By the age of 42 (in an era in which life expectancy was 40), Leonardo da Vinci had yet to create anything commensurate with his lofty ambitions. By that point, Ross King writes in, "Leonardo and 'The Last Supper,' " he had produced "only a few scattered paintings, a bizarre-looking music instrument, some ephemeral decorations for masques and festivals and many hundreds of pages of notes and drawings for studies he had not yet published, or for inventions he had not yet built."

Too many of his projects -- like creating a gigantic bronze horse on commission for Lodovico Sforza, ruler of Milan -- had gone unfinished. Projects having to do with architecture, military engineering and urban planning had not found patrons.

Around 1492, Lodovico began planning a family mausoleum at Milan's church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. He asked Leonardo to begin work on a painting of the Last Supper for the wall of the church's refectory, where the Dominican friars took their meals.

"Leonardo may have dreamed of constructing tanks and guns, of placing a dome on Milan's half-built cathedral, or of completing the world's largest bronze statue," King writes. "But he was going to do none of these things. Instead, he was going to paint a wall."

The 450 square feet of paint and plaster known as "The Last Supper" would become one of the most famous paintings in the world -- one, in the words of the art historian Kenneth Clark, that is "commonly held to be the climax of Leonardo's career as a painter" and that some scholars regard as a portal into a new era in art.


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In this volume King -- author of books such as "Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power" and "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling"-- gives a gripping account of how that painting was created, deftly situating it in a historical context and deconstructing the ways the painter broke with tradition and stamped a familiar subject with his own vision.

King appears to draw heavily on the work of Clark and other Leonardo experts, as well as on Leonardo's writings -- but he does an insightful job of weaving together all his research.

On several much debated issues, King does not hesitate to share his opinions. He asserts that the girlish-looking figure sitting on Jesus' right is John -- not Mary Magdalene, as a character in Dan Brown's best-seller "The Da Vinci Code" famously argued. John, King contends, was traditionally portrayed as "a youthful and slightly feminine figure among his mostly bewhiskered and older companions."

He says that one of Leonardo's sketches played with "the idea of placing John asleep on Christ's breast" -- the way he was often traditionally depicted at the Last Supper -- but that Leonardo ended up having John lean toward Peter, instead, in order to isolate Jesus spatially in the composition.

As for the age-old question of whether "The Last Supper" depicted the moment when Jesus instituted the Eucharist or the moment when he announced that one of his disciples would betray him, King quotes a Leonardo expert who wrote in 1983 that most authorities had by then agreed that the painting represented "an amalgam" of both.

King writes that Leonardo -- so attentive to facial expressions and physical gestures -- would have "glimpsed little" of this drama in earlier artists' work, which tended to promote a "hushed and reflective mood." But Leonardo was willing to disregard fashion, precedent and tradition in his work. In King's opinion, his "Last Supper" featured more lifelike details -- "from the expressive faces of the apostles to the plates of food and pleats of tablecloth" -- than anything yet "created in two dimensions."

Walker & Co.

$28, 336 pages