A scholar looks back on a long career studying Leonardo da Vinci’s life and works.
Kemp (Emeritus, History of Art/Oxford Univ.; Art in History: 600 BC-2000 AD, 2015, etc.), who has published several books on Leonardo, is a leading expert. With the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death approaching, the author offers a wide-ranging and insightful account of his “personal relationship” with Leonardo over the past 50 years, which involves “people, institutions, events and skulduggery.” After a succinct and handy biography of the artist, Kemp devotes two chapters to “one of the colossuses of world culture,” The Last Supper. He first encountered the painting, or what then “remained” of it, in 1964. It was “momentous,” Kemp writes, but he was bothered by the “pictorial wreckage” the work had suffered over the years; the “actual painting refused to thrill.” The author is excellent in his analyses of Leonardo’s artistic “intention of the mind,” his desire to capture the painting’s “soul.” No “previous artist was as concerned with such deep causes.” Kemp’s discussion of the pros and cons of the latest restoration efforts is superb. Then it’s on to Mona Lisa and the unique opportunity he had to view the work unencumbered by its usual special wood and glass casing: “Its sense of presence is truly uncanny. It is alive.” Next up is the lively story of the 2003 theft of Madonna of the Yarnwinder from a Scottish castle and its recovery in 2007. The knotty issue of authenticity is confronted in two pieces on La Bella Principessa, followed by one on the exciting 2008 discovery of the Salvator Mundi. The final essays deal with the development of a CD-ROM for Leonardo’s 72-page Codex Leicester, the ups and downs of curating exhibitions, and Kemp’s thoughts on Dan Brown’s “fictional history,” The Da Vinci Code.
Sign up for these informative, witty, and opinionated art history classes.