Most of all, of course, we learn about Leonardo. He was an illegitimate left-hander, probably gay, who was so enthusiastic about everything that he was almost constitutionally unable to actually finish anything. However, he had such enormous talent that his patrons continued to patronise him and the few artworks he actually produced were revolutionary in their impact upon art (even if, with the Last Supper, his experimental techniques meant that it deteriorated within a few years of its unveiling). And we learn about his models, including his apprentice whom he nicknamed 'devil' for his thieving and bad behaviour but whom he tolerated till his death, probably because he had a crush on him. We learn about his belief that you can tell a story from hand gestures and how he collected those gestures from watching people having arguments and how he used them in the painting. We learn about the techniques of fresco and the new use of oils that Leonardo pioneered. We learn how he composed the painting, about the religious ideas that went into it. We investigate the iconography of fruit.
By the way we watch the iciest of cold water being cascaded upon the Da Vinci code. Sophie sees the figure on Jesus' right is a woman and believes it to be Mary Magdalene rather than St John. "Leonardo was skilled at painting the difference between the sexes" states the DVC. In fact, as King shows, Leonardo rejoices in androgynous figures including another St John who is a dead ringer for the St John in the Last Supper. Both may be women, or both may have used the devilish apprentice; Leonardo seems to have liked effeminate looking young men.
This is a brilliant, fantastic and absorbing study in which the painting of a single work of art is used to enlighten a whole historical period. Wonderful. May 2014; 275 pages
Also read these reviewed books by Ross King:
- Brunelleschi's Dome about the building of the dome over the Duomo in Florence, but also lots about renaissance Florence
- The Judgement of Paris: as the Second Empire dies Impressionism is born: Meissonier, Manet, Monet and the rest; Napoleon III, the Franco-Prussian war, the Paris Commune and much much more!
This is one of a selection of books I am reading to help me understand more about art. Others reviewed on this blog include:
- Seven Days in the Art World by Julia Thornton: a look at the institutions of the art world such as an auction, a fair, a magazine and the Biennale.
- Think Like an Artist by Will Gompertz which includes such insights as 'artists think big picture and fine detail' and 'artists steal'
- Ways of seeing by John Berger which is particularly good at sexism in art
- How art made the world by Nigel Spivey which proposes that art has changed the way we think and altered our civilisations
- The Story of Art by E F Gombrich, a fascinating historical tour through art