What is left of the ancient monastery of San Salvi lies on the outskirts of Florence. The monastery was mostly destroyed in 1529, during the siege of Florence, but a few buildings, including the refectory, were spared. The reason the monks' dining room escaped destruction is that it was home to a magnificent image of the Last Supper, the masterpiece of Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530).
Andrea del Sarto's fresco is thought to be second only to Leonardo da Vinci's world-famous depiction of the same theme, which he painted for the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Although Leonardo transported to Milan what was a Florentine tradition, it was one he would challenge in a number of ways, most notably by placing Judas on the same side of the table as Christ and the other Apostles. Up till then, It had been the practice to depict Judas seated alone on the side of the table nearest to the viewer.
In this respect, Andrea follows Leonardo’s example. In addition to Christ and the twelve apostles (who are depicted without haloes), we see two other figures, who are looking on from a balcony at the scene below. The pair were once, erroneously, thought to be the painter and his wife.
Stripping away all incidental detail, Andrea focuses on the apostles’ reaction to Christ’s declaration: ‘Verily I say unto you that one of you shall betray me’. The news ripples from the centre to the ends of the table. Three of the disciples get to their feet in protest, others look away.
In terms of drawing, colouring, composition or a sense of drama, Andrea’s fresco of the Last Supper is hard to fault. As such, it deserves to be as well known as any work by Leonardo, Raphael or Michelangelo.
In Florence a painting of the Last Supper (Italian: Ultima Cena) was known as a cenacolo, which comes from the Latin coenaculum. In ancient Rome the word was used to denote the dining-room of a private house; it would later describe the refectory of a convent or monastery. In Florence it became common to decorate the end wall of a refectory with a fresco of Christ's last meal with his disciples. And many such frescoes have survived.
The oldest dates back to the middle of the 14th century and dominates the end wall of the refectory of Santa Croce. It was painted in the the first half of the 1360s by Taddeo Gaddi (c. 1300-66), a pupil of Giotto.
Blogging about Florence: