Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Saga of The Last Supper a page-turner
In this intelligent, extensively researched book, Canadian art historian Ross King looks at Leonardo and the making of his Renaissance masterwork The Last Supper.
Don't expect the conspiratorial thrills of Dan Brown's bazillion-selling novel The Da Vinci Code. There are no self-flagellating, serial-killing albino monks here, no hidden messages that could blow the roof off the Catholic Church.
But even without fictional flourishes, King manages to make the saga of The Last Supper a page-turner. This is a tale of artistic experimentation and frustration set against a backdrop of court intrigue and war.
Born and raised in Saskatchewan and now based in England, King has found critical and commercial success with detailed backgrounders on defining artistic monuments, including Brunelleschi's dome and Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling.
He has also penned accounts of the French Impressionists and Canada's own Group of Seven. Writing for interested general readers, King excels at taking a vast amount of specialized information and synthesizing it into a deft and readable mix of social history, biography and art.
Here, King demonstrates Leonardo's genius, while suggesting that his artistic urges were often restless and vexed. When Leonardo started work on The Last Supper at age 43, the prickly perfectionist had a history of abandoned and unfinished projects, dissatisfied and litigious employers, and very few completed works.
Leonardo's patron during this period was Lodovico Sforza, the cultured but thuggish Duke of Milan, who came from a family with "a gaudy history of heresy, insanity, and murder." Lodovico commissioned Leonardo to paint a fresco in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, a Dominican friary.
The Last Supper would ultimately kick off the High Renaissance with its perfect equilibrium of line and colour, energy and harmony, religious mystery and human drama.
King carefully breaks the work down. There are pages about the depiction of food and an intriguing chapter just on hand gestures.
He also, by necessity, gets into technical issues. Leonardo liked to endlessly rework his ideas. Unfortunately, The Last Supper commission was for the unforgiving medium of fresco, which required careful planning and then quick, decisive execution, since an artist had to complete his work before the wet plaster dried.
The method of dry fresco Leonardo developed turned out to be a disastrous hybrid. Leonardo achieved dazzling ultramarines and vermilions that couldn't be found in the chalky tones of true fresco -- but they almost immediately began to disintegrate. As early as 1582, it was reported that the work was "in a state of total ruin."
Novelist Henry James called The Last Supper "the saddest work of art in the world," and its tragic mix of genius and failure makes for a fascinating read. But Leonardo and The Last Supper lacks the strong narrative through-line and comprehensive historical context of some of King's previous books.
Partly, it's the amount of information, which is at once too much and not enough. King is presented with a paradox: Leonardo is spectacularly famous, the original Renaissance Man. He's also mysterious, the hard documentation of his life being sparse.
King is scrupulous about informing the reader when he's not certain about something. He also goes after what he calls the "crackpottery" that tends to fill the gaps in the historical record, the unsubstantiated stories and over-reaching explanations.
King dispassionately dismantles several claims, including Brown's idea that The Last Supper depicts Mary Magdalene next to Jesus.
King argues that, in some sense, Leonardo's original work no longer exists. "But this ghostly evanescence has only enhanced its fame," he suggests, "making it available for endless interpretations and reinventions."
Alison Gillmor's Art Deconstructed column appears in the Free Press.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 6, 2012 J9
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