Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Ross King’s ‘Leonardo and “The Last Supper”
Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan, Italy/The Bridgeman Art Library
By the age of 42 (in an era in which life expectancy was 40), Leonardo da Vinci had yet to create anything commensurate with his lofty ambitions. At that point, Ross King writes in his new book, “Leonardo and ‘The Last Supper,’ ” he “had produced only a few scattered paintings, a bizarre-looking music instrument, some ephemeral decorations for masques and festivals and many hundreds of pages of notes and drawings for studies he had not yet published, or for inventions he had not yet built.” Too many of his projects — like creating a gigantic bronze horse on commission for Lodovico Sforza, the ruler of Milan — had gone unfinished; other projects having to do with architecture, military engineering and urban planning had not found patrons.
Sometime around 1492, Lodovico began planning a family mausoleum at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. As the project expanded, he asked Leonardo to begin work on a painting of the Last Supper for the wall of the church’s refectory, where the Dominican friars took their meals.
“Leonardo may have dreamed of constructing tanks and guns, of placing a dome on Milan’s half-built cathedral, or of completing the world’s largest bronze statue,” Mr. King writes. “But he was going to do none of these things. Instead, he was going to paint a wall.”
The 450 square feet of paint and plaster known as “The Last Supper” would become one of the most famous paintings in the world — a painting, in the words of the art historian Kenneth Clark, that is “commonly held to be the climax of Leonardo’s career as a painter” and that some scholars regard as a portal into a new era in art.
In this volume Mr. King — the author of earlier books like “Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power” and “Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling”— gives us a gripping account of how that painting was created and how it represents, in his view, one of the few times in Leonardo’s life that he managed to “harness and concentrate his relentless energies and restless obsessions.”
Mr. King deftly situates the painting in a historical context — against political events in Italy at the time, religious attitudes of the day and contemporaneous developments in art — and also places it in the context of Leonardo’s career, deconstructing the ways the painter broke with tradition and stamped a familiar and much depicted subject with his distinctive vision.