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01 April 2020

Tour Director, Sarah Burles introduces the Florentine 'cenacoli'; Renaissance depictions of meals taken in the refectory of monasteries.


One of Florence's Hidden Treasures

by Sarah Burles, Art Historian and ACE Tour Director


I remember vividly the first time that I stepped into the former refectory of Sant’ Apollonia in Florence and saw Andrea Castagno’s Last Supper fresco. I was a 17 year-old art student and was immediately transfixed by the enormous image that dominates the end wall. The fresco depicts the well-known scene of Christ eating the Passover meal with his disciples the night before his arrest. Painted around 1440, Castagno’s image is strikingly modern - the disciples are individuals, characterised with a range of expressions, varied gestures and three-dimensional realism. The scene is set in an elaborate decorated space which reveals the artist’s knowledge of classical architecture and linear perspective. The disciples sit behind a long table covered in a lightly patterned table cloth complete with realistic creases. Roman statues and columns are part of the furniture and the marble effect wall painting would not look out of place in a Pompeiian villa. Judas, the betrayer, sits on the opposite side of the table to the other disciples, closest to us, the viewer. He is shown in profile with black hair and a black beard and in his hand he holds a piece of bread - a direct reference to the passage in John’s gospel when Jesus reveals that it is Judas who will betray him (John 13: 21-26). Unlike the other disciples, he has no halo painted in perfect perspective. His unsettling, brooding presence in the middle of the painting would have been a daily reminder to the Benedictine nuns who ate in this refectory of betrayal and sin.


Since those distant student days I have been lucky enough to visit some of the other Florentine ‘cenacoli’. The Italian word comes from the Latin cenaculum and refers to the refectory where meals were taken, sometimes in silence, as part of the pattern of monastic life. The theme of the Last Supper was obviously appropriate for this setting and it is fascinating to compare the different depictions, most of which were painted before Leonardo’s famous version in Milan. Like Castagno’s fresco, these paintings were often hidden for many centuries in monasteries and convents and each has their own story to tell.


Last Supper, Taddeo Gaddi c.1335


The earliest is in Santa Croce, the vast 14th century Franciscan church that suffered so much damage when the Arno burst its banks in 1966. Painted around 1335, it is the work of Taddeo Gaddi, a pupil and godson of Giotto, whose influence can be seen in the characterisation of the disciples and the spacial depth of the table. After the flood, the fresco was so badly damaged that it had to be taken off the refectory wall and underwent years of extensive restoration before being placed back in its original position. It is, to some extent, a shadow of its former self, but the composition is one that future artists, including Castagno, would adopt.


Slightly more off the beaten track in the former Vallambrosian monastery of San Salvi is Andrea del Sarto’s masterpiece painted in the 1520s. Del Sarto was one of the most highly regarded artists of his day, described by contemporaries as senza errori (“without errors”). His composition fits perfectly within the curved arch of the refectory wall, the characters are beautifully poised and the colours harmonious. What is perhaps most striking is the position of Judas. He sits on the same side of the table as Jesus and the other disciples, recoiling as Jesus holds out the bread to him. The psychological drama of the moment the betrayer is revealed is tangible.


Last Supper, Andrea del Sarto, 1520s


Like Castagno’s Last Supper at Sant’ Apollonia, Andrea del Sarto’s beautiful fresco at San Salvi remains one of the hidden treasures of Florence. There is something magical about visiting these masterpieces in their original settings and enjoying them, away from the crowds, in peace and tranquility. The Florentine Last Supper frescoes take us on a journey through the Renaissance and I am absolutely delighted to be including visits to some of these ‘cenacoli’ in the itinerary for ACE’s Renaissance Florence tour in November this year and 2021. 

Full details of the Renaissance Florence 2020 tour will be available soon.

Register your interest in the Renaissance Florence 2021 tour here.