“It is difficult to overestimate the importance of The Last Supper for Leonardo’s own life and legacy. It was responsible, far more than any of his other works, for his reputation as a painter. During his lifetime and for many decades, even centuries, after his death, the majority of his other paintings (and only fifteen survive, four of them unfinished) were seen by neither the public nor other artists. In the three centuries between his death and the early nineteenth century, many of the works we know today were widely dispersed, unrecognized, inaccessible to the public, or completely unknown.”
History and Italy are two of my greatest loves, so when I got my eager little fingers on Leonardo and the Last Supper I was already excited for what was to come. And Mr. King did not disappoint. This is the first work from Ross King I have read and I have already added a few of his other similar works to my wish list.
King (perhaps from experience or sheer talent) has a wonderful ability of covering numerous aspects regarding the life of Leonardo himself, the purpose and creation of the famous painting, while incorporating the details of the historical happenings that influenced both the man and the art piece. It was a perfect balance of all three elements, compared to many art history books that have tilted too far on one side and leaving the overall picture a little blurry.
I had always known that Leonardo was remembered as a genius with interesting quirks but Leonardo and the Last Supper provides an in-depth and detailed exploration of a man beyond his time. Some of the highlights of the book include the discussions of Leonardo’s personal fashion taste (he was well known for wearing bright pink tights), his wide variety of obsessions (including aerial flight and the begrudging manner in which he supported his mischievous apprentice Salai) and the somewhat high maintenance and short attention span Leonardo possessed that often caused his projects to take years to complete and angered those waiting for their pricy paintings. While admired for his artistic abilities, he was a social misfit in his own way.
I think it’s safe to say that the theme of a misfit Leonardo is a prevalent one through numerous aspects of the book and his artistic career. Leonardo was certainly an artist with eccentricities. He was notorious for not completing works on time (or even starting them sometimes) and for using his own artistic preferences. When the fellow artists commissioned to create murals in the Santa Maria delle Grazie refectory were using the fresco art style, Leonardo refused to do so and instead painted in his preferred method, oil. Yet, it was the very quirks that artistically differentiated Leonardo from other artists of the time that added to his creative genius. King offers a fascinating glimpse into how much time and thought Leonardo put into his paintings, such as the hours he spent making sketches of the facial expressions and hand gestures of people in markets and plazas. A full chapter of the novel is dedicated to deciphering who were the artistic muses for the members dining with Christ in the painting. King, who has experience with artistic criticism, offers an intriguing examination of how Leonardo painted and how his mind created what are no considered masterpieces.
History lovers will not be disappointed either. During Leonardo’s lifetime Italy was a bed of intrigue and fascinating characters, one of whom was Leonardo’s main benefactor. Lodovico Sforza, the self-proclaimed Duke of Florence, was a ruthless man and sought to legitimize his political claim in numerous ways. One was through the arts, but he was also meddling constantly in the affairs of other Italian dukes and leaders, along with those beyond Italian borders such as the French King and the Holy Roman Emperor. The actions of Sforza and other powerful Italian men influenced everything around them, including the lives and commissioned works of artists, including Leonardo who spent most of his life at Sforza’s court creating sets for theatrical plays and working on a giant equestrian statue that would never see completion.
Nothing about Leonardo and the Last Supper is dull. King makes topics that might seem monotonous (such as painting techniques and historic details) captivating with his suspenseful and witty writing style. He entwines the topics of artistic techniques, history and interesting characters together to create an enjoyable novel that any art or history fan will enjoy immensely.
Devon – athousandbooklife
Other books by Ross King: The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism (2006), Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (2006) and Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven (2011), with a foreword in Tuscany: Vistas, Churches, Museums, Art, Villas and Gardens (2010)