This is probably the best art history book I have ever read! There is an abundance of historical details which fill out the narrative rather than bogging it down. Aspects of Leonardo's career, the institutions and politics of late 15th century northern Italy, techniques used by artists (including the special techniques for the Last Supper), and a wide array of social norms (they ate with their hands!, they drank like fish! (200 to 600 litres of wine per annum (compare to Italy today, which is at 60L p.a.))), add in superstitions and religious affairs, and you've got one romping history!
King, Ross. Leonardo and the Last Supper (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012). If you like historical detail and the way that history is built up from note books, paper scraps and letters, and such, you’ll enjoy Leonardo. I did. King is a historian who apparently skipped university teaching and devoted himself, luckily, I think, to writing about the things that really teased his mind. So far, he’s cut a fine path. I’d like to read more from his pen because he lets you know where his historical details are coming from. Leonardo is about Leonardo da Vinci, of course, and thanks to King’s curiosity about him I learned a lot about Leonardo and probably would have liked him a lot had I known him. He was a gifted man, clearly, and he knew it and was able to persuade men of power to sponsor his creativity which, by the way, was not entirely given to works of art like The Last Supper. He preferred constructing war machines and applying mathematics to edifices and conducting experiments, and so on. Leonardo painted The Last Supper because the Duke of Milan offered him a deal he couldn’t refuse—apparently a very good deal. The artist dallied in completing it in part because he was often attracted to other projects much to the Duke’s chagrin like finding new techniques for bronze sculpturing, conducting ethnographic observations in the edges of town in search of new faces and hands to sketch for his voluminous note books including dissecting corpses to discover how muscles and tendons worked on bone. I also learned a lot about Italy in the 1500s. This includes the antics of bellicose kings, popes, rival dukes, and so on—the webs of pre-national politics and the cultural maze surrounding ordinary Italians and artists like Leonardo as well. On a smaller scale, the composition of oils for Leonardo’s canvasses, the use of models for the apostles sitting around the Last Supper including the model for Jesus’s face, together with the pederastic practices of many men in Milan and other cultural centers, not excluding Leonardo himself. King’s work is a marvelous and fascinating 16th century compendium of Italian culture, indeed.
According to this fascinating book, Leonardo was infamous in his own time for being a procrastinator and failing to finish commissioned paintings. In fact, it seems from King's description of how Leonardo flitted from project to project that he may have suffered from ADHD.
This book focuses on Leonardo's service for Lodovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan in the 1480s and 1490s, and for whom he painted The Last Supper. The painting was done on the wall of a cafeteria for monks in Milan. The usual technique for wall painting was called fresco, but Leonardo the non-conformist decided to try something different. As a result, he was able to use a much wider range of colours than fresco typically allowed. This book explains the techniques and also discusses the contents of this, one of the most famous paintings in the world. King also provides context in terms of the political and social events of the times.
In the final few pages, King talks about Leonardo's legacy. Only about 15 of his paintings survive, and for centuries The Last Supper was the only one most of the world knew about (the rest being in private collections). The saddest part is that only about 20% of Leonardo's original paint is left. His new technique, in the long run, was not very durable. There is something very poignant in the world's attempts to preserve this 500-year-old work of beauty for a few years more.
The writing is very accessible and easy to read, although there are many Italian names dropped throughout the book that I'm sure I was mispronouncing in my head. The book also has a number of illustrations, including a colour insert in the middle.
A fascinating read that's well researched. The author makes several "pronouncements" or statements that, I expect, arise from his research, but I wasn't always so certain that the author ought to have been so certain. Just the same, I enjoyed this book - it's actually a biography of da Vinci (it covers his childhood to his death) without being a biography in the usual sense (in that the focus is on his art, his inventions and his apparent lack to finish much. But it's amazing that of the little work he did finish, two of his pieces of art, The Last Supper and The Mona Lisa are probably the most famous pieces of art in the western world.
Although this book is interesting from an academic standpoint, it's hardly a page turner. It's interesting to find out what life was like for Leonardo Da Vinci and life in the 1400's, but it's a bit like reading a textbook. It was not exactly light reading. Recommended for art buffs perhaps.
"In Leonardo and the Last Supper, acclaimed Canadian author Ross King focuses his narrative skills and historical expertise on the Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci. Providing a fascinating portrait of Leonardo's character, details about his technique, and intriguing history of Milanese politics, King explains how the great mural of Jesus' last supper with his disciples was commissioned - and executed in a mere three years." Biography and Memoir December 2012 newsletter http://www.nextreads.com/Display2.aspx?SID=5acc8fc1-4e91-4ebe-906d-f8fc5e82a8e0&N=581155
So far so good. Full with lots of information about the 1400s back in Italy. I have to say that I am really enjoying this book so far. In a couple of hours I am already up to the second chapter.
The Library Journal extract is incorrect, it should reference Charles VIII, not XIII.
Really enjoyed this. It’s the kind of engaged, focused, penetrating (yet nuanced) exploration I devour. The fourth book by Ross King I’ve read, Leonardo and the Last Supper is the best so far. (I have to say he’s better at European art history than Canadian. Even if I wasn’t knowledgeable in that subject area, I would have found Defiant Spirits disappointing because it’s reductive and uncritical. Not confronting the Group of Seven’s narrow and elitist Anglo-Canadian boosterism effectively promotes it.) King does a good job here, however, of acknowledging his topic’s complexity and of representing the intricacies of Italian politics at the end of the quattrocento. He’s forthcoming about the lack of documentation re: some aspects of the fresco, but his speculations are informed and judicious. A recently discovered and detailed copy of the painting by one of Leonardo’s students is very useful in that regard. Went to the authors talk at the VAG, and he’s a personable, perspicacious and entertaining speaker. With half a dozen historical works to his credit to date, he may be coming into his own as a non-fiction writer. Can’t wait for the next one.
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