The National Catholic Review
Karen Sue Smith

Asked to name five artists, most people in the Western world would likely include Leonardo da Vinci. Asked to name five paintings, most would mention “The Last Supper” or the “Mona Lisa,” both by Leonardo. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is considered the quintessential Renaissance man. While his reputation as an artist, inventor and creative thinker is assured today, it was not always so, as readers will learn from Ross King’s new book, Leonardo and The Last Supper. Rather, Leonardo’s contemporaries saw him as a still emerging figure, with talents unrealized until late in life.

With the advantage of hindsight and the legacy of Leonardo’s private, hand-written notebooks (which run to thousands of pages) along with his masterpieces, we know what Leonardo was thinking, experimenting on and aspiring to do. We even know what he bought at the local market and how much he paid. With so much material at hand and definitive biographies already published, some writers have narrowed their focus. Da Vinci’s Ghosts by Toby Lester, for example, published in February 2012, tells the story of a single drawing, “Vitruvian Man.” Ross King tells the story of a different painting, “The Last Supper,” and in the telling reveals much about Leonardo and the turbulent times that shaped his life. (Fans of King may recall that he followed a similar course regarding the Sistine Chapel in his book, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling.)

Though King writes history, his novelist’s touch makes for riveting reading. He revels in irony and often constructs books around two figures, not just one. Like an artist working with light and shadow, King uses the second character to set off his main subject. Then he follows both characters to their respective ends, which typically involve a reversal of fortune. In Leonardo and the Last Supper, King sets Leonardo da Vinci against Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan.

Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a successful notary, a 15th-century occupation comparable to that of a first-year lawyer today. But illegitimacy barred Leonardo from following his father’s profession. After giving him a basic education, his father apprenticed the boy to a local painter and goldsmith, Andrea del Verrocchio. In Verrochio’s shop in Florence, Leonardo learned the basics of painting, goldsmithing and bronze casting. He even painted minor figures—two angels and a dog—on two of Verrocchio’s major works. Verro-cchio, who had important connections, introduced Leonardo to Lorenzo de’ Medici, the most powerful patron of the arts in Florence. Lorenzo may have helped the young artist secure his first commissions.

But Leonardo, almost 30 at the time, failed to complete some of his commissions and was tardy on those he finished. According to King, the reason may have been that Leonardo held high standards: he hoped to develop “a new visual language” more natural and realistic than that of his peers. Keenly observant of the natural world, he sought to paint the effects of wind on trees, shadows on clouds and water over objects. “I wish to work miracles,” Leonardo confided to his journal.

Around 1482, his reputation tarnished despite his promising beginning, Leonardo moved to Milan, a city of 100,000 people, seeking a new start in a bigger place. He wrote to Lodovico Sforza, seeking employment as a military engineer and architect, looking to build bridges and tunnels, though he had no experience with either. He did have works on paper: designs for a crossbow, a waterwheel, gears, cranks and screws and a wheeled cannon carrier that allowed a cannon to pivot. He aspired and appeared able to make weapons. History might have been very different had he found the job he sought.

But in Milan Leonardo contracted to paint two religious pictures, both of which he failed to deliver on time. After 10 years, he finished “The Virgin of the Rocks,” a painted panel King calls “unquestionably the greatest altarpiece of the fifteenth century.” The work was daring and unique, but it was never installed in the church for which it was commissioned. Moreover, it vanished until 1625.

By the time Lodovico hired Leonardo, both men were 42, an advanced age in that era. Lodovico was the de facto duke of Milan, but he courted the Emperor Maximillian, who alone had the power to grant him the title legitimately. Obsessed with his power and standing, Lodovico, a wealthy patron of the arts and learning, hired Leonardo to decorate a refectory in the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria della Grazie and to complete the world’s largest bronze statue, both in honor of the Sforza family. First, Leonardo spent 10 years working on the bronze statue, fashioning in clay a huge sculpture of a man on a rearing horse. But the project was scrapped when Lodovico reclaimed the bronze he had set aside for the monument to be melted down for weapons instead.

After that Leonardo turned to dining hall decoration, “The Last Supper.” In what history would judge a near-fatal decision (given the physical demise of the painting), he decided to paint the mural in oils rather than to use fresco, as any other artist would have done. The advantages of the oil were two. He could use brilliant mineral-based colors, impossible in fresco, and he could spend much more time painting and repainting. Fresco, by contrast, has to be painted quickly while the plaster is wet.

Over several chapters, King considers Leonardo’s preparation (he bought a Bible immediately to study); his overall composition (with Christ alone in the center) and the theology behind that choice; his use of perspective, possible models and hand gestures; the controversy over “the beloved disciple” (King argues for the apostle John, not Mary Magdalene); and the food and drink depicted (eels, orange slices and wine). King also lays out several of the other projects that occupied Leonardo’s time and creative energy during the three years he worked on the mural. The most absorbing of these projects was a collaboration with Fra Luca Pacioli, a priest-mathematician, on his book Divine Proportion, for which the artist provided 60 geometrical illustrations.

Woven throughout King’s history are the wars and women of Lodovico, the man to whom Leonardo had hitched his star for 16 years. For example, after Lodovico was forced to flee Milan, King Louis XII went to see “The Last Supper” for himself with the goal of plundering it. But he realized he could not carry it back to France. About that same time, Leonardo realized he needed a new patron. I won’t give away the ending, but I urge you to read this fascinating book and the epilogue, whether you are a devotee of Leonardo, art, Italian history, “The Last Supper” or none of the above. The book is a richly woven tapestry that will inform those who know a lot and those who know little about the subject.

Karen Sue Smith is the former editorial director of America.