Are you looking for the secret, hidden, unusual (and free of charge) Florence? You found the ideal article about it! Discover with Flora the fascinating soul of Florence Last Suppers, at the margins of the beaten tourism track.

Dedicated to Ann

Renaissance Florence for all budgets

Sometimes travellers complain about the expansive museums of Florence: it’s true, Florence is an expensive city, but the cultural heritage of the Renaissance cradle’s is priceless…
However, there are some hidden jewels which are visible without touching your wallet. I am writing about the wonderful, spiritual path of the florentine ”Last Suppers” painted from the Gothic style up to the Mannerism style in different churches scattered in Florence and in its outskirts.

Once upon a time “Andreino degli Impiccati”

Our guided journey begins in front of the first Renaissance Last Supper of art history: we are in Sant’Apollonia Monastery, Via XXVII Aprile, Florence. The monastery was founded in 1339 by an order of Benedictine nuns. In the XV century, the abbess Cecilia di Pazzino Donati entrusted the building of a new refectory; a few years later, the abbess Apollonia di Piero da Giovanni da Firenze entrusted some frescoes to an artist called Andrea di Bartolo.

He was born in 1421 in Castagno (= chestnut) in the Mugello valley, closed to Falterona Mountain, where the Arno river has its source. We have very few informations about the life and the education of Andrea; we just know his nickname was “Andreino degli Impiccati” because after 1440 he painted on the Bargello walls the prisoners hanged after the Anghiari Battle (impiccati = hanged).

Our Andreino is better known nowadays as Andrea del Castagno, from his birthtown. He died very young in 1457 because off the black plague. Florentines colleagues didn’t like his style: his drawings and his lines were considered too sharp, too neat, too pungent. He would influence later the School of Ferrara and artists as Cosmè Tura, Francesco del Cossa and Ercole de’ Roberti.

Andrea del Castagno was probably a pupil of Paolo Schiavo (1397-1478) and later a coworker of Piero della Francesca (1416-1492) in Sant’Egidio Church, under the supervision of the master Domenico Veneziano (1410-1461). In the small church situated in the Hospital of Santa Maria Nova (founded in 1286 by Folco Portinari, the daddy of our famous Beatrice, beloved by Dante), the trio painted the wonderful “Stories of the life of the Virgin Mary”. The prestigious cycle of frescoes which decorated the main chapel was lost in the XVIII century during the late-baroque renovation of the church. The fragments were discovered in 1940 and they are now displayed in the Sant’Apollonia Monastery.

The Last Supper in Sant’Apollonia Monastery

But let’s go back to our masterpiece. Andrea del Castagno painted the Last Supper in Sant’Apollonia Monastery in 1447 and he definitely broke the rules from the Gothic style: the Crucifixion was usually the most important depiction in the refectories, followed by the histories of the Passion of Christ. Whereas, in the work of Andrea del Castagno the Last Supper arrogantly arises from the chains of the medieval style and becomes the most important scene.

Andrea set the Twelve Apostles along a horizontal table, portrayed like ancient roman philosophers; it’s easy to recognize them because their names are written in the painting, close to their feet. Judas, dressed in dark violet, is the only one who is seating on the other side of the table, without halo and without his written name. Our attention immediately focuses on the triangle created by the Christ, Saint John and Judas. Behind the Apostles, a series of marble panels in a visionary style, with violent, shining, discordant and strident colours captures our eyes. But the gloomy shades of the geometrical Last Supper gradually become lighter and more serene in the upper part of the work: the “Resurrection”, the “Crucifixition” and the “Deposition” are unifyied by the light, the landscape and the harmonious sense of the composition.

That’s the message of the Salvation which Andrea del Castagno desired to give to the faithful. Every element of the architecture, the ancient sphinxes, the roof tiles, the lacunari ceiling in black and white chessboard is seen from below: Andrea del Castagno carefully applied the theory of the perspective, as Leon Battista Alberti had written. The dramatic atmosphere of the Last Supper with its beautiful geometry is the most astonishing depiction of illusory reality ever achieved during Renaissance.

A short history of the museum

The Last Supper by Andrea del Castagno was a hidden treasure until 1808. The seclusion of the Monastery was perfect to preserve the frescoes: when scholars saw it for the first time in the XIX century, they were all stunned by the intact beauty of the painting. The museum was opened in 1891: it was the third museum dedicated to a “Last Supper” inaugurated in Florence after San Salvi Monastery and the Cenacolo del Fuligno. The director Guido Carrocci wanted to dedicate the whole museum to the artist Andrea del Castagno. In 1907, they celebrated the 450th anniversary after the death of the painter. New acquisitions took place in the following years, included the prestigious cycle of the “Illustrious Men” coming from the ancient Villa Carducci Pandolfini in Legnaia, close to Florence. In 1961, the cycle depicting Dante, Petrarca, Boccaccio and more eminent personalities was moved to the Uffizi Gallery. Nowadays it is possible to admire in the same museum a portrait of the abbess Umiliana Lenzi which testifies the key-role played by abbessess in the Monasteries as sponsor of arts; some gold panels by Neri di Bicci and some paintings by Paolo Schiavo, the master of Andrea del Castagno, in an exquisite, elegant and vintage arrangement. The museum includes furthermore the detached fragments from Sant’Egidio Church.

“Sinopia, arriccio, tonachino”… the ABC for frescoes

When in 1953 the upper frescoes were detached in order to restore them, they discovered the ancient sinopia.

Sinopia is a reddish root, coming from the eastern mediterrenean Europe. Its name derives from the city called Sinope, in Turkey. The root was used during the Middle Age by the painters as helping tool for their frescoes. But what is a fresco, actually?

You need to put a first layer of rough plaster on the wall, called “arriccio”. Then, you put a second layer of plaster, smoother than the first, called “tonachino”. When the “tonachino” is still wet, the painter has to harry up and paint on the surface. Paint “a fresco” means painting “fresh”, because the wall is still wet. If the “tonachino” dyes, it is not anymore possible to paint. Each day, the painter added another part of fresco, called “giornata”.

But painters could use the “sinopia”: they could draw on the arriccio the traces of the figures. Andrea del Castagno was the best artist ever in the art of drawing: he uses the sinopia as a basic sketch or a meticulous work of precision, including shading and chiaroscuro. The sinopia stands in front of the Crucifixion in the monumental Refectory of Sant’Apollonia. In 1999, restorers discovered that Andrea used some more modern techniques as well: the “cartoons” and the “pouncing” were wall incisions or deposit of powdered charcoal in order to trace the figure’s outlines.

Find your favourite one!

Our journey is just at the beginning: in Florence and in the tuscan countryside we can boast plenty of “Last Suppers”. Obviously, the most famous is in Milan… But you can enjoy to find your favourite one in Tuscany!

Here you are a list of the Florentine Last Suppers in chronological order:

  • Santa Croce Church, “Last Supper” by Taddeo Gaddi, 1333-60
  • Fondazione Salvatore Romano, “Last Supper” by Andrea Orcagna, 1360-65
  • Badia a Passignano, “Last Supper” by Ghirlandaio, 1476 (free of charge)
  • San Marco Convent, “Last Supper” by Ghirlandaio, 1480
  • Ognissanti Church, “Last Supper” by Ghirlandaio, 1486 (free of charge)
  • Cenacolo del Fuligno, “Last Supper” by Perugino, 1495 (free of charge)
  • Convitto della Calza, “Last Supper” by Franciabigio, 1514 (free of charge)
  • Chiesa di San Bartolomeo a Monte Oliveto, “Last Supper” by Il Sodoma, 1515
  • Cenacolo di San Salvi, “Last Supper” by Andrea del Sarto, 1526-27 (free of charge)
  • Cenacolo di Santa Croce, “Last Supper” by Giorgio Vasari, 1546
  • Cenacolo di Santa Maria del Carmine, “Last Supper” by Alessandro Allori, 1582
  • Cenacolo di Santa Maria Novella, “Last Supper” by Alessandro Allori, 1586
  • Cenacolo di San Felice in Piazza, “Last Supper” by Matteo Rosselli, 1610-20 (free of charge)

I suggest you to call directly to each museum before the visit: the Last Suppers are unfortunately less visited, they have particular scheduled time during the high or low season, so I recommend you to contact them before planning your visit.

… And always remember that Flora can do it with pleasure for you!

Interesting in an unconventional guided tour to the Cenacoli?! Feel free to contact me at: info@myfloraguide.com.

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