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.

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.

‘Leonardo and the Last Supper’ by Ross King (Walker)

The restorations have kept coming for good reason. The painting has fascinating stories to tell, and King is an excellent guide to the biblical sources and artist’s choices that invest the work with so much power. Leonardo made use of the laws of perspective, whose rediscovery in the 15th century revolutionized painting. The “numinous resplendence” of Christ’s face draws the eye to the work’s center. The painting’s brilliance, however, has less to do with geometry than with the artist’s ability to render personality through physiognomy, to create drama through drawing, and to provide a sense of the divine by paying attention to the details of the mundane. The food on the table, from oranges to eels, gets as much loving attention as the apostles.

King’s book abounds in interesting art historical insights. He shows how Leonardo’s talents for blurring the distinction between the sexes “came out of an artistic tradition that relished this kind of gender bending.” His chapter on hands and gestures in the painting is fascinating, especially in light of his observation that the Dominicans signed to each other during meals when silence was imposed. King likes to debunk myths about the work, though I am not sure why he thought it was necessary to devote so much space to showing that the novel “The Da Vinci Code” was based on a misinterpretation of the painting as depicting Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s bride. On the other hand, it was interesting to read how Leonardo departed from convention in having Judas reach for the same dish as Jesus with his left hand. The artist (left-handed himself) knew more than most about the strong prejudices against southpaws.

Very few of Leonardo’s paintings were known to the public, and for centuries his reputation as an artist rested primarily on “The Last Supper.” He began painting the Mona Lisa in 1503, but it remained in the artist’s studio while he was alive and didn’t get a real public viewing until the 19th century. Leonardo spent his final years in a manor house in France’s Loire Valley, only 20 miles from where Sforza, his former Milanese patron, languished away in a dungeon. Neither was thinking very much about painting anymore.

“The Last Supper” seemed to many to be a miraculous work of art because its revolutionary combination of realism, dramatic power and attention to detail was unlike anything that had come before. Leonardo had created a new standard for painterly excellence in the Renaissance. Yet Henry James called it “the saddest work of art in the world,” because it had for hundreds of years been on the verge of falling into invisibility. By casting light on the historical context of “The Last Supper,” King has enabled us to see the painting anew.

Michael S. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author of “Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living With the Past.”


By Ross King

Walker. 336 pp. $28