He designed one of Florence’s most notable landmarks, the Ponte Vecchio, which has spanned the Arno River for over 650 years; but close by, one of Taddeo Gaddi’s most dramatic works is hidden away in an ancient convent next to the magnificent church of Santa Croce. Typically, tourists flock to Santa Croce to visit the tombs of the Renaissance heavies buried there—Michelangelo, Macchiavelli, Galileo, et al. But right next to the church is a peaceful, enclosed courtyard leading to a large hall, and there you can view Gaddi’s Last Supper, a huge fresco mural done around 1340.
We tend to think of there being just one Last Supper—Leonardo da Vinci’s—but in fact countless masters across history have painted the scene. Many, like Gaddi’s, were done centuries before da Vinci’s rendering supplanted and, to some extent, subsumed all the others.
History is what led me to seek out the slow-food spectacles of old Fiorenza. My wife is a Dante scholar who teaches a summer course in Italy for UC students. She lets me tag along as a sort of indentured servant. I do the shopping, cooking, and housekeeping while she introduces her young charges to the literary and artistic marvels of medieval and Renaissance Florence. My lowly position has its perks, however. When I’m not trudging out to shop at the Mercato Centrale, or the (less pricey) Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio, I’ll sometimes accompany her classes to gaze at architectural and artistic wonders such as the Duomo and Giotto’s Campanile; the shimmering mosaics in the Baptistery and the paintings on the walls of San Miniato al Monte, which sits high on a hill across the Arno near the Piazza Michelangelo.
But after a few years of this, I’ve become blasé about it all and will occasionally mutter irreverent remarks not only about the tourists but the masterpieces themselves. Sensing my increasing jadedness, my favorite medievalist suggested I take a day off to go look at some of the Cenacoli (Last Suppers), “and write something about them.” The old journalist in me jumped at the assignment.
The first thing I learned was that nearly all of the great Last Suppers were painted on the walls of cavernous old cloisters, and thus unseen by the public for hundreds of years. Some weren’t even “discovered” until centuries after they were finished, when the cloisters were secularized as a result of invasion or revolution in the 19th century.
As with nearly all the subsequent Last Suppers, Gaddi’s is situated at the end of the convent’s dining hall, so while the contemplatives ate, they could meditate upon that long-ago Seder, arguably the most influential dinner party in history. For modern viewers, accustomed to regarding paintings as a sort of snapshot, a moment frozen in time, there is something a little trippy about these early murals. Events that occurred both during and after the meal are compressed into one dramatic scene: Judas reaches to dip a piece of bread while apostles are having a conversation, and Jesus blesses his bread, three events that in the Bible don’t—and can’t possibly—occur at the same time.
Time isn’t the only thing that gets compressed and morphed together on the fresco. So, too, does geography, both real and imagined. Rising above the table scene in Gaddi’s mural is a huge Tree of Life upon which Jesus is crucified. In the fertile medieval imagination, it seems, the crucifixion took place in the heart of Eden, where grew the very tree that started all the trouble. The center of Gaddi’s fresco features the familiar banquet table, with seated diners facing outward. But in Gaddi’s version, Judas Iscariot, sans halo, sits in front of the table with his back partly turned to us. And although Judas is “closer” to the viewer, he is rendered much smaller than those seated on the far side of the table.
From Santa Croce, it’s less than a mile walk to Sant’Apollonia at Via XXVII Aprile 1, where you’ll find the composition of Andrea del Castagno. (NB: One of the finest restaurants in Florence, La Giostra, is even closer and on the way.) A hundred years separate Castagno from Gaddi, and it shows in the increased emphasis on perspective and the heightened realism of Castagno’s work. His Last Supper has a three-dimensional quality that makes it seem like an extension of the room itself—an approach duplicated by other artists in many subsequent renderings, some of which even incorporate the actual vaults and archways of the building into the painted scene. Others take the illusion further still, into an imaginary outdoors, with the scene opening out onto skies and landscapes where birds sail past fruit trees and cypresses.
The diners in Castagno’s composition are all barefoot, an allusion to the Biblical passage where Jesus, in a gesture of humility, washes the feet of those attending. The Arno did some washing of its own in 1966, when floodwaters covered the lower part of Gaddi’s fresco, and the Ponte Vecchio itself was damaged.
Castagno’s Last Supper is only a few blocks from San Marco, the monastery (now a museum) where Fra Angelico painted his most beautiful works. The wall of the museum bookstore features yet another Last Supper, this one by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Unlike most Cenacoli, Ghirlandaio’s mural has always been on view to the public; the space was once a dining hall for visitors to the monastery, and cooking grease damaged the painting, now restored.
Like most artists of his time, Castagno did not restrict himself to religious subjects. In fact, his macabre nickname, “Andrea degli Impiccati,” or “Andrew of the Hanged Men,” derived from one of his first big secular commissions: a mural showing the execution by hanging of a band of rebels. It’s a reminder of how remarkable it is that Florentine artists could create such a massive body of work despite the city’s history of wars, uprisings, and plagues—not to mention their own cantankerousness. These were no effete artistes. Michelangelo got his nose flattened in a brawl, Perugino was convicted of assault and battery, and his partner in crime was exiled for attempted murder.
Perugino, it so happens, created my favorite Last Supper of all, in the refectory at Foligno at 42 Via Faenza, less than a half mile from Sant’Apollonia. In this one, Judas is not shown in the usual profile but turns to direct his gaze at the viewers, as if inviting them to join his little conspiracy. Meanwhile, Thomas (of “doubting Thomas” fame) pours wine from a pitcher, seemingly indifferent to the tension around the table and oblivious to St. Peter, who is holding a knife and leering menacingly at Judas.
The only Last Supper that requires more than a short walk from the heart of Florence is Andrea del Sarto’s in Via San Salvi, and even this is just outside the walls of the old city, less than two miles from the Duomo. Completed in 1527, del Sarto’s differs in striking ways from earlier Cenacoli. Gone are the traditional haloes, and now Judas sits next to Jesus, making a gesture of exaggerated innocence. Jesus tenderly places his hand on John’s while three of the apostles stand in dramatic poses, robes aswirl. Like his predecessors, del Sarto incorporates windows to add depth, but instead of birds and trees there is only a balcony overlooking the room, and the sky beyond framed by a big arched opening. On the balcony are two people, obviously servers, talking to each other. They betray no sense that what is happening before them is anything transcendent. For them it’s just another catering gig. Why did del Sarto place them there? Perhaps as a challenge to Christian viewers who are no more engaged in their faith than these disinterested witnesses.
Ultimately, all these paintings challenge you to consider, among other things, the role of the artist in shaping both faith and history. On this point, Michelangelo himself may have the last word. As a septuagenarian, the archetypal Renaissance man went to work on his Florentine Pietà, now in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, 50 years after completing his far more famous Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He intended the Florence sculpture to be his tomb, but abandoned it unfinished after hammering off parts of it in a rage. What remains shows a large man tenderly embracing and gazing down upon a rendition of the Pietà. Mary cradles the limp body of Jesus, and the man cradles both.
What does the portrait represent? It’s open to multiple interpretations—the figure’s identity is still argued to be the Bible’s Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus or both, though his face is that of Michelangelo himself. I myself am inclined to see it as an audacious declaration that, without the artist to tell the story, the faith itself is diminished.