Location: Milan, Italy
Visited: August 11, 2012
Site Type: Cultural
Opinion and Background:
Santa Maria delle Grazie is a small church located in Milan whose call to fame comes from containing the painting known the world over as “The Last Supper.” While the inscription for making this a UNESCO World Heritage Site includes both the church and the masterpiece, it is obvious that most people have Leonardo da Vinci’s work in mind when they visit this site. When you purchase tickets to see the painting (which must be done weeks, if not months in advance to get a fair price) you have a very strict time slot when you are allowed to see it (15 minutes). Knowing this, I scouted the area the day before which happened to be a day when “The Last Supper” was closed. The whole area looked like a ghost town with virtually no tourists checking out the church itself.
The most peculiar thing about “The Last Supper” is that it is actually painted on the side of the wall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie church. I had always wondered why such a famous painting would stay in such a tiny church instead of being moved to a more famous museum like the Uffizi Gallery, or to the Cathedral of Milan at the very least, and if you wondered that too, now you know!
The church was built over 500 years ago and almost immediately, Leonardo da Vinci was hired and he started what is now considered one of the greatest paintings of all time. Although I am not big on art and don’t really buy all of the hype that surrounds this particular painting, I understand how it was a leap forward in art and was quite excited to see it.
Now for my brutal criticism.
The Santa Maria delle Grazie Church is average at best. Scratch that – the best way to describe it is ‘underwhelming.’ Any neighborhood Catholic Church is far prettier than this one. Calling this a World Heritage Site and completely passing over the Cathedral of Milan – the most beautiful church I have ever seen – is simply a travesty.
I firmly believe that adding the church as part of the site was a cheap attempt to hide the fact that UNESCO was awarding World Heritage status to a single painting. While I don’t doubt that their heart was in the right place, attempting to preserve and recognize what is now considered by most as a masterpiece in art by possibly one of humanity’s greatest geniuses, I strongly disagree with the inclusion of this site as a World Heritage Site. What makes this worthy and not any work by Picasso, Botticelli, or even other work by Da Vinci? Why not an Asian piece of art from India or Japan? Hailing a single painting and calling it part of our World Heritage leads down a slippery road full of bias favoring Europeans, in a system which is already too Euro-centric. I am not even going to get into how subjective art is by its very nature.
There is no doubt that Italy is home to some of the most amazing UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world such as the archipelago of Venice and the amazing Greek temples in Agrigento. In all of my travels however, I do not remember being more disappointed in a World Heritage Site than when I visited the Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie with “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci as it is officially called. It is a big title for a site that has so little to offer.
1) Completeness / Preservation (4/15): The painting is 500 years old, granted, but it is falling apart. The methods used by Leonardo da Vinci on this painting are known to be fundamentally flawed today as the painting is subject to water damage.
2) Extensiveness of the Site (0.5/15): You are literally lead into a small room that has the Last Supper on one side, and another (pretty cool) painting on the other. That is it. I seriously considered giving this a zero.
3) Cultural Significance (2/25): Did it affect art in Renaissance Europe, meh, kind of. Did it change the course of history… no not really.
4) Personal Impact (2.5/15): It is much bigger than I expected, which was a nice plus. I’ve seen this painting in the dining room of every catholic family since I was a child. Nonetheless, it is a single painting, and hardly the best I’ve ever seen.
5) Logistics (1/10): The only reason that this doesn’t get a zero is that it was quite easy to get to by subway. I have never felt so ripped off in a UNESCO World Heritage Site as I felt upon exiting this site. The official price stands at 15 euro for a 15 minute view, which is probably the most grossly overpriced site to visit in the world. If you wait till the last minute, many tour websites have your back at the inflated prices of 30-40 euro! Unreal!
6) Uniqueness (1/20): It is a great painting by one of the smartest humans to ever live. However, great art, in the grand scheme of things, are a dime a dozen. There really is nothing like Angkor for example, but great art can be found in a number of museums all over the world.
Combined Score: 11/100
Is this a good score? Find out how it compares with other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in our rankings.