Renaissance Man

A new book traces the longevity and the fragility of Da Vinci’s greatest work

Executed sporadically over several years in the mid 1490s, Leonardo da Vinci’s mural of The Last Supper is commonly regarded as a triumph, the crowning glory of a master. According to Leonardo’s latest biographer, The Last Supper is arguably the most famous work of art in history, the next most famous being Leonardo’s painting of the Mona Lisa. That Leonardo should occupy both first- and second-place positions is in itself extraordinary if only because so little of his output has survived. Fifteen of the paintings are accounted for, notes Ross King in Leonardo and the Last Supper, the most recent study of the man and his most famous work, and four of those remain unfinished.

But Leonardo’s greatness is not simply a matter of quality trumping quantity. Quite apart from the depredations of time and the misadventures and accidents that can diminish such a legacy, the relatively meagre volume speaks as well to the man’s abundant talents. Astronomy, mathematics, music, mechanical engineering, anatomy—this is only a partial list of the other interests and avocations to which Leonardo da Vinci devoted his time and energy. He was insatiably curious; not much in life and nature escaped his interested gaze. In that questing spirit, he stood in contrast to his fellow Florentine, the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola, whose own particular avocations included book burning. It may surprise some to learn that Leonardo regarded this multiplicity of talents as something of a curse. “Tell me if anything was ever done?” he mused toward the end of his life (he died in France, in 1519, aged 67). A lament more than a question, although a question long since answered in the affirmative by an admiring posterity.

One of the nicer ironies noted in Leonardo and the Last Supper is that the artist, initially, seemed not very interested in what many have come to judge as his greatest work. He arrived in Milan from Florence in the early 1480s with the hope of finding employment as a military engineer. Armed with designs for various weapons, he sought a patron who could put these capabilities to use. He found that powerful patron in Lodovico Sforza, shortly to become Duke of Milan, an eminence whose political cunning made him one of the most feared rulers in Italy. Yet Lodovico preferred to tap Leonardo’s gifts for interior design and the planning and execution of elaborate pageants. He also commissioned an equestrian monument in bronze to commemorate his grandfather. And in this vein, he assigned Leonardo the task of creating a fresco of The Last Supper on the north wall of the refectory at the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie; a desire to embellish dynastic social standing animated Lodovico in this wish to refurbish a monastery with which his family was associated. Leonardo only rather grudgingly accepted this latter commission. But at the same time he felt an urgent need to accomplish a great work that would firmly establish his reputation in the public mind—keeping up, as it were, with the Donatellos and the Brunelleschis who came before him. Leonardo was 42 years old in 1494 and having a kind of mid-life crisis (assuming one can use that phrase when the average life expectancy at this time was 40).

Ross King, a Canadian living in England, has created his own sub-genre of art history through a canny mixture of the scholarly and populist. His books are concerned with contextualizing the artist and his art. Previous works such as Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling and Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture accomplished this aim on a micro scale. More recently, his acclaimed Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven demanded a broader canvas. With Leonardo and the Last Supper, King reverts to the micro, examining the man and his work, aided wherever possible by the writings of Leonardo himself. His was not an easy task. Much has been destroyed or lost and at times King must hedge his conclusions because of an absence of documentation. Still, he has managed to assemble a highly readable amalgam of fact and thoughtful speculation, Leonardo and his works appearing front and centre, with attention devoted as well to the machinations of Lodovico and his attempts to outmanoeuvre French invaders.

The illegitimate son of a prominent notary, Leonardo was recognized early on by his contemporaries for his brilliance as well as his reputation for unreliability, this last a consequence of a restless mind and a perfectionist nature. Leonardo cultivated his celebrity. Some of this celebrity seems to have been a function of his striking good looks. Some of it, perhaps, was due to a certain flamboyance in apparel. (King, for instance, informs us that Leonardo favoured pink tights!) He was an animal lover and this trait, too, became part of the mystique. The great art historian Giorgio Vasari told how Leonardo would purchase caged birds and then set them free. On the subject of Leonardo’s sexuality, King concludes that he “was almost certainly homosexual by the standards of later centuries”; at the same time, King dryly notes a recent study where Leonardo’s homosexuality is somehow seen as explaining (!) his “proneness to abandon things half done.”

The proposed fresco for Santa Maria delle Grazie posed challenges for the artist, not least because frescoes were not his customary medium. Moreover, they tended to be situated at heights above eye level and thus demanded scaffolding—scaffolds could be tricky, as witness Michelangelo’s tumble from one while painting the Sistine Chapel—and their wet plaster foundation meant the artist had to apply his paint quickly. For The Last Supper, Leonardo broke with tradition on a number of fronts. His painting would be a mural that employed a mix of oil and tempera, applied to an undercoat of white lead that sealed the plaster. This selection of materials made for the work’s vividness of colour, but it also, alas, made for a less durable painting since Leonardo’s pigment did not adhere well to its foundation and began to flake off within a matter of years. Beyond the question of materials, though, it was in his depiction of Christ and the twelve apostles, both in the detail of the figures themselves but also in the tension and sheer drama of the composition, where Leonardo moved his art beyond the static confines of traditional portraiture. King offers plenty of fascinating asides in connection with Leonardo and his process, from a potted history of hand gestures and their significance in Italian social history to the refutation of the theory that Mary Magdalene, not John the Baptist, sat at Christ’s side at the table, to a dissertation on the spilled salt cellar at Judas’s right hand and its role as a touchstone in the annals of superstition.

Some have suggested that what remains of Leonardo’s The Last Supper is 80 percent restorers—the most recent restoration of the mural was completed in 1999—and 20 percent Leonardo. Referring to its fragility and the way it had been altered and tampered with over the centuries, the novelist Henry James called it “the saddest work of art in the world.” And yet the simple fact of its survival is inspirational. Whatever its fate at the mercies of man and the elements, The Last Supper continues to occupy its special place in art history. This delightful book reminds us why.