How an artist became remembered for a fresco he didn’t want to paint

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 1, 2012 

"Leonardo and The Last Supper" by Ross King.

  • Nonfiction Leonardo and The Last Supper Ross King Bloomsbury, 320 pages

Inventor, painter, designer – Leonardo Da Vinci was a brilliant man. This is borne out by his drawings, his notebooks, his paintings and one fresco in particular – “The Last Supper” in the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy.

But it wasn’t a job Da Vinci wanted. In “Leonardo and The Last Supper,” Ross King gives a portrait of the times behind Da Vinci, and the politics and decisions behind the painting.

Renaissance Italy was split into many principalities, all of which “vied to surpass one another not on the field of battle but in the taste and splendor of their accomplishments,” says King.

King gives a view of the ambitious but frustrated Da Vinci. “By the age of forty-two – and in an era when life expectancy was only forty – Leonardo had produced only a few scattered paintings, a bizarre-looking musical instrument, some ephemeral decorations for masques and festivals, and many hundreds of pages of notes and drawings for studies he had not yet published, or for inventions he had not yet built.”

He had gone to Milan a decade before, attaching himself to the court of Duke Lodovico Sforza in anticipation of creating weapons and war machines. But the artist’s time was more spent creating trivial entertainments and stage plays. He longed for something more eternal to add to his reputation, but his patron knew that Leonardo was “notorious for his slow progress.” Finally Sforza gives him the convent assignment.

Da Vinci wasn’t a fresco painter, but he read avidly and applied what he learned from others.

“Leonardo and The Last Supper” takes readers back into an era when every painted face, every painted gesture had multiple meanings to the people of the time, but unknown to people today. It is a fascinating history of a world famous painting.

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