In the middle of the 1490s, Leonardo da Vinci was given the task of painting a religious scene on a wall in a church refectory where Dominican friars took their meals. His boss was Lodovico Sforza, the duke of Milan. The artist certainly didn’t view this as a plum assignment — although it might have been preferable to painting the bedroom of the duchess, which he was also called upon to do.
Leonardo had had far greater ambitions than wall painting when he entered the duke’s service. Although celebrated for his painterly skills, he thought of himself as an engineer and military planner and had hoped to develop weapons and fortifications that would ensure the long rule of his mercurial patron. But although Sforza was interested in Leonardo’s sketches for what would have been the world’s largest equestrian statue (75 tons of bronze!), the ruler often treated his artist “first and foremost as an interior decorator and stage designer.” Though there seemed no limits to Leonardo’s imagination or his ambition, his employer wanted him to paint the wall where the friars took their frugal meals. And so that’s what he did.
(Walker) - ‘Leonardo and the Last Supper’ by Ross King
The convent wall became “The Last Supper,” one of the great masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance. The painting, which depicts the moment when Jesus tells his apostles that one of them will betray him, has great narrative power, and Ross King’s book embeds the grand work in the intersecting story lines of 15th-century political, military and art history, setting the stage with verve. He shows how Sforza schemed to get the French armies to invade Italy, and then betrayed his French allies when their victories seemed to endanger his status. King has a fine feel for military matters, underscoring the brutality of laying siege to a city and the remarkable lack of discipline among soldiers—and their lack of loyalty, less surprising given that they were fighting to serve tyrants whose legitimacy was often as tenuous as that of a pope’s son’s.
King presents a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man — Leonardo was 43 when he began the work. He had already acquired a reputation as an independent and freewheeling artist, but also one who could not be depended on to complete commissions. He was “willing to disregard fashion, tradition and precedent,” King writes; “no artist had ever peered so deeply into the physical features of men and their world.” Leonardo searched for a visual language that would do justice to the teeming heterogeneity of the world around him. Convention would not do. In art as in science, intense observation and experimentation were the keys to real achievement.
Leonardo had no experience with painting directly on walls when he began his work on “The Last Supper.” Fresco painting required rapid execution, not the careful layering of colors that was so important to Leonardo. So the artist tried priming the wall with lead-white and then developed his own mixture of oil and tempera paints. He was delighted with the nuance and vibrancy this allowed. However, the mixture did not hold up well, and it wasn’t long before the paint began to flake. Restoration after restoration has been necessary to keep remnants of “The Last Supper” visible.