on November 7, 2012
I read in another review somewhere that there are no new facts in this book, and yet my sense after reading it is that its author has made all sorts of facts about Leonardo new again. I've read a pile of books on Leonardo and I probably did know most of this story, but King has a novelist's ability to fill in those details around an event in a way that makes it come alive. He also has a very wise nose with which he follows the story exactly where the reader wishes it to go. Questions raised in the back of your own mind somehow are always addressed. King has a real sense of what the reader wants to know and how things must've felt and smelled and looked like in the 15th century. Everyone knows, for instance, that later in life Leonardo had a long beard, but I did not know how rare a long beard was at the time. I did not know that two years after the `discovery' of America Leonardo was buying corn to eat. Most especially I did not know that there was another artist in the room with him while he painted the Last Supper, another artist painting a crucifixion on the opposite wall across from him at the same time. It never occurred to me that there might've been someone standing there saying, "You sure you want to do it like that? It might peel."
I found this whole narrative fresh and smart and very well told. King telescopes an entire life into those few years Leonardo was painting the Last Supper. This is that rare biography that brings a giant like Leonardo down to human size, and yet you come away seeing this weird toothless old man as one of the great individuals of modern history. Highly recommended. Buy two.
All that survives of Leonardo da Vinci's work are about fifteen paintings and a collection of notebooks and sketches. The Last Supper is the most famous of those works, along with the Mona Lisa.
In the first half of his book, Ross King tells us the story of Leonardo's first forty years - his childhood, and apprenticeship, his work as an artist in Lorenzo de Medici's court, his move to Milan and his work for Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. The second half concentrates on the three years that Leonardo spent planning and painting the Last Supper. The final two decades of Leonardo's life, and the continuing life of The Last Supper, are summarized in the final chapter.
The story of Leonardo's life is a familiar one, but Ross King weaves new tidbits among the well-known stories. For instance, Leonardo was an excellent student at school, but he was unable to conquer pesky Latin verbs. And a possible clue to his accent is in his spelling. Spelling was less regimented than it is today, in Italian as well as in English (remember Shakespeare's many spellings of his own name.) Leonardo's spelling Venezia as "Vinegia" may approximate his pronunciation of the city's name.
The Last Supper mural is a story all by itself. Leonardo had no experience painting frescos and had never painted anything as large as this was to be. He hadn't volunteered for the project, and the wall to be painted was in a refectory, a dining room for the friars, not exactly prime real estate for a painting Leonardo hoped would add to his reputation. But money talks and the Duke of Milan had offered Leonardo a huge commission to paint the wall.
Leonardo took three years, to the consternation of the friars who used the refectory, and while the painting is universally considered a masterpiece, it would have been fortunate had Leonardo also been a better chemist than he was. The painting was flawed, not in its artistic composition, but in the materials and the application of the paint to the wall. Leonardo had not only been learning fresco painting on the job, he also tried experiments with alternate paints and applications. The results were beautiful, but fragile.
The mural he spent years to complete began deteriorating almost immediately. Recognizing the brilliance of the perspective and composition of subjects as well as the beautiful colors, other artists copied the fresco and from those nearly contemporary paintings, restoration work has been possible.
King tells a great history and there are many details about how Leonardo decided on the composition of the fresco, the mechanics of creating the painting, and how the mural has since taken on a life of its own.
No one is better than Ross King in creating fascinating and beautifully detailed histories of artistic genius. In Leonardo and the Last Supper King has surpassed even his earlier "Brunelleschi's Dome" and "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling", presenting us with a wonderful history of one of the great Leonardo da Vinci's best known works and a detailed biography of the artist and his turbulent time period.
While Leonardo was without doubt one of the towering geniuses of all time, he was also one of the most easily distractable and dilatory. He simply boiled over with enormous numbers of ideas which he either never had time to complete, never even got started on, or never could convince anyone with sufficient resources to back him on. Another major problem with Leonardo was that he wasn't satisfied to do anything the way everybody else did. He always had to try new techniques and new materials, which sometimes worked out splendidly but more often disappointed.
Leonardo painted The Last Supper as one of the many projects assigned him by the great Ludovico Sforza, charismatic military leader and ruler of Milan, including what would have been a majestic equestrian statue. Unfortunately Sforza was heavily embroiled in the endless turmoil of Italian politics, which led to two separate French invasions and massive conflict. Eventually Sforza was overthrown and imprisoned, but not before Leonardo had created the marvelous painting of The Last Supper on the refectory wall of a monastery.
I found King's descriptions of the painstaking work that went into the creation of The Last Supper and his analysis of so many aspects of the painting, such as the meanings behind the positions of the various Apostles' hands, fascinating. I was just as interested in the ins and outs of Italian politics and their effects on Leonardo's work, which King ably describes as well. Most of all I enjoyed the story of Leonardo's life and King's amusing descriptions of the endless numbers of projects and ideas that he kept embarking on, then forgetting about or getting sidetracked onto something else. The Epilogue, in which King details the history of the deterioration and horrible "restorations" of The Last Supper that ultimately did far more harm than good, was also interesting.
While Leonardo da Vinci was a fascinating person to be around, he must have been one of the most infuriating as well. Even though at times you'll feel like yelling at Leonardo to "FOCUS!!!," you'll be sorry to come to the end of this able chronicle of this great artist and his world.
on December 7, 2012
Ross King's "Leonardo and the Last Supper" should top the reading list for those bound to the Renaissance-rich regions of central and northern Italy and for anyone lucky enough to score a ticket to luxuriate for 15 minutes in the presence of da Vinci's Last Supper in Milan. Readers will not only find a detailed explanation of the actual process of painting of the Last Supper but will also tap into a rich source of information on Leonardo's early life, his working style (which would certainly earn him low evaluation ratings in today's employment environment) and the meaning behind Leonardo's interpretation of the final meal shared by Christ and His disciples. The book explores many aspects of life in Renaissance Florence and Milan and increases understanding for the artistic and political milieu that influenced the next five hundred years.
King describes Leonardo's childhood--he was illegitimate, born to a mother who may have been a slave in a Florentine household. He was embraced by his father's family, a not-unusual situation in 15th Century Italy where even popes and cardinals had offspring. Several professions were off-limits by virtue of his birth circumstances, but he was educated in an `abacus school,' where boys were prepared for jobs as merchants and other business-related vocations. His father's influence won him an apprenticeship in the workshop of Verrochio, a respected sculptor and painter at the Medici court in Florence. Verrochio recognized Leonardo's abilities and provided the training, opportunities and contacts that forged a promising career.
Perhaps Leonardo's interests were too broad, because he seemed to have difficulty in focusing on and completing the task at hand. Although he was trained as an artist, he emphasized his achievements in architecture and design of machines of war to win a position in the court of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. Despite Leonardo's efforts, the Duke was primarily interested the Florentine's artistic talents, which frustrated Leonardo and resulted in frequent foot dragging when it came to completing portraits and other assignments. By the time Leonardo was commissioned to paint the Last Supper, his actual output was surprisingly sparse.
King's chapters on the painting of the Last Supper provide rich detail on the genesis of the project as well as on Leonardo's techniques, innovations, and actual painting. Patrons did not simply tell an artist to paint a picture. They gave detailed instructions and provided contracts which specified exactly what they wanted to appear in the final product. The artist was expected to carry out the technical aspects of the job, but his creativity was not left unharnessed.
Other passages explore artistic techniques used during the Renaissance for frescoes. For instance, paper for cartoons was prepared with burnt chicken bones and silver styli were used to scratch preliminary fresco designs onto the paper before the design was transferred to the wall for final production.
Perhaps some of the book's most interesting detail was a description of how Leonardo's interpretation of the Last Supper evolved from earlier artists' depictions which were drawn from the scriptures of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Leonardo rooted his design in the Book of John and the resulting interpretation offers new insights into the story. And, for Dan Brown fans, King considers the figure to the right of Christ and offers a different, more scholarly interpretation of whom that figure may represent.
"Leonardo and the Last Supper" is a fine addition to King's earlier books about the Italian Renaissance ("Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture," "Michaelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling," and "Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power." As a collection, they provide insight on a historical period that shaped history and remind us that the arts can flourish even in times of political uncertainty.
on February 17, 2013
I'm a big fan of Ross King. 3 of his books, Dome, Judgment, and Michelangelo, are revelations and belong on any artist's favorites. On this effort, unfortunately, King sputters a bit.
Throughout most of the book he merely sews together a quilt of research while only rarely giving his own insight or opinion. This type of writing might be good for Da Vinci first timers, if anyone is that anymore, but those in the know deserve better. The critical distance is annoying.
It's obvious that he did a lot of research, and so there are interesting heretofore unknown tidbits abound, but I feel like the copious amount of research is actually what got him so lost. It's almost as if King knew what a popular subject he was tackling and so read absolutely every single thing he could, then turned out a sausage of a book. If he just would have stepped back from the archives for a bit and let it flow he would have been much better off.
One star off because he a really good art history writer in the prime of his career who could have done better,
One star off because the "history" sections are so long, clumsy and tedious.
on January 2, 2015
I learned more about Italy, colors, perspectives, eating habits, hand gestures, military weaponry, pay scales of artists, and political battles in this book than I ever would have imagined. This is indeed about the painting of the Last Supper by daVinci in Milan, but it is much more expansive than that. It goes into the person of Leonardo, his habits, his likes, his dislikes, his political views, and his social world. It takes place in the late fourteen hundreds, and the painting was finally finished in 1498. I learned that Leonardo was left handed, a vegetarian, probably a homosexual, a procrastinator, an eccentric, a musician, and a genius. This is a fascinating read about a fascinating character who shaped much of art, painting, architecture, military weaponry, and other subjects. He studied obsessively, and was a profound genius of the detail. He measured and studied ratios of human proportions and he equated the human species to mathematics and to music. The detail and the artistry on the 15’ x 30’ mural that he painted is truly amazing. It is a shame that it has endured such difficult environs of water, roof leaks, war, steam from a proximate kitchen, and faulty restoration over the years, because this is truly one of the world’s greatest masterpieces. It is still magnificent, even though it has been abused. Learning about the history, the proportions, the human scale, and the religious significance has allowed this work of art to become a reality in my mind. I loved this unusual book.
on November 25, 2012
Leonardo wanted to be a sculptor and he conceived the largest horse to be cast in bronze in history. But when his benefactor got into a war with France and needed the bronze, he stole it from Leonardo and cast cannon instead. Wanting to make sure Leonardo stayed in Milan, he saw to it that Leonardo got a large commission to paint a Last Supper which was one of the more common pictures commissioned in those days of monistaries and churches. After all Leonardo had studied with one of the most prominent painters of the day. But Leonardo didn't know anything about frescos (paintng on wet plaster) so he had to learn. Ross King carefully takes you through the entire process of how Leonardo learned to paint. And he explains why The Last Supper is such a masterpiece.
First of all, Leonardo's genious was his ability to observe how everything he looked at was constructed and put together, people as well as machines. He also drew sketches of almost everything he looked at. And when he learned to paint he was as particular about color and composition as he was about mechanical and people surfaces. (He was the first to conceive of the tank and other machines for war which is how he got to Milan in the first place.) So when he recieved the commission for the Last Supper he experimented with painting and how it was done along with how colors combined and contrasted to make painted pictures more vivid. Leonardo discovered the concept of complementary colors but he didn't bother calling it that, he just used it. Complemenatry colors are those that appear brightest when close to their complements as explained over a century later. He also learned how to create a stronger impression of different colors in the eye by placing several colors over each other rather than mixing them. A process not used regularly until over 400 years later by Serat during French Impressionism.
Another aspect of Leonardo's genious came through observing how people looked when doing things and he put his knowledge of acton into the Last Supper, rendering the people in the picture alive rather than static. He had learned how to show the face through multiple three quarter views in earlier painting efforts and showed that skill in the Last Supper as well, so the 13 people could be seen in thirteen different poses instead of only as full faces or side ways as depicted in previous Last Suppers.
Yes, Leonardo did experiment and some of his painting experiments led to degridation of the picture that has required many attempts to keep it vivid through repairing the damage caused by the later use of the room as storage for dirty equipment (amoung other degridations). Ross discusses all of the subsequent history, use and abuse. But his placement of Leonardo's Last Supper in the history and process of Leonardo's work as well as the history of Milan and Italy adds the Last Supper to a marvelous comparison of what was happening in art, architecture and the Roman Church that he has supplied to us in this and other writings.
Reading this book will teach you more about what you are seeing when you look at any other picture in the history of pictorial art. Read it, contemplate it, learn its carefully crafted descriptions and stories, and you will be a better tourist when you visit Milan, the Last Supper, or any collection of art in the world--maybe even a better practicing crafter of pictures yourself, paints or camera.
on December 29, 2012
Ross King, the author of Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power and Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, explores the life of another Renaissance giant.
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.
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.
The book is easy to read except for the 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.
on May 9, 2016
Leonardo is a genius. Yet there isn't one piece of work that can be identified as career-defining. That is until 'The Last Supper' painting.
This is an example of an extremely well written history book. It's not dull at all and isn't a list of facts. Instead, the facts are interwoven into a well-told story. The reader can really imagine what it was like in Italy during that time. Politics, religion and art all come together to make a fascinating background to Leonardo's painting. The only thing was that at times the story really was very plodding, especially at the end.
on June 2, 2013
I was expecting to read an exposition about Leonardo and his painting of the Last Supper. However, the painting of The Last Supper seemed to be a "minor anchor" to the book. If one were to think of the Last Supper as a tiny hub in a wheel, the MANY spokes are about historical references to kings, families, wars, governments, other priests, artists, slippery assistants, and (too) much more.
My understanding is Ross King is an historian so this may be his way of explicating his thoughts about a certain time in Italian history. Or perhaps Mr. King was trying to make the point that Leonardo's painting of the Last Supper was a product of that certain time. (If this is the case, I certainly did not find any conclusive support of this idea.) Some of the references could have been relevant (i.e., painting the figure of Christ with a beard) but I felt Mr. King wasted too many words and too many pages about the presence of beards. I found myself thinking, "Please just get to the point."
It was a long, hard act of self-discipline that made me finish this book. I learned very little about the actual painting.
The book may be enjoyable to someone who relishes the myriad historical events concurrent with the painting.