by Ross King, published 2013
In the late 1400s, Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned by Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, to complete a large bronze equestrian statue to honor himself and his late father and cement his authority over the people of Milan and northern Italy. It was to be one of the greatest equestrian statues of the era and one of the most technically challenging, single biggest pieces of cast bronze in the history of sculpture which would also fix Da Vinci’s reputation as a craftsman, artist and virtuoso.
But like many of Da Vinci’s projects and ambitions, it was not to be. After a series of unfortunate events that cascaded from Sforza’s unpredictable realpolitik, the duke was forced to melt down the bronze assigned to the project to form cannon to defend Milan from the invading forces of France’s Charles VIII.
Although Leonardo Da Vinci is known to history as an artist and mechanical genius (or at least, a philosopher of theoretical mechanical devices) his great personal ambition was to create outstanding weapons of war. He hoped the equestrian statue would be his entree into a world of defense industries assignments for the notoriously pugnacious Sforza clan. Instead, he spent most of his time in their employ designing parties, feasts and pageants and lamenting himself at age 42 as some one who could not positively reply to his own request, “Tell me if I ever did a thing.” He had struggled unsuccessfully in his 30s to learn Latin, a standard achievement of the scholarly and intellectual in his era, and as a result ended up a uomo senza lettere or “man without letters”, almost like a person today who failed to go to college. However, it was not the external standards of brilliance or achievement he failed against but rather the “extremely high standard he set for himself in his quest for a new visual language” that brought him the most self-doubt and personal pain.
And so it seems fittingly ironic then that his pinnacle achievement and the work of art he would come to be most famous for beyond even the mysterious Mona Lisa was not a weapon of war on a field of conquest or a bold statue in a central plaza but a fresco-style painting of a commonly depicted scene throughout Italy, found in many a dining hall of a local convent– The Last Supper.
There are many details of the painting that ended up making it remarkable and that have to do with the finished output, such as we know of it today in its highly degenerated and damaged form from the original. But it is what went into the painting that are the details most worthy of consideration.
First, this being a common subject matter in a humble, dingy room in a less-than-spectacular Dominican church, Da Vinci considered the work beneath him and like many of his projects he had trouble bringing himself to complete it. One of the art world’s masterpieces almost never happened out of simple spite and disinterest.
Second, Da Vinci combined the urban with the urbane in painting the portraits of the individual saints. To capture interesting “grotesque” expressions, he spent weeks hanging around the lower class parts of town studying the bodies, stances and gestures of various commoners. But for the visages of the saints themselves who are, along with the face of Jesus, lost to history in terms of any factual depictions, he selected from well-known friends and courtiers of the Ducal Palace in Milan. Thus these characters are both realistic, ahistorical and anachronistic simultaneously.
Third, the work of fresco is time and labor intensive and large scale murals are very much a team sport. Many materials such as certain paint colors and sealants had to be developed in a proprietary fashion by each workshop through a method of experimentation similar to laboratory chemistry. Most great art works were made by the master and his apprentices, but contracts at times specified certain portions which must be completed by the master himself. And the work itself was not necessarily quiet and contemplative but perhaps closer to today’s modern construction sites replete with boombox jamming. Although, Da Vinci is reputed to have worked to the sound of musicians or readers speaking from philosophical books, a Renaissance-era Spotify/podcast listening approach to productivity.
While the Last Supper is an act of inspired genius, it did not simply leap out of the head of Da Vinci through his paintbrush fully-formed. It was a team effort and followed a thorough process in which the final “draft” was first broken into constituent parts, practiced and rehearsed (“studies”, “carbons”) before being recomposed piece-by-piece as a fresco. The process is similar to writing a long history or novel (see Paris Review Interview No. 5 w/ Robert Caro) and has parallels in sports and investment analysis– from the parts to the whole.
While Leonardo Da Vinci found himself disappointed in his inability to produce a volume of highly anticipated works, his ability to nonetheless achieve global notoriety for just two works of art over the course of a longer, fully life perhaps gives double-meaning to his quip that “men of genius sometimes accomplish most when they work the least.”