Ross King's latest book details the history of Leonardo da Vinci's monumental fresco

Faithful copy: the Italian painter Giampietrino, who was a student of Leonardo’s painted this reproduction of the Last Supper in 1520.  As King shows in his book, it has survived to the present in considerably better shape than Leonardo’s original.  Around 1495, a relatively unheralded artist was given the job of painting a religious mural on a wall of the dining hall in a church refectory. According to a new book by Ross King, the artist — a 42-year-old named Leonardo da Vinci — was initially far from enthusiastic about the task. He was, however, loyal to his employer the Duke of Milan. So Leonardo did as he was told and set about to work.

The wall mural turned out to be The Last Supper — one of the greatest art masterpieces of the Renaissance era and one of the most famous paintings of all time.

The creation of the fresco, as well as the intense and often turbulent life of Leonardo, are explored in King's book — his eighth to date — Leonardo and The Last Supper. Through the lens of The Last Supper, King also paints a vivid portrait of life in Milan during the Renaissance.

King recently spoke to the Calgary Journal's Karry Taylor about the elusive genius of Leonardo and the painting that has transcended time and place to become an icon of popular culture.

Editor's note: questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

What is it about Leonardo da Vinci that still intrigues us 500 years after his death?

We tend to think of people as being either artistic or scientific — right-brained or left-brained. People who are left-brained are logical and analytical. Those who are right-brained are creative, artistic and intuitive. The amazing thing about Leonardo is that, I think more than anybody else in history, he combines those two things.

I know neuroscientists have broken down this notion and revised it in all sorts of ways, but I think we still tend to judge people that way. It would be as if Einstein was also a great poet or Beethoven was also a great geologist. Nobody achieved so much in so many diverse fields. I think that is really what causes us to be fascinated with him five centuries later.

Who was Leonardo? What was his personality like?

That was one of the things that I really wanted to look at with this book, because he has become an icon in the same way that his paintings have. What I wanted to do was go back and see what his contemporaries said and wrote about him. I also wanted to see what he wrote himself — 6,000 pages of his notebooks still exist. It seems to be almost unanimous that he was incredibly charming. He was someone who could talk to everyone. He mixed very well with high society — even though he really was a poor boy from the sticks.

But he is an elusive figure because, when it comes to anybody who lived 500 years ago, it's very difficult for us to judge him from our own point of view. Because he was so accomplished, he was almost shifting shape in front of me as I was reading what people were writing and saying about him.

You detail how, over the centuries, a great deal of inadvertent damage that has been done to The Last Supper by those who had good intentions of protecting and restoring it. For someone who goes to see this painting today, how much of it is actually Leonardo da Vinci's work?

This is one of the heartbreaking things about going to see it now. It's better today than if you saw it in the '50s, '60s or '70s. But there has been an estimate that 20 per cent of what is on the wall is Leonardo's paint and 8o per cent is that of restorers.

Leonardo's technique did not lend itself well to the north wall of a refectory whose walls had wide swings of temperature due to Milan's climate. On the other side of the wall was a kitchen. The wall would warm up with the kitchen and cool down. In the 17th century, the friars cut off Christ's feet by cutting a door through the wall because they wanted easier access to the kitchen.

Art restoration is not an exact science by any means. It's only in the past few decades that it has really become precise. So a lot of the restorers, with the best possible intention, ended up harming the fresco.

Will The Last Supper continue to resonate with us?

I think so — it has for 500 years. It's difficult to see how it could possibly lose its grip on the popular imagination. It has been an icon of Western art for so long. It's arguably the most famous painting in the world. If it's not, the only serious rival is the Mona Lisa — which he also painted. I think it will always resonate with us as one of the high-water marks of Western art.

It has sort of floated off the refectory and is everywhere. It's on placemats and T-shirts and tattoos. It's been reproduced absolutely everywhere. There is an entire industry out there. And yet, it was created in a particular time, in a particular place for a particular reason — that is the story I wanted to tell in this book.

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