Thanksgiving! A heartwarming day when a beautiful feast is enjoyed and celebrated with family and friends. The holiday is distinctly American, but the tradition of gathering to share an important meal long outlives our young country. In the Christian tradition, Jesus shared a Passover meal with friends where he gave thanks; unfortunately, it took a depressing turn when he announced one of his besties would betray him. That meal became known as the Last Supper.
Florence has its own particular tradition for celebrating the Last Supper, as close to a dozen frescoes of the scene (known as cenacoli) appear in religious refectories (dining rooms) across the city. Clever artists created fictive spaces on the wall to make it seem as if Jesus and his disciples were sharing meals with those also in the room.
So, if you’re feeling a twinge of homesickness for the Thanksgiving holiday, we’ve crafted this cenacolo crawl, which will have you celebrating the ultimate family dinner all over town. Each is a feast for the eyes, and you can compare artistic styles to decide which made the best dining room decoration.
The tricky part about this walk is negotiating the open hours of each space. If you’d like to see all four in a row (ambitious! we like your style), Saturday morning would be best. If you’d like to take them day-by-day, we’ve included the full schedule of open hours here. Click the map for comprehensive addresses and directions.
Our main crawl will include:*
A. Andrea Castagno | Sant’Apollonia | Monday – Sunday 8:15-1:50; closed 2nd, 4th Mondays and 1st, 3rd, 5th Sundays
B. Pietro Perugino | Blessed Angelina of Foligno | Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday 9-12
C. Domenico Ghirlandaio | Ognissanti | Monday, Wednesday, Saturday 9-12
D. Alessandro Allori | Santa Maria del Carmine | Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday 9-12; Tuesday and Saturday 10-12
A. Andrea del Castagno | Sant’Apollonia | 1447
We’ll start at Sant’Apollonia, an old Benedictine convent just off of Via San Gallo, and two blocks over from San Marco, ideally around 8:30 a.m. on Saturday.
Castagno’s fresco is one of Florence’s true hidden gems – no one beyond the nuns that originally gathered here even knew it existed until the 19th century, when the grounds were taken over by the military. Today, it still receives relatively few visitors, but their loss is our gain. The colors of the fresco are remarkably well preserved, and you can get up close and personal to study all the details.
Considering the time period, Castagno did a great job creating an illusionistic space for the saints to sit in. Plus, their u-shaped seating arrangement mirrors how the nuns themselves would have sat along the walls of the refectory while eating. He gives each man defining characteristics as they react to Jesus’ shocking news, but also includes their names at their feet to help you identify them. Castagno isn’t very subtle about pointing out who the bad guy is – not only does Judas sit on the opposite side of the table, but the marble slab above his head is the most tumultuous, and he’s stuck with a face only a mother could love.
When you’ve soaked in all the details, head south on Via Santa Reparata, past Mercato Centrale, and then turn right on Via Faenza.
B. Pietro Perugino | Blessed Angelina of Foligno | 1496
About 50 years later, Perugino painted the Last Supper for a wealthy Franciscan tertiary in the refectory of their convent, known as Foligno. Perugino’s setting is much more idyllic than Castagno’s and demonstrates the progression of spatial illusionism from early to high Renaissance. While you might not have heard of poor Perugino before, his style might remind you of someone – Renaissance golden boy Raphael was his pupil.
By now you can easily spot Judas, but you might be wondering why St. John the Evangelist is always passed out at Jesus’ side. While it might have been the wine, it’s more likely he’s overcome with grief at the news of Jesus’ imminent betrayal. The Gospel of John says that Jesus identifies his betrayer to St. John while he’s lying against his breast, which is most likely what we see here.
Two down, two to go. Head down to the Arno between the Carraia and Vespucci bridges for our next visual feast.
C. Domenico Ghirlandaio | Ognissanti | 1480
Ghirlandaio’s Ognissanti cenacolo would have been painted, chronologically, between the two we’ve visited previously on this trip. And while you may think you’ve seen all there is of a Last Supper scene, this one will make you think twice. Ghirlandaio frescoed the wall full of symbols that, if you know what to look for, add layers of depth to the work.
In the foreground, items on the table (cherries) allude to the sacrifice Jesus is going to make for mankind by spilling his own blood. In the background, the orange and lemon trees symbolize a paradise that is just outside the refectory walls (or physical life), where a variety of birds (pheasants, a quail, and a wealth of others) allude to Christ’s resurrection. Finally, perched in the fictive window on the right, a peacock appears to exit the scene, a common Renaissance symbol for immortality of the soul, which Jesus’ sacrifice will guarantee for all mankind.
Now that you can read Renaissance art like a pro, cross the Arno and look for Santa Maria del Carmine.
D. Alessandro Allori | Santa Maria del Carmine | 1582
You might’ve heard of Santa Maria del Carmine, best known for the frescoed masterpieces in the Brancacci Chapel. But don’t be deterred by the ticket window; while you do need to pay for entry to the chapel, you can freely explore the rest of the church.
When you reach Allori’s Cenacolo in the space’s old refectory, it’s clear that it’s not business as usual. The figures are more naturally animated, and Judas is no longer isolated on the other side of the table. For that, you’ll have to thank the most famous of cenacolo painters – Leonardo da Vinci. He took the Florentine tradition of frescoing refectory walls with the Last Supper with him to Milan, where he created the most famous and revolutionary example of them all. It is clear in Santa Maria del Carmine that Da Vinci’s fresco heavily influenced Allori’s representation of the scene, painted about one-hundred years later than Ghirlandaio’s.
After a full morning walking and thinking about Last Supper scenes, a celebratory meal might be in order. We’d most likely treat ourselves to an extended Tuscan lunch, giving thanks for the incredible city, art, and culture we’re lucky enough to enjoy.
If you’d like to extend your crawl to see other free cenacoli, check out:
E. Andrea Orcagna | Santo Spirito | 9:30 – 12:30, 4-5:30; closed on Wednesday
Fresco is unfortunately fragmented.
F. Andrea del Sarto | San Salvi | Tuesday – Sunday 8:15-1:50
A good distance across town; best to save for its own trip.
And when you do pay to visit museums, don’t miss:
G. Domenico Ghirlandaio in San Marco (compare to Ognissanti)
H. Taddeo Gaddi in Santa Croce
I. Alessandro Allori in Santa Maria Novella (compare to Santa Maria del Carmine)
Extra points for:
J. Domenico Ghirlandaio | Badia di Passignano
If you make it to Greve for Chianti tastings, be sure to pop your head in here for the earliest of Ghirlandaio’s three cenacoli frescoes.
K. Franciabigio | Convitto della Calza
Today the convent that Franciabigio’s Last Supper was originally painted for in 1514 is repurposed as a hotel. If you ask very nicely, they may show you to the meeting room that once was the refectory, and you can sneak a peak at another part of the cenacolo tradition.