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.Read more...
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 famous 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.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-05-21
- Reviewer: Staff
Detail obsessed, easily distracted, and a notorious deadline-buster, Leonardo da Vinci was able to complete one of his two best works in just three years—all against a backdrop of war and occupation of Milan. King’s (Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling) detailed accounting of the political situation in 15th-century Italy and how it informs our understanding of The Last Supper is interspersed with analysis of history’s many interpretations of the painting, including the “typical crackpottery that follows Leonardo.” The book addresses such topics as the groupings of the apostles and their hand placement; readings of the painting as glorifying faith; and whether the figure next to Jesus depicts the apostle John or Mary Magdalene. King provides a fascinating look at the artist’s life, including his reputation among his patrons as unreliable, and his relationships with those he worked with and for—including a young boy named Giacomo, who “held a great physical attraction for Leonardo.” However, King’s speculations are never salacious; rather, they help place Leonardo’s life into the context of Florence’s history of sexual tolerance and subsequent religious crackdowns. Though some of King’s political explorations and discussions of symbolism can drag, the book proves most lively when tackling common misconceptions about the painting, with The Da Vinci Code coming in for special criticism. 16-page color insert and b&w reproductions. Agent: Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson. (Nov.)
A genius and his most famous work
When you read Leonardo and The Last Supper by Ross King, you can’t help but think of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Both books deal with Leonardo Da Vinci and his famous painting, “The Last Supper”; but where Brown’s book relies on suspense, the strength of King’s book is in its scholarship. Still, having read The Da Vinci Code only added to my enjoyment of Leonardo and The Last Supper.
There is much mystery behind this masterful painting, in part because of Leonardo’s reputation as a heretic, but also because the faded fresco contains the spectral images of Jesus and the Twelve Apostles, allowing us to interpret their placement at the table, their gestures and their facial expressions. This is what makes any book on “The Last Supper” so enjoyable, and King’s book doesn’t disappoint. First, we learn about Leonardo’s life. By the time he began working on “The Last Supper,” he was suffering a sort of midlife crisis. His work on a 75-ton bronze horse was suspended when the bronze was melted and made into cannons to help Italy thwart an invasion by France. The commission to paint “The Last Supper” on the wall of a Dominican convent seemed like small compensation at the time. But Leonardo forged ahead, taking three years to complete what would become a masterpiece equal in acclaim to his “Mona Lisa.”
As for the mysteries within “The Last Supper,” King has a good time exploring Leonardo’s use of mathematics and geometry to bring symmetry and perspective to the painting. And for Dan Brown fans, King spends considerable time delving into the “clues” contained in the placement of the Apostles at the supper table, their facial expressions, the shape and location of their hands and the type of food and drink being served. Among his conclusions: Two of the Apostles were modeled after Leonardo himself, and the food reflects the artist’s vegetarian leanings. One of the most delightful chapters in the book is King’s playful debate with The Da Vinci Code’s claim that one of the disciples in “The Last Supper” was actually a woman—Mary Magdalene, to be exact. I won’t spoil things by giving away his bold conclusion.
I highly recommend Leonardo and The Last Supper, whether you are a serious scholar of art, history or religion, or a casual reader who happens to enjoy all of the puzzles and mysteries that lie behind Leonardo and “The Last Supper.”