Leonardo and the Last Supper

By Ross King

It’s one of the ironies of art history that two of the most famous works of the Italian Renaissance were created by masters working against their own wishes in a medium they had little experience in. Michelangelo didn’t want to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, in part because he didn’t know much about fresco painting. Luckily he turned out to be a quick study. In 1495, Leonardo da Vinci had found himself with a similarly unwelcome commission, in his case to paint a Last Supper on the wall of the refectory of a Dominican convent in Milan.

Leonardo had gone to Milan in the hopes of being taken on by Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, as a military engineer, and had even less knowledge of fresco painting than Michelangelo. But while fresco really wasn’t Leonardo’s thing, by training or temperament, he nevertheless had some ideas for how to improve the process. Specifically, he chose to paint using an oil and tempera concoction applied to a dry wall.

Like a number of Leonardo’s ideas, this was very clever and it didn’t work. The painting began to disintegrate almost immediately. The Last Supper, even as restored today, is only a shadow – in Ross King’s phrase a “ghostly evanescence” – of the original. And yet despite that fact it remains one of the most immediately recognizable images in all of Western art, and “arguably the most famous painting in the world.”

It also has an interesting story behind it, the telling of which is the kind of thing that King, bestselling author of books such as Brunelleschi’s Dome and Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, excels at. In addition to presenting a close reading of the painting itself and an interpretation of its various elements he also does an admirable job explaining the horribly complicated Italian political scene of the time. In a nice parallel that he doesn’t need to draw attention to, just as Leonardo’s painting was starting to fall apart so was the Italian peninsula, which had become the battleground between France and the Holy Roman Empire largely as a result Lodovico’s desperate machinations.

As usual, King is a sensible and trustworthy guide. There is an obligatory nod to Dan Brown and an explanation of why The Da Vinci Code got it wrong in supposing St. John to be Mary Magdalene, as well as a few deft corrections of the conventional wisdom (for example, Leonardo’s backward writing was not a secret code). One can still, however, find things to disagree with. The idea that the Gospel of John was in fact written by the apostle John and thus provides an “eyewitness account” of the events of the Last Supper, while orthodox in some circles, is probably not one held by the majority of modern historians. And a reader can get whiplash from being told that Leonardo “probably played the lyre” and then ten pages later finding him described as an “accomplished” player of this instrument.

These are, however, minor points and do little to take away from what is an excellent account of the big picture behind a familiar icon.

Review first published October 20, 2012.

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