Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Review of Ross King’s Leonardo and the Last Supper

Kim and Joan with Ross King
By Kim

My correspondence with Ross King began back in 2009 while he wrote his phenomenal book Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven. His research uncovered mention of a landscape painter named Carl Ahrens who, in 1916, verbally attacked certain members of the Group. Intrigued, King found my website on Ahrens and contacted me, hoping I could shed light on what might have provoked his remarks.

I replied with a small treatise on the subject and over the years we’ve periodically traded e-mails. He has graciously assisted me with sections of my manuscript that involve the Group of Seven and the WWI Toronto art community. Needless-to-say, when I heard he was coming to Dallas to give a lecture on Leonardo da Vinci at the Highland Park United Methodist Church, I dropped everything to attend. Joan, a fan of art and all things Italian, did the same. To read an account of the evening, click here.

I mention this background now because I believe I have an ethical duty to do so. Let me also say, though, that everything written below is my honest opinion and not said out of any sense of obligation to a friend. My copy of Leonardo and the Last Supper was not given to me—I purchased it. King did not ask for, nor does he expect, a review. The first he’ll hear of it is when I send him the link.

That said, here we go!

Synopsis of Leonardo and the Last Supper (from the book jacket):

In Leonardo and the Last Supper, Ross King chronicles how—amid war and the political and religious turmoil around him, and beset by his own insecurities and frustrations—Leonardo created the masterpiece that would forever define him. King unveils dozens of stories that are embedded in the painting. Examining who served as models for the Apostles, he makes a unique claim: Leonardo modeled two of them on himself.  Reviewing Leonardo’s religious beliefs, King paints a much more complex picture than the received wisdom that the artist was a heretic. The food that Leonardo, a famous vegetarian, placed in the table reveals as much as the numerous hand gestures of those at Christ’s banquet. And King makes clear, from a variety of Biblical sources, that the figure to the right of Christ is, indeed, John and not Mary Magdalene, as some have posited.

Many of the myths that have grown up around The Last Supper are wrong, but its true story is even more interesting. Bringing to life a fascinating period in European history, Ross King presents an original and intimate portrait of one of history’s greatest geniuses through the lens of his most famous work.

About Ross King (from the book jacket):

Ross King is the highly praised and bestselling author of Brunelleschi’s Dome, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, The Judgment of Paris, Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power, and two novels, Ex Libris and Domino. He lives outside Oxford in England.

I confess I don’t read much non-fiction beyond books on the writing craft or references for whichever novel I am currently working on. With limited time to read for leisure, I generally prefer the escapism of a good story over informative reading. The beauty of diving into a book, any book, written by Ross King is that he has an amazing ability to simultaneously educate and entertain. He paints three-dimensional portraits of his subjects, exposing not only their genius, but their passions, quirks, and weaknesses in novelistic detail. Leonardo, for example, had trouble finishing any project and was known to exaggerate or even outright lie about his expertise to potential patrons.

King does not shy away from delving into the realm of (logical and always fully disclosed) conjecture, offering the reader gossipy tidbits that keep the pages turning. There is nothing dry about this history book! By the time I finished the last line of Leonardo and the Last Supper, I felt as though I had both seen Leonardo’s masterpiece through the artist’s eyes and watched the slow process of its creation. I know that if I ever get to visit Santa Maria delle Grazie to see what is left of The Last Supper, I will imagine it as it was, not as it appears today. Tears of wonder will likely be shed.

If you are a history buff, especially if you are fascinated by Renaissance Italy, you will find Leonardo and the Last Supper to be a real treat. 

Have you read this book? We'd love to hear your thoughts!

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