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For more than five centuries The Last Supper has been an artistic, religious and cultural icon. The art historian Kenneth Clark called it 'the keystone of European art', and for a century after its creation it was regarded as nothing less than a miraculous image. And yet there is a very human story behind this artistic 'miracle'. Ross King's Leonardo and the Last Supper is both a 'biography' of one of the most famous works of art ever painted and a record of Leonardo da Vinci's last five years in Milan.
Detail obsessed, easily distracted, and a notorious deadline-buster, Leonardo da Vinci was able to complete one of his two best works in just three years all against a backdrop of war and occupation of Milan. King's (Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling) detailed accounting of the political situation in 15th-century Italy and how it informs our understanding of The Last Supper is interspersed with analysis of history's many interpretations of the painting, including the "typical crackpottery that follows Leonardo." The book addresses such topics as the groupings of the apostles and their hand placement; readings of the painting as glorifying faith; and whether the figure next to Jesus depicts the apostle John or Mary Magdalene. King provides a fascinating look at the artist's life, including his reputation among his patrons as unreliable, and his relationships with those he worked with and for including a young boy named Giacomo, who "held a great physical attraction for Leonardo." However, King's speculations are never salacious; rather, they help place Leonardo's life into the context of Florence's history of sexual tolerance and subsequent religious crackdowns. Though some of King's political explorations and discussions of symbolism can drag, the book proves most lively when tackling common misconceptions about the painting, with The Da Vinci Code coming in for special criticism. 16-page color insert and b&w reproductions.