Why a vegetarian Leonardo served fish at his ‘Last Supper’ — and other colorful fresco facts
- Last Updated: 2:56 AM, November 4, 2012
- Posted: 8:39 PM, November 3, 2012
Leonardo and the Last Supper
by Ross King
Walker & Company
You gonna finish that?
The Dominican friars dining in candle-lit silence at Santa Maria della Grazie convent had to be wondering that very question, as Leonardo da Vinci occupied their refectory with disruptive scaffolding, odorous paint fumes and his own looming perfectionist presence — for three long years.
A fresco on the opposite wall — a crucifixion scene by the painter Montorfano — was finished in 12 months. And here was Leonardo, some days working furiously from dawn to nightfall and other days stroking his beard for a couple hours before walking out without lifting a single brush, much to the monks’ annoyance.
And when he finally did remove the scaffolding in 1498 and present to the world a 15-by-29-foot mural that would soon be hailed as the most sublime artwork ever created, the monks barely looked up from their bread and water. Hundreds of years later, they even cut a door in the wall, taking out Christ’s feet.
The colorful back story is restored and revealed in “Leonardo and The Last Supper,” a new book by British author Ross King that quickly dispenses with the outlandish myths spread by “The Da Vinci Code” novel — while showing that history is in many ways more surprising than Dan Brown’s popular fiction.
At the time of his commission, Leonardo was 42 (when life expectancy was about 40) and considered something of a disappointment in the art world. Those who owned his portraits in private collections raved of his genius, but by 1494 and without a masterpiece visible in a public cathedral or piazza, it appeared that Leonardo had missed his shot. (He’d even once sent an anonymous letter recommending himself for the job of designing bronze doors for Piacenza’s cathedral, writing that there was no other “capable man” besides Leonardo the Florentine.)
An earlier commission by Duke Lodovico Sforza to sculpt a great bronze horse in 1484 was scrubbed because the warring duchy of Milan had an emergency need for the 75 tons of bronze for forging into cannons to repel French invaders.
Despite his artistic talents, Leonardo was more interested in architecture, hydraulics (he invented a water-powered alarm clock) and, given the fractious era in the Italian peninsula, military engineering. He designed swivel-mounted cannons, a rudimentary submarine and a “spike-wheeled chariot armed with head-high rotating blades.” Yet his engineering ideas were ignored as too farfetched.
Leonardo considered it an “extreme defect” for artists to copy faces or poses used by any other artist. Other paintings of the Last Supper existed, but Leonardo’s idea was an amalgam of two events: a Eucharist context (“This is my body . . . This my blood”) from Christ, who sits at the center of the work — its focus and “vanishing point” — and whose gaze and lowered left hand leads the viewer’s eye down to a loaf of bread; and secondly, and more vividly, to depict the moment immediately after Jesus announces to his disciples that one among them at the table would betray him. Spoiler alert: It was Judas.Follow @NYPostOpinion