Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and the Delight of Context

On an ordinary street Claire and I went to a mostly forgettable Milanese church.

We’ve been to many spectacular places of worship in Europe but this one’s façade had less charisma than a suburban supermarket. Italy has a chain of these called Pam. I think this is funny.

Our visit wasn’t even really about the church, Santa Maria delle Grazie, but the nearby refectory.

The Mona Lisa is the star of the Louvre art museum, and the Queen Sofía National Museum Art Centre in Madrid is famed for Picasso’s anti-war satire, Guernica. But these are dedicated galleries, and within them we expect masterpieces.

Increasingly, I’m interested in the context of experiences, and the more unlikely the circumstances, the more compelling. One of the world’s great paintings, Da Vinci’s The Last Supper is on the dining room wall.

These unremarkable circumstances are remarkable.

The story of this magnum opus is as distinctive as the painting itself. Located next door to a medieval kitchen, Da Vinci finished it in about two years. The thinking behind it being on a refectory wall is that the monks would feel a divine connection with this painting of Christ at supper while they, in turn, gobbled their bread and stew. Unsurprisingly, The Last Supper suffered extensively from steam, smoke, and soot. And probably, if truth be told, cabbage odour.

Where the feet of Jesus should be in the painting is now a door, knocked through a few centuries’ ago because, you won’t be surprised to hear, the monks wanted better access to the kitchen. Later, Napoleon used it as a stable. It recently endured a twenty-year restoration.

As he was mastering the use of a single vanishing point our expert guide (she was terrific) told us that Da Vinci hammered a nail into Christ’s temple (ouch, irony!) and radiated string to assist with the perspective.

Apparently, the table at the centre of the painting wouldn’t have actually fitted in the portrayed room at Mount Zion, but there’s significant captivation as Jesus announces his looming betrayal. Da Vinci shows this with each disciple’s face and action a psychological revelation.

Despite the intolerable yelling from fellow visitors, it was extraordinary, and I felt privileged to see it. It speaks to my ignorance, but I was unaware that on the opposite wall is another painting, called the Crucifixion. We weren’t encouraged to view it.

The entire site was nearly destroyed by Allied bombing during WW2 and The Last Supper is conservatively valued at half a billion dollars.


On another Italian back street is an art gallery and the beige walls suggest a warehouse. There are fresh smatterings of graffiti by the entrance. We’re in Florence.

Claire booked our Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze tickets months ago and these were so tight that we could only get separate entrance times. Getting lost on our way, we clarified directions with a local and ran, backpacks a-jiggling, to make our 8.45 timeslot.

Got there. Seconds to spare!

Just like the Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan we went through airport-style security at the door and then rushed to the famed exhibit.

The first glimpse is arresting.

Among many ironies is that this version of David is indeed a Goliath. I’m confident that Michelangelo was entirely aware of this when sculpting his subject. Standing over five metres tall it’s inside a roped fence and so it’s impossible to stop beneath the marble colossus and feel fully shadowed.   

Immediately, I’m drawn to the massive hands and feet. David’s head is also immense and each of these, I’d suggest, indicates Michelangelo’s faith in human gifts. Communicated with Renaissance calm and intellect, the artist presents his subject with optimism and awe while reminding us of our potential for creating good.

Of note is the small genitalia which I reckon is emblematic of a modern, evolved masculinity. This is predicated on enlightened thoughtfulness that is freed from narrow constraints of sexual prowess. Michelangelo might be saying that regardless of David’s physical heroics we should look deeper for inspiration and ideals.

Most agree that David is presented in a theatrical moment: just as the youthful warrior has reached a momentous decision to go into battle against his larger foe. The statue weighs over six tonnes but emits a sense of almost celestial light, youthful beauty, and weightlessness.

Claire and I returned later to gaze again upon this mesmerising sculpture before continuing with our Florentine day.