Saved by chance and then hidden for hundreds of years, the Last Supper by Andrea del Sarto
Another stop along our "Cenacoli" trail takes us out of the city's historical center. This hidden jewel was perfectly described by Giorgio Vasari as an "Endless majesty with its absolute grace of all the painted figures". Andrea del Sarto, the flawless painter, is the author of the Last Supper kept in the Great Refectory of the San Salvi convent.
The origins of the monastery take us back to 1048, when Saint Giangualberto founded the monastery dedicated to Saint Michael in San Salvi. The order (“Vallombrosani”) became so powerful that the monks could praise themselves to be able to walk from Vallombrosa Abbey to Florence (almost 40km of distance!) by walking only on their own properties.
Finding Space at the Monastery
Over the centuries the monastery was enlarged and enriched with important art commissions like the famous Baptism of Christ by Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci (now housed at the Uffizi Gallery). At the beginning of the sixteenth century, thanks to large donations by the Abbot Ilario Panichi, the Great Refectory was added to the complex with an adjoining lavatory room and kitchen. Once it was completed Abbot Panichi entrusted the young Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530) with the decoration of the Cenacolo along the back wall.
Contraversy Over the Style
Initially the artist painted just the under-arch, with the help of some pupils like Franciabigio, one of the greatest talents of his workshop. The long arch features grotesque (grotto style) decorations and five medallions dedicated to patron saints of the Vallombrosani monks: Saint Giovanni Gualberto, Saint Salvi, Saint Bernard Uberti and Saint Benedict.
The fifth medallion, the central one, depicts Trinity through one of the most debated spiritual symbols reintroduced by Savonarola: the Trifrons. The wallpainting was then suspended for about fifteen years, until Andrea del Sarto was recalled in 1527 for the the Last Supper: the job was eventually completed in only 64 “giornate” (workdays)!
Shows Deep Emotion & Maturity
Andrea expressed here his artistic maturity, deep devotional intensity and important search on changing color effects throughout the wall (462x872 cm). Around the table, set up with a white tablecloth, all the Apostles are depicted around Jesus, on the same side. Judah, as Leonardo did, is not depicted beyond the table: he is sitting on the right of Jesus, faithfully respecting the Gospel of John, while he receives from Jesus a piece of bread. Note how the beloved Apostle John reaches out with one of the most touching expressions of the entire painting: their fingers are twisted into the most delicate gesture of affection.
For this scene there are numerous preparatory sketches which witness the accurate study of the poses, above all the anatomy of hands and feet. Most of the authentic drawings are now preserved in the Cabinet of Prints and Drawings of the Uffizi Gallery, thus some reproductions are showcased around this Last Supper. Its impeccable design and perfectly outlined draperies are the true protagonists of the Cenacolo which will really take your breath away.
Chance and Timing
It was really surprising the way the the fresco survived to the siege of Florence in 1530. The army of Charles V agreed with the Florentines to save the Last Supper by Andrea del Sarto from the fire of artillery. The imperial soldiers were so fascinated by its surprising modernity that this stunning Beauty was intentionally preserved from destruction. In 1534 the convent became a nunnery with a rigid enclosure which made the fresco painting unknown and invisible until the nineteenth century.
Details to Notice
The most original side of this Cenacolo is the upper part: the artist painted here a perfectly foreshortened balcony where two characters, sorrounded by a sunset light, are assisting to the Last Supper. It is a sort of independent scene, showing one of the figures holding a tray, while the other, firmly peeking down the balcony, turns his gaze to the servant.
The colors are always vivid and bright with unusual iridescent effects reminding you of shantung silk: purple, orange, turquoise and green such as for Judah’s soft drapery. The skillful use of light and shade gives the fabrics the idea of movement and adds plasticity to each figure.
In the tradition of the Florentine Cenacoli, Andrea del Sarto’s wallpainting is rightfully considered the highest achievement of a process which started in the mid-fourteenth century. Everyone can now admire this masterpiece in one of the least crowded corners of the town: a true must-see for the ones who indulge the curiosity to explore the city with calm.
By the way…even this fabulous museum is free of charge! It's simply stunning.