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Leonardo and the Last Supper

by Ross King

Among Leonardo da Vinci’s writing and journals, one note in particular reveals his genius: his desire to paint “Man, and the intention of his mind.” Da Vinci’s constant search for new ways to reveal the world through art defined the Renaissance and set an artistic standard for centuries to come. Ross King’s excellent examination of one of da Vinci’s undisputed masterpieces reveals how the artist fulfilled his desire, and gives the reader a fascinating glimpse into the man behind the genius.

Leonardo and the Last Supper (which won the 2012 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-fiction) opens in 1494. Ludovico Sforza is the Duke of Milan, and da Vinci is his most celebrated courtier. While very much admired, da Vinci has yet to complete a significant commission to secure his reputation. Eventually, he is charged with painting a scene depicting the Last Supper of Christ – at the time a popular theme – inside the refectory of the monastery Santa Maria delle Grazie.

Da Vinci’s painting is notable for many reasons, particularly the choice of medium (oil paint, rather than fresco, so that he could achieve the brilliant colours he desired), perspective (he used harmonic ratios), proportion (divine proportion was not his template), and realism (he based his figures on members of Sforza’s court). King asserts that the result was unlike anything seen before, and suggests the extraordinary possibility that the images of James the Lesser and Thomas are based on da Vinci himself.

King neatly structures the book around the gradually unfolding stories of both the artist and his embattled patron Sforza, who was eventually captured by the Swiss in 1500. By that time, da Vinci had left Italy for good and was working – though no longer painting – in France.

The Oxford-based, best-selling author of Brunelleschi’s Dome and Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, King is known for weaving compelling histories around iconic works of art and architecture. In doing so with da Vinci’s painting, he fashions an elegant portrait of an ambitious, tempestuous, and famously uncompromising man possessed of significant humanity. Readers will appreciate the diligence with which the great painter studied to overcome his lack of literary education, his insatiable curiosity, and his struggles with melancholy and an inability to complete many of his works.