Florence counts over 50 versions and tracking them down is a rewarding adventure that costs nothing and provides a unique insight into how Jesus and the twelve apostles were depicted.
The basic scene is nearly always the same. Jesus sits in the center of a long table while followers are seated on either side. John is to the left and often hunched over in a state of sleep. Each of the figures has a halo above their heads except Judah who is generally seated across the table from the other figures and portrayed with a dark beard. Everything else including the background, expressions and the food itself were up to the talent and imagination of the artists.
Searching for Last Suppers requires a little planning since many of the monasteries where they’re located are only open mornings and on certain days. The ones below however are all located near the center of Florence and can be covered in a couple hours.
Cenacolo di Ognissanti (Borgo Ognissanti 42, 055/294-883, Mon., Tues. and Sat. 9am-12am, free) stands near the Arno facing an elegant piazza. The attendant will ask you to sign the register and direct you towards the refectory where monks once gathered for meals and the Last Supper covers an entire wall. Domenico Ghirlandaio completed this one in 1488. He was an expert in the genre and completed several others around the city with the help of his brother and a team of assistants. It’s notable for the detailed expressions and use of perspective. On the side wall the artist sketched a rough draft and comparing the two makes for some interesting speculation about John. Botticelli is buried in the adjacent church.
Head north towards the train station to reach the Cenacolo di Fuligno (Via Faenza 42, 055/286-982, Mon., Thurs. and Sat. 9am-12am, free). Pietro Perugino worked three years on the fresco and completed the job in 1496. It was covered over and only rediscovered a century ago during a restoration project. The apostles in this portrayal are hungry and all those to the left of Jesus are busy enjoying their food. The landscape above is visible through the columns of an imaginary palazzo that adds depth to the scene.
Walk up Via Nazionale and take a left on Via Ventisette Aprile for Cenacolo di Sant’Apollonia (Via XXVII Aprile 1, 055/238-8607, Mon.-Sun. 8.15am-1:15pm, free). This was once the biggest convent in the city and Paula greets visitors at the entrance with good humor and enthusiasm. The Last Supper inside is often overlooked and there’s a good chance you’ll be alone to observe the painting Andrea del Castagno completed in 1450. He imagined a scene inside a finely decorated room with a long table and geometric patterns. Judah is notable for his dark features and there’s less interaction and more contemplation among the diners. Castagno also painted the names (in Latin) of each apostle near their feet to make identification easier.
Just down the street inside Museo di San Marco (Piazza San Marco 3, 055/238-8608, Mon.-Fri. 8.15am-1:15pm, Sat.-Sun. 8.15am-4:50pm, €4) is another cenacolo designed by Ghirlandaio and completed with the help of his brother in 1480. It was a busy time for the artist who was overseeing several commissions in Florence at the time. The background, tablecloth and perspective are very similar to his earlier work however the colors are more vivid and the artist took the liberty of adding a cat. Today the painting shares a room with a small bookshop with an attendant who keeps the fresco company.
At this point you may be tired or have run out of time. Seeing multiple Last Suppers in a single day requires getting up early and some walking but if you have the time and the energy walk east towards the city’s second train station and Cenacolo di Andrea del Sarto (Via di S. Salvi 16, Tues.-Sun. 8:15am-1:50pm, free). This one is the most recent of the bunch completed in 1527 and quite animated with apostles on their feet in heated discussion. They haven’t earned their halos yet and John is wide awake while Judah on the far right of the fresco appear less villainous. One of the figures above the main scene is said to be a self-portrait of the artist. Afterwards you can walk back to the center along the Arno or search for your own supper in a neighborhood trattoria.
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