Within 20 years of its completion in the last years of the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper had begun to fall apart. Ham-fisted "restorers" got to work almost at once, and stayed at it, off and on, until well into our time, contributing mightily to its ruin. The most recent attempt at renovation, finished in 1999, was surely the most sensitive one ever undertaken – but it couldn't, and didn't, rekindle the aesthetic fire that amazed the work's earliest viewers.
As evidence for what so astonished people, we have the copies and engravings that began to emerge not long after the original was dry, Giorgio Vasari's famous sizing-up of Leonardo (first published in 1550), and the artist's brilliant preparatory sketches. And now we have Ross King's Leonardo and the Last Supper, a testament to the spell this artist and this artwork cast over his contemporaries and has continued to cast over Western minds for the past 500 years.
The latest in King's series of popular studies of Italian Renaissance masterpieces and their makers and circumstances, the book bustles with warring princes, avaricious prelates, commoners on the make, artists and other players in early modern Italy's historical spectacle. The author clearly enjoys all the swashbuckling, and his scene-painting is as vivid as the documentary record allows, or can be stretched by imagination to allow.
Leonardo was born to a notary into this violent, exuberantly creative world in 1452. He had enormously wide-ranging curiosity, prodigious drawing talent, a lazy streak, ambition and loads of vanity. As a young man, King writes, "Leonardo appears to have been, in all things, unregimented and independent, willing to disregard fashion, tradition, and precedent." King neither debunks nor idolizes the artist, and his verbal portrait (as well as his art-historical interpretation) is admirably even-handed.
Around his 30th birthday, Leonardo moved to Milan from Florence and talked himself into the job he would hold for the next several years. It was grandly titled "the duke's painter and engineer," and seemed to promise him the chance to pursue his intense interests in gears, gadgets, war machines and the like. King says what happened: "Although visions of battle danced in his head, he actually found himself at work on more modest and peaceable tasks, such as designing costumes for weddings and pageants, fashioning elaborate stage sets for plays, and painting a portrait of [the duke's] mistress."
The project that engaged him most keenly during his first few years at the Milanese court, however, was the crafting of a gigantic bronze equestrian statue. After he scuppered this grandiose scheme by requisitioning the metal for military use, the duke gave Leonardo a task that must have seemed infinitely less exciting: the decoration of the monks' dining hall in Milan's monastic complex of Santa Maria delle Grazie. "Leonardo," King comments, "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. But he was going to do none of these things. Instead, he was going to paint a wall."
The wall in question, of course, was about to become the most famous one in the history of art. King tells us everything that any non-specialist would ever want to know about The Last Supper and the events surrounding its creation. The iconography is exhaustively scrutinized, possible models for Jesus and the Twelve are discussed, the specific meanings of the dining hall in theology and monastic lore are explored, and much else. Inevitably, King raises (then dismisses) Dan Brown's claim, made in The Da Vinci Code, that the figure to the right of Christ in the picture is Mary Magdalene, not (as is surely the case) the Apostle John.
Such digressions are common in this book, and they only occasionally interrupt the narrative's smooth, meandering forward motion. In one of them, King describes one reason why The Last Supper deteriorated so quickly: Leonardo's restless experimentalism, which inspired him to paint the wall with novel mixtures instead of tried and true materials. But this work, even in its dilapidated, faded current state, can still tempt some of its viewers to explain, as Ross King has done well, its peculiar magic.
John Bentley Mays is a Toronto writer on art and architecture.