January 28, 2013 2:32:28 PM
Leonardo da Vinci can be viewed as one of the least successful of men. It might be just that he had unrealistic goals for himself; it certainly was that he had trouble completing any task, rushing off to do something else as his fancy took him. He knew it himself, looking back and writing in one of his notebooks, "Tell me if I ever did a thing." If he could come back and see his painting of the Last Supper on the wall of a refectory in Milan, chances are he'd see just another failure. His experiments in fresco did not pay off, leading to degeneration of the painting that began only a couple of decades after it was finished. Yet everyone knows the painting, though it might be merely a ruin. We might consider ourselves lucky that we have even that; an RAF bomb during World War II devastated the refectory, but the wall of the painting was spared. And given the tumult that Milan was suffering during the time of Leonardo's work there, perhaps it is a surprise that the painting ever got completed. These are among the lessons of Leonardo and the Last Supper (Walker) by Ross King. King gave us a vivid life and work of another Renaissance master in Brunelleschi's Dome, and has produced the same sort of well-researched and exciting account here.
King takes in an enormous amount of history dealing with Leonardo's patron for the painting, Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. Lodovico's grandfather was a mere woodcutter, but he became a mercenary soldier, and Lodovico used alliances and aggression to gain the dukedom. The King of Naples coveted Milan, and Lodovico countered by inviting the French to come to Italy to help fight him. When called from Florence, Leonardo probably had hopes that Lodovico wanted him to take on military and architectural projects, the sort of thing he was enthusiastic about at the time. He must have been disappointed that instead he was enlisted to design sets and costumes for elaborate masques and to paint the bedroom of the duchess. He would have been more engaged by the challenge of making the world's largest equestrian statue, a commission from Lodovico in 1484 that would have required not only prowess in sculpting, but in chemistry and engineering. Leonardo got as far as making a full-sized clay model of the gigantic horse, and requisitioning the 75 tons of bronze it would have needed. Lodovico, however, more urgently needed the metal to go into cannons, and so the project came to naught (and the model was eventually used for target practice by French soldiers invading Milan). The gigantic statue is one in a long list of projects that Leonardo did not complete, this time because of circumstances; more often his own distractibility prevented success.
Instead of the horse, Lodovico put Leonardo to work painting a wall. Lodovico was going to make a memorial to his powerful family at the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, and the site of Leonardo's work was to be the refectory where the friars ate their frugal meals in silence. King is at his best when describing all that went into the work; we don't have anything like a diary from Leonardo, but we do have some preliminary sketches and notes, so much of the analysis of the painting is informed speculation. There is physical evidence, however, of how Leonardo used perspective. There is a nail hole right at Jesus's temple. Leonardo would have tied a string to the nail and used it to mark the many diagonals going to this vanishing point. There is evidence that Leonardo used in the painting a tablecloth and dining implements that would have been familiar to the friars (although it is doubtful that their meals included the depicted eels drizzled with orange juice). It might have been easy for Leonardo to have extended the lines of the painting so that it looked like an extension of the refectory. He did not, however, do this; there is a spot from which the lines would conform that way, but it is thirty feet from the wall and fifteen feet in the air. It isn't an accessible spot; by his perspective trickery, he made the painting look adequate from anywhere the monks would have viewed it, but also none of them would have seen any particular distortion.
There had been many illustrations of this famous party before, treated with reverence; it represents, after all, a time of communion between Jesus and the disciples before he is arrested, and a symbolic meal that would be restaged whenever churches offered communion. So the pre-Leonardo examples illustrated here show the diners quiet and meditative. Not Leonardo's. He took his apostles from the streets. He was fascinated by how real people moved and gestured, and, in an unusual activity for an artist of that time, he went about with his notebook and chalk and drew what he saw. In Florence, there was a tradition of the "know-it-alls of the benches," men who would station themselves on the stone benches flanking the streets and, sometimes with erudition, would discuss the ideas of the day. Leonardo drew their gestures, and made notes to himself of how to show someone arguing, or someone else listening. His drawings of the restless conversations on the benches were obvious preparation for the poses of the apostles in his painting. The men are not just sitting and eating and listening. They are almost all in movement, with gestures and hand positions indicating agitation and astonishment. It is, after all, around the time when Jesus is specifying which of them is about to betray him. It is a dynamic show.
"If Leonardo's style was superlative, his technique, sadly, was not," writes King, and explains why the picture is such a ruin. Leonardo was the wrong guy to pick to do a fresco. He had not been trained in the technique, which involves using colors in water that make a permanent bond with newly laid wet plaster; in a fresco, the painting is not on the wall, it is the wall. More important, he was impulsive and wanted to get on with the next thing. He wanted the opportunity to re-paint and to use brilliant colors that were in his oil armamentarium, but could not be set in plaster. He used oils and egg tempera on the wall, and those bright colors did not bind with it. The painting must have impressed all who saw it when it was new, and we have a fine faithful copy in oils by Giampietrino, Leonardo's student who was probably working with him on the scaffold while the original was being painted. After Leonardo was gone, there were restorers who thought that bathing the painting in caustic soda would be just the thing to bring its colors back, and there were others who paid so little attention to what Leonardo had painted that they made a hand into a loaf of bread. Those friars, when they needed a doorway through the wall, simply cut one in there, thereby amputating the very feet of Jesus.
Still, the powerful scene has become one of our visual benchmarks. Besides giving a history of the times, and a description of the painting's creation, King has covered a miscellany of related subjects, like left-handedness, Leonardo's supposed tendency to paint within golden sections, and the misinterpretation of the painting by the author of The Da Vinci Code. King is a good storyteller, and his wealth of information on Leonardo, his times, and his technique will allow readers the ability to appreciate the beautiful, doomed painting in depth.