Santa Maria delle Grazie, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an exceptional testament to Renaissance architecture in Milano, is a fundamental monument for visitors who wish to fully appreciate the historical splendours of the city.
The Renaissance was a historical period of great magnificence for the Ambrosian metropolis that, under the Visconti and Sforza governments, was testimony to an explosion of art and culture that had no equal. In particular, the court of Ludovico il Moro and Beatrice d'Este had the reputation of being the richest and most beautiful in Italy.
The most brilliant and erudite artists, musicians, poets and philosophers of the time all resided in Milano. To name a few: the architect Donato Bramante, the artists Foppa and Zenale and, of course, the universal genius Leonardo da Vinci.
The church of Santa Maria delle Grazie was founded in 1463 thanks to the contribution of Count Gasparo Vimercati, Francesco Sforza’s commander of troops. The works on the church’s construction, and the adjacent Dominican convent, began in 1463; they were designed and overseen by Guiniforte Solari up until 1481.
Following Ludovico il Moro’s rise to power, the extension and renovation work of the great cloister, the apse and the tribune, capped by an imposing dome, were carried out in Renaissance style under the direction of Donato Bramante.
Even in the absence of documented evidence the tribune was first attributed to Bramante; however, some historians believe that Bramante was responsible for the initial project but did not then follow the actual construction works which were undoubtedly directed by Giovanni Antonio Amadeo.
The interior of the dome is adorned with engravings and the exterior, enclosed in the lantern, has a geometric embellishment in brick and plaster.
At the back of the church - with access from Via Caradosso or from the Bramante tribune - lies a small cloister also known as the “chiostro delle rane” (cloister of frogs). It is so called because of the four batrachians that adorn the rim of the central circular fountain. Each frog happily spurts a small jet of water towards the centre of the basin.
The quadrangular cloister has five terracotta arches on each side supported by slender columns and marble capitals with Renaissance motifs. Its construction dates back to the 1400s and is attributed to Bramante who, at that time, was in charge of the project for the Santa Maria delle Grazie tribune. Two monochrome frescoes, attributed to Bramantino, can be found on the lunettes at the entrance to the church and the sacristy.
The church of Santa Maria delle Grazie is inextricably linked to the unrivalled masterpiece in the convent’s former refectory: "The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci.
ANECDOTES AND CURIOSITIES
In 1497 Ludovico Il Moro elected the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie as the Sforza’s burial place and his wife Beatrice d'Este was buried therein. According to Milanese tradition, Ludovico il Moro built a tunnel connecting the Castello Sforzesco to the Grazie convent in order to easily access his wife’s grave.
Up until 1797 L'Incoronazione di spine (The Crowning with Thorns) by Titian was positioned on the altar until the French procured it and took it to Paris, where it is now exhibited in the Louvre.