January 27, 2013

Book Review: 'Supper' is served, and laced with irony

By MICHAEL D. SCHAFFER, McClatchy Newspapers

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"LEONARDO AND THE LAST SUPPER." By Ross King. Walker. 322 pages. $28.

The Leonardo who emerges in King's pages may have been a genius, but he was a refreshingly human one. "Lacking much in the way of a formal education, he was one of history's great autodidacts," King writes, yet he was "a poor mathematician, often making mistakes" and had difficulty with Latin: "That one of history's greatest brains struggled with amo, amas, amat should be a consolation to anyone who has ever tried to learn a second language."

Physically, Leonardo was "strikingly handsome and elegant," according to early biographers. He was reputedly strong enough to be "able to straighten a horseshoe with his bare hands" and loved flashy clothing.

As he did in "Brunelleschi's Dome," King guides us through the artistic practices of the day, explaining the technique of fresco, which Leonardo had not learned as a young artist and apparently had no interest in learning as an older one. Fresco, which involved painting on wet plaster, required quick work. Leonardo liked to go slowly and to experiment.

"He preferred to work at a more leisurely pace than fresco required, concerning himself with subtle effects -- modulations of color or transitions of light and shade -- that fresco's requisite speed of execution made virtually impossible," writes King. Leonardo's decision to use oil paints on a dry wall may have suited him, but it also made "The Last Supper" a flaking piece of endangered art within 20 years of its completion.

Nor does King neglect the dangerous political world in which Leonardo lived, a landscape littered with names that have become bywords for ruthlessness -- Borgia, Machiavelli, Medici. One fascinating digression recounts Leonardo's friendship with the Franciscan friar Luca Pacioli, a brilliant mathematician remembered as the "Father of Accounting."

King judges "The Last Supper" to be "arguably the most famous painting in the world, its only serious rival Leonardo's other masterpiece, the Mona Lisa." That's obviously one person's opinion ("Starry Night," anyone? "Guernica"? "The Night Watch"?) But wherever you rank it, "The Last Supper" is an amazing work of art and King's book a worthy account of its beginnings.


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