Ross King, the author of Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power and Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, explores the life of another Renaissance giant in Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King.
This is just as much a history about Leonardo and the times as it is the “The Last Supper.” Though it is King’s desire to show that the influences of culture, commerce, food, fashion, politics, eclectic characters and religion inspired the insatiably curious artist to create one of the most masterful works of art in the history of the Western world. Like his subject, King has rich material to draw from.
Leonardo was the illegitimate child from his father’s dalliance with his fifteen-year-old slave domestic. Being illegitimate in Italy during that period was neither shameful nor particularly looked down upon. Though you could not go into certain fields such as the law or go to the university. He probably never knew his mother well. She was married off and had five children with a man who was reputably a troublemaker.
His father was a successful legal notary. He had multiple wives and eleven children. Leonardo had no children and was never married. In fact it seems he had no romantic relations with women.
By all accounts he was a beautiful young man and handsome adult. He did have an abundant number of friends, including young boys whose curly hair and androgyny he admired. He was devoted to one particular boy his entire life, Salai, who often stole and pilfered from him and his friends or clients. Salai even sold the “Mona Lisa” after Leonardo died. I can’t help but believe that Leonardo saw a little of himself in the boy—beautiful, an outcast, devoted to his friends but with demons that sometimes frustrated those around him.
Leonardo’s career began when his father recognized his talents and helped him become an apprentice with a talented Florence goldsmith and painter that lasted eight to ten years.
During this time the city states dominated and so did the arts.
Rival factions often warred. However, bloodshed within Italy was often not shed in a battle for power. Someone with a claim on a territory or throne would gather an army, and as if they were in a chess match, they would maneuver until one checkmated the other without killing each other.
It was at this time Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, invited Charles VII of France into Italy to take over Naples because Lodovico would benefit politically. The French King and his 30,000 man army were not so high minded and marched unopposed through Italy killing and massacring until they took Naples.
Lodovico would forever regret inviting the Frenchman onto Italian soil.
The regional politics and wars in a balkanized Italy are chronicled throughout the narrative.
It was Lodovico who sponsored Leonardo’s multiple projects—interior design, masks, drapes, portraits, parties, set design, festivals….
Lodovico must have been pleased because Leonardo earned somewhere in the ballpark of $350,000, equivalent in current dollars, a year for being his resident artist in Milan. It was Lodovico who commissioned him to paint “The Last Supper.”
Leonardo had moved to Milan to develop weapons and architecture. His talent had made him a reputation, and he promised great things but at forty he had yet to deliver a masterpiece.
Many fascinating insights into his life are touched upon. He could write backwards and was left handed. He was a great musician. He was a vegetarian. He once wrote that his first memory was of a bird. He had trouble learning languages and earned a reputation for not being able to finish a project.
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And he was interested in creating so many things: a flying machine, a submarine, better waterways, innovative military weapons, architectural projects…. He wrote that the mechanical sciences were the most noble and useful of the arts. Interesting tidbits dot the landscape of his life.
He was not religious, and often detested many in the clergy; he thought they were hypocrites, but he seemed to accept the common beliefs in Christ. But he also broke with tradition and found stories such the the flood and Noah’s Ark to be impossible.
Of course this is about the “The Last Supper” painted in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie. He painted many of the apostles based on locals that he studied carefully. He researched hands and hand gestures that he integrated into the mural. The food and drink present (including the delicacy of oranges and eels) were carefully chosen and considered.
The current religious beliefs that affected the painting’s symbolism were incorporated. And he tried to balance the painting’s theme between the new Eucharist and Jesus’s revelation that Judas will betray him.
The colors and technique and materials and geometry in the painting and his artistic approach are closely examined.
King also debunks any Dan Brown Da Vinci Code type conspiracy theories.
The real tragedy in Leonardo’s life, and there are a few, is that so much of what he created did not survive—including much of the original “The Last Supper,” despite valiant efforts to restore it. Although because this painting changed art history and spawned a new era, it was reproduced many times during his lifetime.
Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King is easy to read, and I enjoyed colorful Italian names. And it is fascinating from beginning to end with insights into all aspects of Leonardo da Vinci’s remarkable life and perhaps his second most famous painting.
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