Book review: Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King
A THRILLING account of the mercurial Leonardo and the making of his most puzzling masterpiece
Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King
Bloomsbury, 337pp, £20
What Leonardo really wanted was time to finish his giant clay model of a monumental horse, his plans for defending Milan and for new kinds of “instruments of war”; but dukes don’t listen much to what their artists want. Instead, the duke of Milan commissioned a painting – the Last Supper on the wall of the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, a glory for the place where he was going to make a memorial to all his newly powerful family. And Leonardo, even though he managed some sudden and scandalous disappearances and a lot of his usual prevarication and a number of sideshow activities, felt unwillingly obliged to oblige.
How this happened, and how it produced what Henry James called “the saddest work of art in the world” is a curiously cerebral story which happens mostly in people’s minds. Ross King makes a quite remarkable book of it. He has a proven talent for digesting vast quantities of material, some of it lunatic, much of it pedantic, and producing a perfectly controlled, seriously documented story that you really want to read.
This time, though, the challenge is extreme. It’s not just that Leonardo has become the model of an art celebrity, which allows for breathless speculation: about his role in Priory of Zion as laid out in the Gospel According to Dan Brown, concealing the truth about Mary Madgalene and her secret marriage to Jesus; or about his left-handedness, Oedipal issues and tendency to dream about birds in the novelette according to Sigmund Freud; or his left-handed mirror writing that makes everything seem in code; or his sex life; or his terror of sexuality; or perhaps the homosexuality that one team of textbook writers mysteriously thought would explain his failure to finish anything.
He’s much trickier than that. We value him as a genius painter, but he was forever trying to stop painting and build canals, or castles or gun turrets; he was always ready to be distracted from everything that makes us value him. He was a man of paper brilliance whose notions very often refused to work in the world; he never did manage to cast his giant horse in bronze. He didn’t produce much, barely a painting in ten years according to one writer from Florence.
Instead he was infinitely curious in an almost modern manner, and he made a living as a kind of court jester, who did conjuring tricks, turning the white wine into red, and putting Hell on stage for a court masque. Nothing about him is entirely clear and he was so versatile that anyone can adjust his biography to fit current fashion. Only Leonardo scholars would fret, for example, about whether the Mona Lisa is a self-portrait.
But even if his life and soul and sexual performance were perfectly documented, there would still be the problem of his masterwork: the Last Supper.
All we can see now is the ghost of the dazzling colour, the astonishing illusion that once was; but Ross King is not writing a ghost story. He’s concerned with the life that produced the painting, Leonardo the man, from his vegetarianism to his style of dress, the wars and politics and circumstances of his career, and the way he made his picture – from the design of the scaffolding to first “reviews”, by way of how the colours were mixed and the nail which marked the very centre of the image and the face of Christ. He makes an entertainment out of art historical stuff without shouting or faking.
The short, brilliant life of the picture was largely Leonardo’s fault. He had never been commissioned to fill a wall before, never made a picture on such a huge scale, and he was too impulsive, too concerned with the texture of paint, the life in details and the chance to change things; he could not put up with the long, painstaking fuss of painting in true fresco, with colours in water that bind with newly laid wet plaster, filling in a design traced onto a wall. Instead he tried painting with egg-bound tempera and in places with oils.
He could go back over what he had done, he could improvise all over the picture at one time, and he could use colours that were impossible in fresco, vivid vermillion and ultramarine, the lovely mineral colours laid over the toxic brilliance of lead white. But the medium was the problem; those colours never did bind properly with the wall.
So the painting was flaking and falling apart within decades of the last brushstroke, in 1498, and “in a state of ruin” a century later. It was washed down with caustic soda in a horrible attempt to bring back its colours and then restored with so little attention that a foot became a chair leg, a hand became a loaf of bread. That is what made it “the saddest work of art in the world”.
Even those who saw it before the worst damage was done could never quite agree exactly what it meant or what it showed: it was a Last Supper which might be about men realising they had been betrayed; a psychological study with no unnecessary added God; or else the beginning of the Eucharist, a moment of quite mysterious spirituality; or maybe some other subtle aspect of the Gospel story.
The hand gestures might be Italian, but they were still ambiguous. Even the food on the table was curious. There was no Passover lamb, as you’d expect, just dishes of eel and slices of orange, a curiously rich dish to set before a refectory of hungry monks on their sparse Dominican diet.
St John had become so long-haired and willowy that the egregious Dan Brown has his experts insist St John is a woman with a hint of cleavage, which suggests Brown hasn’t done much looking at all the androgynes that Leonardo painted, the curly, lovely boys (or the dirty pictures, the ones where angels have absolutely all the attributes of a street-corner transsexual hooker.) St John has the semi-feminine charm of jailbait, just as Leonardo liked.
Judas is left-handed just as Leonardo himself was, a man like him, but left-handedness is a difference rarely shown in paintings, although Dürer used it to mark out witches. Judas even had an ordinary face until restorers decided he could do with a more blatantly sinister look, since he was the villain who took money. And the face of Christ, what remains of it, is a puzzle; some critics thought it was left unfinished because Leonardo’s couldn’t do better than the beauty of some of the apostles. But the face was certainly finished, as the under-drawing shows.
There is the element of harmony and proportion in the picture, which ought to have something to do with Leonardo’s mathematical interests in the golden section but actually doesn’t; the composition is so eccentric that the perspective works best if you keep moving about, which is odd. There are questions about Leonardo’s sexuality, his sense of himself, his general lack of interest in religious matters that have allowed some to make him into a heretic both in church and in bed; King keeps all this in remarkable balance.
There is only one thing missing: this story in the context of the history of art, not just in Italy but across Europe. Leonardo’s juggling of engineering and painting, machines and metaphors comes just before artists started to claim that they had talent, if not genius, that made them quite different from the goldsmiths who once trained them (that was how Leonardo’s master, Verrocchio, started out): when writers praise Leonardo to the skies, insist on his genius, they are making a polemical claim for artists and it might be wise not to take them too literally. They are insisting that art and craft can be divided, and that art is in some sense more vital and more interesting. Some of the contradictions in Leonardo’s career maybe stem from living before those questions were sorted out.
And just sometimes, King goes over the top and gets stuck there for more or less the same reason. He claims a Leonardo sketch as “the first landscape in Western art”, which is just silly. Landscape was still background, and Leonardo was making sketches, I think, for the background of pictures about people. He was imitating what Flemish painters already did, just as in a sense the vividness of his portraits is an answer to the life in portraits made in the North; Italy was not an island, and the techniques of oil painting, as King says, had to be imported. Leonardo never did make painted images of simple landscape, and Italians took another century before they could work out where landscape fitted in their hierarchy of subjects proper for art.
But that is a minimal objection, more about point of view than anything else. King has made something like a thriller without any of the obvious materials of a thriller – there’s hardly any conflict in the main plot – and an easy read out of difficult stuff without condescending or insulting.
You may not think you need one more book about Leonardo, but you shouldn’t deny yourself the pleasure of reading this one.
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