Saturday, October 27, 2012

Heading to Italy?

Ross King’s Leonardo and the Last Supper will undoubtably top the reading list for those bound to the Renaissance-rich regions of central and northern Italy. And for anyone lucky enough to score a ticket to luxuriate for 15 minutes in the presence of da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan, the book is on the required list. Readers will not only find a detailed explanation of the actual process of painting of the Last Supper but will also tap into a rich source of information on Leonardo’s early life, his working style (which would certainly earn him low evaluation ratings in today’s employment environment) and the meaning behind Leonardo’s interpretation of the final meal shared by Christ and His disciples. The book  explores many aspects of life in Renaissance Florence and Milan and increases understanding for the artistic and political milieu that influenced the next five hundred years. 

King describes Leonardo’s childhood--he was illegitimate, born to a mother who may have been a slave in a Florentine household. His father’s family accepted him, a not-unusual situation in 15th Century Italy where even popes and cardinals had offspring. Several professions were off-limits by virtue of his birth circumstances, but he was educated in an ‘abacus school’ and prepared for a job as a merchant. His father’s influence won him an apprenticeship in the workshop of Verrochio, a respected sculptor and painter at the Medici court in Florence. Verrochio recognized Leonardo’s abilities and provided training and contacts that forged a promising career.

Perhaps Leonardo’s interests were too broad, because he seemed to have difficulty in focusing on and completing the task at hand. Although he was trained as an artist, he emphasized his achievements in architecture and design of machines of war to win a position in the court of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. Despite Leonardo’s efforts, the Duke was primarily interested the Florentine’s artistic talents, which frustrated Leonardo and resulted in frequent foot dragging when it came to completing portraits and other assignments. By the time Leonardo was commissioned to paint the Last Supper, his actual output was surprisingly sparse.

King’s chapters on the painting of the Last Supper provide rich detail on the genesis of the project as well as on Leonardo’s techniques, innovations, and actual painting. Patrons did not simply tell an artist to paint a picture. They gave detailed instructions and provided contracts which specified exactly what they wanted to appear in the final product. The artist was expected to carry out the technical aspects of the job, but his creativity was not left unharnessed.

Other passages explore artistic techniques used during the Renaissance for frescoes. For instance, paper for cartoons was prepared with burnt chicken bones and silver styli were used to scratch preliminary fresco designs onto the paper before the design was transferred to the wall for final production. 

Perhaps some of the book’s most interesting detail was a description of how Leonardo’s interpretation of the Last Supper differed from earlier artists’ depictions which were drawn from the scriptures of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Instead, Leonardo rooted his version of the events in the Book of John and the resulting interpretation offers new insights into the story. And, for Dan Brown fans, King considers the figure on the right of Christ and offers a different, more scholarly interpretation of whom that figure may represent.

Leonardo and the Last Supper is a fine addition to King’s earlier books about the Italian Renaissance (Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, Michaelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, and Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power. As a collection, they provide a fine reading on a historical period that shaped history and remind us that the arts can flourish even in times of political uncertainty.

The book will be published on 30 October, and if your local bookstore runs out, you can order it from Amazon.  

Happy reading!

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