the genius of the last supper -- 5/18/18

Today's selection -- from Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King. Leonardo da Vinci's life was filled with unfinished and unfulfilled projects. One of the very few projects that fully lived up to his genius and potential was The Last Supper, completed on a monastery wall in Milan circa 1498 CE. Leonardo, who lived well, would sometimes lament his lack of accomplishment, writing to himself, "Tell me if anything was ever done":

" 'Tell me if anything was ever done,' Leonardo used to doodle in the pages of his notebooks. Coming in the midst of so much dereliction and neglect, The Last Supper was the triumphant discharge of the debt that his genius owed to history. Over the course of three years he managed -- almost for the only time in his life -- to harness and concentrate his relentless energies and restless obsessions. The result was 450 square feet of pigment and plaster, and a work of art utterly unlike anything ever seen before -- and something unquestionably superior to the efforts of even the greatest masters of the previous century.

An early study for the Last Supper

"The Last Supper combined intensity of color with subtlety of tone, storms of movement with a delicate grace of line, symbolic beauty with vivid narra­tive and distinctive characterization. Above all, it possessed more lifelike details -- from the expressive faces of the apostles to the plates of food and pleats of tablecloth -- than anything ever created in two dimensions. An entirely new moment in the history of art had been inaugurated. 'The modern era began with Leonardo,' declared the painter Giovanni Battista Armenini in 1586, 'the first star in that constellation of greats to have reached the full maturity of style.'

"The Last Supper is indeed a landmark in painting. Art historians identify it as the beginning of the period they used to call the High Renaissance: the era in which artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael worked in a magnificent and intellectually sophisticated style emphasizing harmony, pro­portion, and movement. Leonardo had effected a quantum shift in art, a deluge that swept all before it. This radical shift can be seen in the career of one of his contemporaries. In 1489 the men in charge of the decorations of the cathedral in Orvieto confidently declared the 'most famous painter in all of Italy' to be Pietro Perugino. A decade later the wealthy Sienese banker Agostino Chigi could still claim that Perugino was 'the best master in Italy,' that Pinturicchio was second, and that there was no third. And yet when Perugino unveiled his latest altarpiece in 1505 he was ridiculed for his lack of ability and want of originality. The world, by 1505, had witnessed the staggering creative powers of Leonardo.

The Last Supper

"It is difficult to overestimate the importance of The Last Supper for Leo­nardo's own life and legacy. It was responsible, far more than any of his other works, for his reputation as a painter. During his lifetime and for many decades, even centuries, after his death, the majority of his ocher paintings (and only fifteen survive, four of them unfinished) were seen by neither the public nor other artists. In the three centuries between his death and the early nineteenth century, many of the works we know today were widely dispersed, unrecognized, inaccessible to the public, or completely unknown.

"Leonardo's Mona Lisa was for all intents and purposes invisible to the pub­lic before the nineteenth century. Remaining in Leonardo's possession throughout his lifetime, it was unseen by anyone except visitors to his studio. The Anonimo Gaddiano knew of it only through hearsay -- and he thought it portrayed a man. Sold by Salai after Leonardo's death, the portrait ended up in the bathroom of the king of France and then, centuries later, in Napo­leon's bedroom. It would become famous only after it was removed from the domestic environs of various French potentates and, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, placed on public display in the Louvre. Santa Maria delle Grazie was therefore one of the few places where one could indisput­ably see a Leonardo and appreciate the true scale of his genius.

" 'I wish to work miracles,' Leonardo once wrote. Fittingly, the word most often used to describe the work during the sixteenth century was 'miracu­lous.' "



Ross King


Leonardo and the Last Supper


Bloomsbury USA


Copyright Ross King, 2012


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