Most Popular Guides: New York, London, Paris, Rome, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Rio, See All Guides

Literary Excerpt: "A Traveler in Italy"

Literary Excerpt: "A Traveler in Italy"

Drawings for the Last Supper. Photo: Courtesy of Shafe

H.V. Morton's observations of Tuscany, Lombardy, Emilia, and Veneto are as engaging as the people and landscape he evokes. Herewith, an excerpt from his 1964 book, A Traveler in Italy.

One day I happened to notice a crowd outside a church, and someone told me they were waiting to see Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper. The ordeal of queuing up to see a picture which I knew to be a ghost of a picture, and one I had seen so often in reproduction, caused me to postpone my visit there. However, one morning I stopped a taxi and said to the driver, 'Il Cenacolo,' while he, casting away the butt of a cigarette, nodded with complete comprehension and drove off without a word into the traffic. I thought there can be few cities in the world in which you can give the title of a great picture as a topographical direction.

I arrived at the church of S. Maria delle Grazie, in whose adjoining refectory Leonardo painted his famous fresco, certainly the most ill-fated of the world's masterpieces. A crowd was still waiting and the turnstyles were clicking as I went almost reluctantly to experience what I felt would be disappointment. I found myself in a gaunt hall in which the friars ate their meals when S. Maria delle Grazie was a Dominican monastery. The painting covers the end wall, so that it would have appeared to the friars that the life-sized figures supping at a table on a slightly higher level were a continuation of their own repasts. That, of course, was Leonardo's intention, and it must have been a wonderful site to have entered this hall when it was still in use, the friars seated on each side and the Prior facing the table occupied by Christ and his disciples. The crowd stood whispering, probably as surprised as I was, to see a much larger and less shadowy picture than I had expected...

I was astonished almost against my will. It cannot be reproduced. The postcards and even full-page illustrations in art books cannot convey more than the vaguest impression of this enormous work, which is approximately thirty feet long and fifteen feet wide. Though the color has gone and the expressions on the faces are largely conjectural, one thing is as clear as ever: the steel-like frame work or skeleton of a triumphant composition: two groups of agitated men in rhythmic movement, separated by the calm figure of Christ. I forgot that I was looking at the ruin of a picture and thought I might be seeing it in the early months of its creation when Leonardo was slowly, and bit by bit, building it up. What observation had gone into this work! How many supper tables in Milan did Leonardo frequent to capture all those gestures and attitudes; how many men cutting  a load of bread in an inn; or upsetting the salt, or whispering something to his neighbor, could have guessed that their actions were to be immortal?

FOR YOUR BEDSIDE TABLE

Don't stop there. Read the whole thing.
A Traveler in Italy, by H.V. Morton

SHOP IT

Peruse the shelves of our book shop.

More On Fathom

Instant in-box upgrade: Sign up for Fathom's newsletter.