Sunday, August 26, 2012

Guest Review: Leonardo and the Last Supper

Summary: Milan, 1496 and forty-four-year-old Leonardo da Vinci has a reputation for taking on commissions and failing to complete them. He is in a state of professional uncertainty and financial difficulty. For eighteen months he has been painting murals in both the Sforza Castle in Milan and the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The latter project will become the Last Supper, a complex mural that took a full three years to complete on a surface fifteen feet high by twenty feet wide. Not only had he never attempted a painting of such size, but he had no experience whatsoever in painting in the physically demanding medium of fresco.

For more than five centuries the
Last Supper has been an artistic, religious and cultural icon. The art historian Kenneth Clark has called it 'the keystone of European art', and for a century after its creation it was regarded as nothing less than a miraculous image. Even today, according to Clark, we regard the painting as 'more a work of nature than a work of man'. And yet there is a very human story behind this artistic 'miracle', which was created against the backdrop of momentous events both in Milan and in the life of Leonardo himself.

Leonardo and the Last Supper, Ross King tells the complete story of this creation of this mural: the adversities suffered by the artist during its execution; the experimental techniques he employed; the models for Christ and the Apostles that he used; and the numerous personalities involved - everyone from the Leonardo's young assistants to Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan who commissioned the work. Ross King's new book is both a record of Leonardo da Vinci's last five years in Milan and a 'biography' of one of the most famous works of art ever painted. -- Walker Books

My dad has read a few non-fiction books by Ross King and really enjoyed them, so when I saw LEONARDO AND THE LAST SUPPER  at this year's BEA, I immediately knew it was a book that he'd want to read. Here are his thoughts:

In LEONARDO AND THE LAST SUPPER, Ross King not only tells the reader about da Vinci’s painting of The last Supper but places the story in the context of the political and social turmoil that encompassed Italy in the late fifteenth century. 

In 1495, when da Vinci received the commission from the Duke of Milan to paint a religious scene on the wall of the refectory (dining room) of a Dominican monastery in Milan, he was 43 years old and had no major art works to his credit. In fact da Vinci’s career was at a low point and he had an unfavorable reputation that centered on his lack of desire to meet deadlines or to complete projects, his obsession with detail and his habit of being distracted by his interest in other things such as architecture and military weapons. Da Vinci was actually not pleased with this commission and expressed that in a letter to the Duke of Milan. 

The painting of a mural was not a likely assignment for da Vinci. He had never painted anything as large as this (fifteen feet high by twenty-nine feet wide) and he had never painted in fresco, a very difficult technique that required the artist to work quickly – a requirement not in line with da Vinci’s style. 

King takes the reader through the three years it took da Vinci to complete The Last Supper with an interesting discussion of the unique paint application technique utilized by da Vinci in lieu of fresco. King also presents the reader with a very colorful portrait of da Vinci describing him as a vegetarian and his typical clothes as pink tights and a purple tunic. He also shares some very interesting background stories about da Vinci’s life including his family, his religious beliefs and his relationship with Giacomo, a young lad he took on as an assistant. The author gets very detailed in discussing the various meanings of items in the painting such as colors, facial expressions and hand gestures, the significance of the particular food items displayed and even the meaning of a spilled salt shaker on the table. King takes a look at these items from a religious, secular and political viewpoint and explains some of the various interpretations of the painting throughout history. 

King debunks some of the more popular conspiracy theories such as those presented in The da Vinci Code about Mary Magdalene and the age-old stories about da Vinci’s models for Christ and the apostles. King even discusses the possibility that da Vinci included at least one self-portrait in the painting. In fact, King’s stories are much more fascinating than any of the conspiracy theories. 

LEONARDO AND THE LAST SUPPER is a terrific mix of biography, art history and Italian political history. I did feel that the book bogged down somewhat when King went into great detail about other paintings of the time and the invasion and occupation of Italy. These, however did not detract from the marvelous stories about The Last Supper. I have also enjoyed other Ross King works such as Brunelleschi’s Dome and Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling and definitely consider LEONARDO AND THE LAST SUPPER as outstanding as these. 

Thanks to Booking Pap Pap for his review. I received a copy of this book at the 2012 Book Expo America.


bermudaonion said...

This sounds fascinating even if it does drag in parts.

Anonymous said...

Loved Booking Pap Pap's review. Like daughter like father! Have a good day.

Beth F said...

Wow! Despite the draggy bits, I think I'd love to read this one.

Karlie said...

I can't wait to read this one!