Leonardo and the Last Supper
By: Ross King
Format/Source: Hardback; my copy
Early in 1495, Leonardo da Vinci began work in Milan on what would become one of history’s most influential and beloved works of art-The Last Supper. After a dozen years at the court of Lodovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, Leonardo was at a low point personally and professionally: at forty-three, in an era when he had almost reached the average life expectancy, he had failed, despite a number of prestigious commissions, to complete anything that truly fulfilled his astonishing promise. His latest failure was a giant bronze horse to honor Sforza’s father: His 75 tons of bronze had been expropriated to be turned into cannons to help repel a French invasion of Italy. The commission to paint The Last Supper in the refectory of a Dominican convent was a small compensation, and his odds of completing it were not promising: Not only had he never worked on a painting of such a large size-15′ high x 30′ wide-but he had no experience in the extremely difficult medium of fresco.
In his compelling new book, Ross King explores how-amid war and the political and religious turmoil around him, and beset by his own insecurities and frustrations-Leonardo created the masterpiece that would forever define him. King unveils dozens of stories that are embedded in the painting. Examining who served as the models for the Apostles, he makes a unique claim: that Leonardo modeled two of them on himself. Reviewing Leonardo’s religious beliefs, King paints a much more complex picture than the received wisdom that he was a heretic. The food that Leonardo, a vegetarian, placed on the table reveals as much as do the numerous hand gestures of those at Christ’s banquet. As King explains, many of the myths that have grown up around The Last Supper are wrong, but its true story is ever more interesting. Bringing to life a fascinating period in European history, Ross King presents an original portrait of one of the world’s greatest geniuses through the lens of his most famous work.
I read Ross King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome a few years ago (review) and greatly enjoyed it; it was an informative book that left me with a new appreciation of the dome in Florence’s Santa Maria del Fiore. I had been meaning to read more of his books so here we are 🙂
Leonardo and the Last Supper chronicles not only how Leonardo da Vinci ended up working on The Last Supper fresco and the techniques he used to create it but also provides an autobiography of his life, the various works he contributed to, and the socio-political situation he was living at the time. The latter was particularly interesting and informative as I wasn’t too familiar with what was going on in Milan at the time beyond the basics. Sadly I did not get a chance to see The Last Supper fresco when I was in Milan a decade or so ago–you need to book in advance to see it–but the story behind how he ended up being commissioned to paint it was interesting, and how tied he was to Sforza’s patronage.
I actually also didn’t know too much about Leonardo da Vinci’s life beyond the bare basics so that was interesting too. I got the sense that da Vinci was a brilliant person with quite the imagination who was frustrated by convention and forced to make art that he wasn’t quite keen on doing. Towards the end Ross King mentioned a note he scrawled occasionally in his notebooks that seemed to sum up his life–“Tell me if anything was ever done”–which not only reverberates quite hauntingly but also sort of speaks volumes to me on a personal level. Also, imaginary high five to him as he’s also a leftie 😛
Having said all of this, I wasn’t quite as blown away by this book as I was with Brunelleschi’s Dome. I’m not entirely sure why–was it the time in which I read it? I’ve become such a mood reader these days–but I think part of it has to do with the structure of the book itself. Logically it made sense why King included all of this information about the time period–it informs Leonardo’s work–but sometimes it felt like the narrative digressed to tangents and the actual discussion of the painting itself doesn’t emerge until a third into the book.
Nonetheless Leonardo and the Last Supper was an excellent nonfiction read and I learned a lot about the time period in which the fresco was made.