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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Leonardo and the Last Supper’

- - Friday, December 7, 2012

LEONARDO AND THE LAST SUPPER
By Ross King
Walker & Company, $28, 352 pages

Each year, many tourists journey to the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy, to see Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper." This awe-inspiring mural, crafted between 1495 and 1498, depicts the reactions of the 12 apostles after being told by Jesus that one of them would ultimately betray him. It has been restored on several occasions, braved the elements for centuries and survived two world wars.

Yet "The Last Supper," like other da Vinci paintings, such as the "Mona Lisa," is deeply shrouded in mystery and controversy. The great artist once wrote, "Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence," but hardly anyone has kept quiet about this particular masterpiece. Most art critics and art lovers have strong opinions about the restoration process, the apostles' identities, if the figure to Jesus' right is either John the Apostle or Mary Magdalene and whether da Vinci himself is in the mural.

Ross King attempts to settle some of these mysteries in his new book, "Leonardo and the Last Supper." The Canadian-born Englishman has written both historical fiction and historical nonfiction in his widely acclaimed career. In the past, he has delved into the works of Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, French impressionism and even Canada's Group of Seven. But his well-researched account of da Vinci's mural could be the most impressive book he's written. He has helped open the door to further academic study of "The Last Supper" -- and led us closer to understanding what is myth and what is reality.

While most people think of da Vinci as a brilliant artist and a genius, that wasn't always the case. By the age of 42, he had had a surprisingly mediocre career. As Mr. King notes, da Vinci had "produced only a few scattered paintings, a bizarre-looking musical instrument, some ephemeral decorations for masques and festivals and many hundreds of pages of notes and drawings for studies he had not yet published or for inventions he had not yet built." In the author's view, there was "a stark gulf between his ambitions and his accomplishments," and there wasn't a great confidence in da Vinci's ability to create and finish timely projects.

One important person who did have faith in da Vinci's talents was the duke of Milan, Lodovico Sforza. A longtime patron, he played an integral role in granting the artist a commission to depict "The Last Supper" in the Santa Maria delle Grazie's refectory. (Although either Sforza or the Dominican friars "originally engaged Leonardo," the former was the "more likely candidate.") To be sure, da Vinci would have been aware of this important biblical story through Scripture and previous paintings by other artists. Nevertheless, this "was not the most obvious assignment" for da Vinci, and in Mr. King's opinion, he was "an odd choice for the job" due to certain artistic limitations. For one thing, his original teacher, Verrocchio, had "never painted in fresco and therefore, presumably, never passed along its secrets ... [n]or had Leonardo ever worked in fresco."

Incredibly, da Vinci's lack of experience in painting frescos didn't stop him from creating one of the world's finest examples of this particular technique. Mr. King observes, "Leonardo's choice of technique and materials guaranteed that the friars of Santa Maria delle Grazie would eat their meals in the midst of a dazzling show of color." At the same time, there are more questions than answers surrounding what we're actually seeing.

The most interesting sections of "Leonardo and the Last Supper" are therefore Mr. King's personal -- albeit well-detailed -- analyses of fact versus fiction.

For example, the author believes the Apostle John is to Jesus' right, because a "figure in a Leonardo with feminine features does not therefore automatically, easily, or unambiguously qualify as a woman." (Dan Brown, author of the Da Vinci Code, will obviously be shattered by this revelation.) There is a chapter titled "Every Painter Paints Himself," and Mr. King's highly original thesis is that da Vinci followed this pattern -- not once, but twice.

Of interest, the widely discussed theory of da Vinci being a heretic is challenged. While it's true he "disapproved of certain ecclesiastical practices," at the same time, the artist "seems not to have entertained serious doubts about the 'supreme truth' of the Bible itself." Da Vinci acknowledged, "God was best approached and understood through a study and appreciation of his works," which would include the "works of Nature." In the author's view, "Peering into the secrets of nature was therefore an act of worship rather than one of heresy."

Mr. King writes that "The Last Supper" "is arguably the most famous painting in the world," aside from the "Mona Lisa," but its "tremendous fame is detached from what we see before us in the refectory." I agree, and one hopes his well-written and intriguing book will put this unfortunate assessment of the great mural to rest.

• Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a columnist with The Washington Times.