I saw the famous “Last Supper” in Milan four months ago on a complete whim of a trip. I went with an old college roommate that I hadn’t really spent time with since graduation three years ago, as I couldn’t convince my husband that traveling to northern Italy in January to sight-see was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The accommodations—the floor of the studio apartment of a friend that I hadn’t spoken to since high school—were likewise not to his taste.
It was on the fifth day of this odd trip, in the early dark of a January evening, in a hazy ice-cold drizzle, wearing brand new [fake] leather boots that I hadn’t worn in yet and that were giving me awful blisters, with a roommate that was increasingly getting on my nerves and a friend that I was enjoying but just barely knew—that I found myself at Santa Maria della Grazie with a group of Asian tourists. At least I wasn’t the only one deluded into thinking that January in Milan was a great deal.
We stepped past the guards, through a sliding door to a closed room, through another door—once the first door had closed—to a room that again served some nameless purpose, through another set of doors—again opening once the second set of doors had closed—to finally step into the refectory for our fifteen-minute appointment (if you’re late, no money back). We walked into this bare stone room and turned 90 degrees to see it—the bits of paint on the wall that are at once a masterpiece of technique and a complete failure of chemistry. There are chairs for those that are incapable of standing for fifteen minutes (either for medical or attention-span issues).
Paintings always seem larger in real life—perhaps because paintings in books and on the Internet—and on postcards—are so small [and if that’s not the most obvious statement you’ve read today, you’ve had a rough day]. The sheer size of some works never ceases to amaze me. The “Last Supper” covers an entire good-sized wall. Even though so much of the paint is gone and only the briefest outlines of color are visible, it’s still incredibly plain even to a art ignoramus like myself that this—this is genius. It seems like the artist of the mural on the opposing wall must’ve done something deserving of a low circle in hell to be placed eternally in comparison with Da Vinci’s masterpiece.
It is this experience that led me to pick up this title when I saw it at the library last week. I actually read my first Ross King book while on the train in Italy—one on Brunelleschi’s dome [on the Florence cathedral] that I read on the way to, appropriately, Florence. Florence was rainy. Brunelleschi’s dome was spectacular. Ross King’s book was highly entertaining and informative—enough that I was very happy to see that he’s not a one-hit wonder.
Like the Brunelleschi book that I read five long months ago, Leonardo and the Last Supper doesn’t deal solely with this single event in Leonardo’s life—it starts with his childhood, provides scholarship and numerous references to current events of the time, talks about social and economic trends, what Leonardo’s life would’ve been like, what he would have eaten, etc. I learned that Leonardo was left-handed; that he preferred pink and purple clothes; that he had a weakness for curly hair. I also learned some less-fun trivia about political actions in the 1480’s. Interesting, but just not the same as coming out in the middle of a dinner conversation with the visual of Leonardo da Vinci in a pink cape.
If you like Italy, or history, or art, or biography—I highly recommend this one. It’s fun & not too long, and Ross King has such a fantastic narrative voice and persona. For me, he’s the Bill Bryson of art history. My only very small complaint was that he seems to have a personal issue with the Da Vinci Code and people who think that there’s any merit to the claims about the Priory of Sion and that whole set of nonsense. Honestly, I don’t know anyone that gullible. As fiction—why do so many people miss that classification?— The Da Vinci Code didn’t merit the kind of scholarship in refuting Dan Brown’s fake claims that King paid it.
Other than that, phenomenal. Very fun. Check it out.