The last word on Da Vinci’s painting

Leonardo Da Vinci masterpiece "The Last Supper"  still draws rapt crowds to see it in Milan
Leonardo Da Vinci masterpiece "The Last Supper" still draws rapt crowds to see it in Milan
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Ross King’s new book examines the story behind Leonardo’s masterpiece. He talks to Chris Bond.

Leonardo Da Vinci was the original Renaissance man and the ultimate polymath.

He was, among other things, a sculptor, architect, scientist, inventor, engineer and cartographer. He also happened to be one of the greatest artists in history and the man who painted, arguably, the world’s most famous painting.

But if the Mona Lisa is his most recognisable work, his greatest, and the one upon which his artistic reputation rested for centuries, is The Last Supper.

In his latest book, 
Leonardo and The Last Supper, historian Ross King examines the remarkable story behind the painting, which could easily never have been made, and how it turned the world on its head.

“So many people recognise the painting but very few people know the story behind it,” says King, who is appearing at the Ilkley Literature Festival next month. Da Vinci started work on the painting in 1495 in a state of near despair after a giant bronze horse that he had been planning for more than a decade, was taken from him so the bronze could be used for cannon to help repel the French army that was rolling through Italy.

“Most people don’t realise that he didn’t want to do it. He believed this bronze sculpture would secure his reputation as the greatest artist in history and he was only given the chance to paint The Last Supper as a consolation. So he didn’t start working on it in the best frame of mind.”

Not only that, but Leonardo had never worked on such a large painting (15ft high and 30 ft wide) before and had no experience working in the fresco style. Yet against this unpromising backdrop he created a masterpiece.

“He was a perfectionist so if something was worth doing it was worth doing well. There were many other Last Supper paintings and most of them are a scene of calm contemplation.

“Leonardo removed it from that kind of context. For him, Christ sitting with his band 
of brothers in an occupied 
city with a traitor in their midst was a far more interesting story.

“He created this storm of emotion, he wanted to capture facial gestures and hand gestures in his paintings and this emotional narrative comes out of his own passion,” explains King.

“When people think of The Last Supper they think of Leonardo’s painting, none of the others are in the same league,” he says. “It’s the greatest painting by the greatest painter the Western world has ever produced.”

Ross King is at Ilkley Playhouse on October 14 at 1.45pm. For tickets call the box office on 01943 816714.

Leonardo and the last supper

Da Vinci began painting The Last Supper in 1495.

At 15ft by 30ft it was the largest painting he had ever done.

He included his own self-portrait among the Apostles.

It started to degrade quickly and by the 19th-century people flocked to Milan to see it fearing that it would disappear.