“Could there be a more appropriate or better conceived subject for a painting in a refectory than a farewell supper, which was destined to become eternally sacred to the whole world?” Goethe, “Giuseppe Bossi: On Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper at Milan”
My first breakfast in Milan was a solitary bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee. I washed the dishes. Taking my map, I left, securing doors and gates behind me with strange Italian keys, sideways skeletons, serious locks. At the bottom of three flights of worn marble tiles–the wearing down of which fascinated me–I stepped into the bright day through a doorway built to admit horses into the courtyard of this 18th century building. Sunday. Quiet streets. I had marked my map with a yellow highlighter, leading to my destination, La Ultima Cena, Il Cenoculo, the masterpiece which competes with the Mona Lisa as Leonardo’s most famous painting. “Dove Il Cenoculo?” asked Elena the day before. “Sant’Ambrogio,” answered Elisabetta. That basilica was my destination.
“You can ride my bicycle, or you can take the tram, and the subway is just up that street, turn right, then left, then right and it’s there. Remember, the stop is Porto Romano so when you come back you know where to get off.” My first thought–which I rejected–was the bicycle, but it’s difficult to navigate on a bicycle unless you know where you are and where you’re going, and then there were the grooves of the tram tracks. Intimidated by the subway, and wanting to see the city, I walked. Self-consciously solitary, hesitant to publicly read my map, I was a black hopeful shadow on sun-drenched streets, seeking shade beneath the trees along Via Beatrice Este. I wandered past a Byzantine church, breathtaking, mysterious and–to me–irresistible. I walked around it but became confused when I was suddenly on a medieval street. Out of odd uncertainty, I retraced my steps. My goal was to see the one painting I would find at Sant’Ambrogio. I had no other objective.
Seeing a subway stop, I went down to ask directions. I was kindly informed that the Basilica Sant’Ambrogio was directly across the street. I ran up the stairs and emerged in a driven frenzy to find the entrance to the church; still, I couldn’t find it. I walked around the block looking for a likely entrance, and finding none, and further and further from where I wanted to be, I turned back. Each moment increased my self-doubt. This was not, for me, the simple confusion of a stranger in a strange land; for me, all this was failure. I was proving something to someone, to Dario? To his sister, his parents? To myself? That I could do everything myself? That I could give myself a good time, a successful time, that I didn’t need Dario or the realization of his promises, and so I was determined to see La Ultima Cena. I had to do this without asking any of the questions I really needed to ask, or noticing anything around me.
I should have understood then. I didn’t find the door until I gave up possibilities which (to me) seemed reasonable and went in the only open gate, a spiked iron-clad foot-thick wooden monster that could have confined Satan. This was how I discovered that the entrance to this historic church is through the gate of the tower dungeon which houses Milan’s Museum of Torturous Implements of the Holy Inquisition.
I entered a small square. A one-eyed beggar from Africa sat on one of the benches that lined the courtyard. A couple of punk-rock kids sat kissing on a stone animal (lion? lamb?) outside the church door. The age of the place and its silence struck me; I entered without speaking to anyone. I did not imagine that others would understand even my poor, very poor, Italian, though only the day before I had spoken Italian the entire day, and the day before that, and the day before that and the day before that; my four days in Italy had been–except for the abysmal interludes of broken English with Dario–lived in Italian. Entering this church, I felt excruciatingly, self-consciously, foreign. Church bells rang the half hour.
“A combination of Romanesque and Byzantine architecture, the Basilica Sant’Ambrogio marked an important transition in style,” I was told by a coin operated recording just inside the doors. The recording said nothing about La Ultima Cena. I walked around the sanctuary, looking at the chapels and the paintings, puzzled that I did not see what I came to see, or a line of people waiting to see it, or any indication that it was here at all. I was momentarily entranced by a statue and shrine to a saint called Satiros, and nearly bought him a candle based on the painfully appropriate prayer asking for his help in overcoming “egoismo e indeciso.” The long line of suppliants waiting for a chance to buy these candles and prayers indicated something fundamental in human nature.
I continued to walk around the church, looking, but absently looking; occluded as I was by egoism and indecisiveness, I was paralyzed. All I REALLY saw was that I didn’t see what I set out that morning to see. I did not want to ask, “Where is Leonardo’s painting?” when clearly what WAS all around me was amazing. Finally, I bought a guidebook to Milan from a woman running a kiosk inside the church and from the book I learned that what I wanted was the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Sant’Ambrogio was the simply the closest subway stop. I walked out of the church moments before mass began. I missed that, too.
A destination serves best as a reason to venture out. Until I learned this, I endured the pathology of frustration. Knowing where I “wanted” to be, it became impossible for me to stay where I was, to see the random beauty of a place like this one. A week later, after I had learned how to ask useful questions and how to be somewhere, I tried to return. Sant’Ambrogio was closed for mass, and all that remained for me was to wander through the three dismal floors of torture, perusing devices representing the nefarious side of human nature, diabolically vindicated by “Church” and “Justice. The irony is this. Hell is exactly that, not to be where you are at any given moment. I had damned myself.
“Des Lebens labyrintisches irren Lauf,” wrote Goethe in one of his prologues to Faust. “. . .life’s labyrinthine chaos course.”
I continued, through small streets and down some larger ones, reaching, finally, the monastery in which Leonardo had painted to pay for food and shelter.
I could not get in. “We are sorry. There are no more reservations today. Call this number to make an appointment.”
Tourists who were in Milan for only one day crumpled in disappointment or paced in frenzied agitation. “What if someone cancels? Then can we get in?”
“No one cancels.”
I looked around. There are tours in English and Italian; a Korean tour group had all the tickets for the next English tour which was also the last of the day. Next to the door a table was set up selling souvenirs of the Cenoculo experience; posters, maps, postcards, banners, all kinds of junk.
“Per favore. Di me il numero.”
“Siamo ciudo domani, e martedi non ne piu prenotatti, mercoledi e il primo giorno.”
“Va bene. Sono qui per una settimana.”
“Bene. Qui,” and he handed me a small card with the number printed on it. “Chiama un giorno primo. Abbiamo un tour in inglese cinque volte per giorno.”
“Grazie. Grazie tanti. Arrivederci.” Clearly, my Italian wasn’t very good, or were there things about the painting I would understand better if they were told to me in bad English? The fact was, I didn’t care if I saw this famous painting or not; I preferred a tour in Italian because, at least, I would improve my listening comprehension. I had seen this painting–as we have all seen it–in reproductions everywhere on everything. My grandmother, in her little house on its gravel street in Billings, Montana had, hanging above her sink, a china plate on which was printed The Last Supper. When I was a kid, I thought that was funny since no one ever actually ate supper off the plate. I inherited it, as it had been a gift from my mother, and when it broke in a move, I felt no loss, either of the artifact of my grandmother’s life or of this painting. The plate was kitsch; the painting, by default, was kitsch. Seeing The Last Supper was just the thing you did in Milan. From my frustrated visit to the Basilica Santa Maria di Grazia, I had a story to tell the girls at dinner, “There were so many people, I couldn’t get in.” I knew I would say that and they would ask me when I could go.
A nineteenth century tourist had raved about Milan, calling it the beautiful progeny of a marriage between Zürich and Rome. I loved Zürich; I had not been to Rome. Today Milan is a city that, apparently, does not attract tourists, only those who want to hear opera at La Scala–which, during my visit was playing West Side Story–or who are passing through to real destinations like Rome, Florence or Venice, but Milan ultimately gave me unhurried, uncrowded experiences in intriguing, beautiful places. I was heading in the direction of downtown, toward the Duomo. Relieved of Il Cenoculo as a destination, I looked in my small book on what I might find on the way. My feet were burning from blisters I’d gotten the day before walking barefoot in hot black shoes, around the Naviglia, and though I was now wearing socks, they were too heavy, and pressed on my blisters.
I continued walking, past a building whose street door was flanked by ancient statues. I entered only the courtyard. I glanced at hacked up dismembered marble arms and legs, thighs without knees or hips, half a face with an ear, scattered in the yard, covered with dust, or resting on fat-legged marble tables like fossilized cadavers of titans; the ancient, presented like this, didn’t interest me. I turned away.
I was on the Corso Magenta. I really wanted lightweight socks. It was Sunday. What would be open? I decided to find something to eat and continued toward the Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II.
I got lunch in an autocafe, one of a chain throughout Milan–all of Italy, for all I know–the equivalent of Denny’s. I found no seat except in the smoking section, across from a junkie who had piled his plate high with ham, pasta, salad and fruit he didn’t touch. I had rigatoni bolognese, worse than American pasta which is notorious in Italy for being overcooked. The bread was stale and my soda was expensive. As I ate, silently looking past the junkie out the window, I decided not to eat there again, even though it had a bathroom. A tourist on foot becomes preoccupied with accessible public toilets, and in the course of that day I remembered reading a description of the convenient public toilet behind the Duomo, complete with showers, run by the Tourist Bureau.
I set out in search of socks. The streets were now packed with people, and I shuffled and jostled my way along, past refugees from everywhere selling everything; Senegalese selling purses, Chinese selling cheap electronic toys, Angolans offering braided bracelets, Filipinos selling truly lovely handmade jewelry made of fishing line and glass. I was ignored; I looked either too destitute or too Italian to approach, and was left to go my way while those more obviously tourists were plagued and pursued down the Corso Vittorio Emanuelle. I found a store open and entering, looked for socks. Milan IS fashion; and the clothes in this store were gorgeous, but in the self-consciousness of my solitude, I had difficulty looking. I found the socks and bought them. I crossed the Piazza delle Duomo, and went for the first time to a cafe that became from that day on my resting place.
“Mi dispiace, ma, non posso cambiare,” the man behind the counter was saying to the young Korean woman ahead of me in line who had ordered ice cream and cappuccino and handed him a 300,000 lira note. “Aspetta un momento, per favore,” he continued, then looked at me, “Mi scusi, signora, lei po cambiare questo?”
“Si. Aspetta.” I gave him change, then I ordered an espresso and soda water. In solidarity with the Italian style, I put two cubes of sugar in my tiny cup of coffee, though normally I take it black, and stirred. It was better sweet. I felt triumphant that I could change that note; I felt that I was more than an imbecilic parasite lost with blistered feet, marching on the streets of Milan purposefully to erroneous destinations, who had come to Italy in pursuit of a man who had turned out to be a lying sociopath.
Sitting with my coffee, listening to an orchestra playing in the background and looking at the pigeon and tourist filled square of the Duomo, I understood all of it. I opened my book and looked at all the places I could go; I had no destination, I had only to enjoy myself. My one certainty was a plane ticket taking me back to California in three weeks. I did not want to stay so long, but I couldn’t change my ticket at that moment, that day; it was Sunday, and I was in Milan. That reality finally penetrated; I was in Milan, on my own, independent, in one of the world’s great, oldest cities. I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes, and saw with excitement how little I knew of anything, especially of where I was. I was filled with the sense of magic possibility that is freedom. Adventure; (advent, the beginning or coming of something important).
After a change of socks I decided to see the paintings hanging in the Sforza Castle. I crossed the Galleria and found myself in a medieval market square with posts and rings for tying horses. Families of Italian and eastern European tourists ate picnic lunches on the raised platform of the market; it was a beautiful spot and I was able with my new wisdom to enjoy it, to marvel at it, to picture in my mind the horses tied and merchants bargaining beneath the watchful gaze of burghers and officials looking from the merchant exchange offices above. I bought a gelato, and crossed a traffic circle, entering the drawbridge gate over the dry moat that surrounded a castle from a fairy tale.
I wanted to see paintings, but the first entrance led me to carefully labeled marble body parts. Outside again, I saw a sign, “Pinocateca.” Painting gallery. The Castle Sforza IS medieval, but inside, the museum is ultra-modern and spare; it’s perfect. The European time machine–of which I had only seen scattered samples in museums–needs somehow to rest within a space so barren of context that each comprehensible jewel can be savored, relished, seen. The Sforza Castle was made — in many places — into just such spaces. I passed through the first two in which tapestries hung above mammoth medieval chests and chairs, into another, with a vaulted green ceiling on which frescoes of zodiac signs were painted; it was splendid, set off by itself. From there I walked into the next perfectly Spartan room. Narrative and symbolic paintings of the Virgin, St. Sebsastian, St. Gregory, St. Benedict began their education of my eyes. I needed to be taught; I did not know how to see; I was tuned to subject, numb to form, blind to technique. At first I saw only that the paintings were virtually the same; the same subjects, the Last Supper, the crucifixion, insufficient representations of the Biblical reference I love most, the Garden of Gethsemene. There was the first Christmas, the infant Jesus on Mary’s Lap, the child Jesus, then sorrowing, brave Mary holding up the body of her dead son, and on and on and on over and over again from one room to the next. Goethe wrote that these artists, painting for patronage, limited by their patrons to these same subjects, were imprisoned, but there was none of the joylessness of imprisonment in these works; at least, I didn’t see it. All seemed to have been painted with patience, faith and love–and hope, of course, for a few dollars.
But I was learning. Learning of saints, and which ones cried out most for depiction–St. Sebastian with his arrow-pierced young body, his agony. Later, a strange image emerged; a levitating knife, poised to penetrate? or decapitate? There was no clue anywhere as to the significance of this airborne blade. Did it denote martyrdom? I posited this theory hoping to find the blade in a painting of the one man my Protestant background recognized as a martyr, St. John the Baptist. “That,” I thought, “will tell me.” I didn’t object to my ignorance; it was the force behind discovery. Looking for a flying blade seeking John the Baptist, I gasped to see his head on a plate, tongue hanging out, eyes rolled back, complete with blood, veins, nerve endings and a severed spinal chord.
Within these rooms of time I saw the discovery of fixed-point perspective and the effect it had on Christ’s formerly precarious balance on his mother’s lap. I saw men and women of Italy’s streets painted in the backgrounds of the familiar Bible scenes, replacing the anonymous paper-doll faces of the early middle ages. Intricate brocade on the gowns of painted archbishops was accomplished in the same way I use lace paper to create pattern and texture; through a stencil. It was all astonishing; I saw the palpable difference in the floating, light reflective surface of an oil or casein painting and the infused radiance of a fresco; plaster inoculated with color. I fell in love with its passionate immediacy, the vividness of a moment of life, the movement of existence. From that day, I sought them everywhere and yearned to try my own.
At the end, there stood Goethe’s passion, the plastic arts, a statue he could have seen in Rome, but didn’t. Starkly, simply exhibited in a replication of a sculptor’s workroom, without the fastidious self-consciousness of a set design, stood Michelangelo’s unfinished standing Pieta Rondanini. The great work was spot-lit from four directions with benches making a small amphitheater in front. I sat down. I had loved this piece since I saw photos of it in high school art history class. There in front of me it appeared to be the fruition of ALL the paintings; in a relative sense they were complex sketches, studies spanning centuries, practice for this exquisitely unfinished work.
I had spent three hours in this palace of delight; I was surfeited.
On my way back I bought a strawberry gelato (e soltanto una fragola) and, savoring its sweet temporality, I slowly returned to Via Atto Vanucci. I had not seen La Ultima Cena, but when I did, three days later, all of this had prepared me for what is much more than a painting; as a work of art, it is a force transcending its many mangled restorations, a force of beauty reaching beyond beauty, a destination. Il destino. Destiny.
“The presence of works of art, like those of Nature, makes us. . .wish to express our feelings and judgements in words, but . . . in the end we return to a wordless beholding.” Goethe Italian Journey
This is a chapter from a memoir entitled Il Treno that is not for sale anywhere. What I learned from finally seeing The Last Supper is that even when we think we know something, we’re very likely wrong. Beyond that, it is an amazing painting, almost not a painting at all, but a force of life. In 2000, I was in Milan as the result of an absurd compromise, wandering around aimlessly, contending with the combination of intense anger, a broken heart and the reality that I was trapped in Italy for at least ten days without wanting in the least to be there. Strange, huh? Not wanting to be in Italy.