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Leonardo's last chance

The aging artist had little to show for his career when the call came "to paint a wall."

Review By MICHIKO KAKUTANI - New York Times

By the age of 42 (in an era in which life expectancy was 40), Leonardo da Vinci had yet to create anything commensurate with his lofty ambitions. At that point, Ross King writes in his new book, Leonardo and The Last Supper, he "had produced only a few scattered paintings, a bizarre-looking music 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."

Too many of his projects - like creating a gigantic bronze horse on commission for Lodovico Sforza, the ruler of Milan - had gone unfinished; other projects having to do with architecture, military engineering and urban planning had not found patrons.

Sometime around 1492, Lodovico began planning a family mausoleum at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. As the project expanded, he asked Leonardo to begin work on a painting of the Last Supper for the wall of the church's refectory, where the Dominican friars took their meals.

"Leonardo may have dreamed of constructing tanks and guns, of placing a dome on Milan's half-built cathedral, or of completing the world's largest bronze statue," King writes. "But he was going to do none of these things. Instead, he was going to paint a wall."

The 450 square feet of paint and plaster known as The Last Supper would become one of the most famous paintings in the world - a painting, in the words of the art historian Kenneth Clark, that is "commonly held to be the climax of Leonardo's career as a painter" and that some scholars regard as a portal into a new era in art.

In this volume King - the author of books like Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power and Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling - gives us a gripping account of how that painting was created and how it represents, in his view, one of the few times in Leonardo's life that he managed to "harness and concentrate his relentless energies and restless obsessions."

King deftly situates the painting in a historical context - against political events in Italy at the time, religious attitudes of the day and contemporaneous developments in art - and also places it in the context of Leonardo's career, deconstructing the ways the painter broke with tradition and stamped a familiar and much depicted subject with his distinctive vision.

On several much debated issues, King does not hesitate to serve up his opinions. He asserts that the girlish-looking figure sitting on Jesus' right is John - not Mary Magdalene, as a character in Dan Brown's bestseller The Da Vinci Code famously argued. John, King contends, was traditionally portrayed as "a youthful and slightly feminine figure among his mostly bewhiskered and older companions."

As for the age-old question of whether The Last Supper depicted the moment when Jesus instituted the Eucharist or the moment when he announced that one of his disciples would betray him, King quotes a Leonardo expert who wrote in 1983 that most authorities had by then agreed that the painting represented "an amalgam" of both.

What distinguishes Leonardo's Last Supper from the many versions done by previous artists? As King observes, the Bible's accounts were extraordinarily dramatic: A charismatic religious leader and his band of disciples gather for dinner "in the middle of an occupied city whose authorities are plotting against them, waiting for their moment to strike. And in their midst, breaking bread with them, sits a traitor."

King provides a lively account of Leonardo's continual hunt for faces he might sketch, and speculates about the identity of the models (including himself) that he might have used to create the faces of Jesus and the apostles. He also writes about how Leonardo presumably started the painting by hammering a nail into the plaster to mark "the very center of the mural, the point on which all lines and all attention would converge: the face of Christ," and how he used perspective and his knowledge of geometry and architecture to map out the rest of the painting.

Jesus and his betrayer, Judas, of course, have been the focus of considerable commentary, and King shows us how Leonardo used light and shade and spacing to make them stand out. Not only did he make Jesus significantly larger than the other figures, but he also highlighted him by "placing him against a window that opens onto a landscape of clear sky and bluish contours," in effect giving him a kind of halo.

In the case of Judas, King says, Leonardo downgraded him by darkening his face with shadow and using for his clothes not the expensive ultramarine pigment he lavished on Jesus and some of the other disciples, but the cheaper blue azurite. Over the centuries, King adds, restorers and copyists would rework Judas' features to make him look more evil.

The story of the deterioration of The Last Supper and its many restorations is itself a kind of epic. Because the paint Leonardo used did not properly adhere to the wall (he did not use the fresco technique, which bonds pigments to plaster) and because the wall was damp and exposed to kitchen steam, The Last Supper reportedly began disintegrating within 20 years of its completion.

To make matters worse, King says, a door was cut into the wall in 1652, amputating Christ's feet and loosening the paint and plaster further. Later there was a flood, a close call with a bomb during World War II and a series of botched restorations.

The latest restoration using high-tech conservation methods began in the 1970s and was completed in 1999, returning the painting, King says, "as far as is humanly and technologically possible" to its original condition. The faces of the apostles were restored by consulting, where possible, Leonardo's original drawings, and many early copies of the painting that "revealed details lost or damaged in the original."

Some critics, King writes near the end of this fascinating volume, have argued that The Last Supper is "now 80 percent by the restorers and 20 percent by Leonardo." But he argues that its "ghostly evanescence has only enhanced its fame, making it available for endless interpretations and reinventions."

"Not only does it tell a story from the Gospels," he writes, "it has become its own story, one of Leonardo's miraculous triumph followed by centuries of decline, loss and - finally, 500 years later - a kind of resurrection."

Leonardo and The Last Supper

By Ross King

Walker, 336 pages, illustrated, $28