An absorbing study of a disappearing masterpiece.
King (Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven, 2010, etc.) tells the story of the most famous painting no one has really seen, at least since the 16th century: The Last Supper, the masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci that began deteriorating almost as soon as the paint dried. King places the painting in its political, social and artistic context, describing both the meaning of da Vinci’s work and the violent 15th-century Italian world that spawned it. Proof that art, like life, sometimes happens when you’re making other plans, da Vinci’s greatest painting came about because his dream project—an enormous horse-and-rider sculpture honoring the father of his patron, Lodovico Sforza—was scuttled when Italy needed the bronze for war. For the next two years, da Vinci painted the scene of Jesus and his disciples on the wall of a monastery. In its masterful use of perspective, complementary color and achievement of lifelike detail, it marked a turning point for Western art. King plumbs the painting’s religious, secular, psychological and political meanings, registered in the facial expressions and hand positions, the significance of the food on the table and, most fascinatingly, the salt spilled by the betraying Judas. (And no, Dan Brown, Mary Magdalene is not in it.) Alas, da Vinci’s ignorance of the fresco technique meant the pigments did not bond to the plaster, and the paint would begin flaking within years. As early as 1582, it was described as being “in a state of total ruin.”
Thankfully, King’s book is an impressive work of restoration—the author helps readers see this painting for the first time.