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03/02/2013 12:06 EST | Updated 05/01/2013 05:12 EDT

Leonardo and the Last Supper: An Excerpt

2012-02-06-CharlesTaylorreal.jpg The more I read of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, the more engagingly human and sympathetic he became. It's easy for us to imagine him as someone for whom success came easily, someone whose obvious talents meant he never tasted defeat or disappointment. But things didn't exactly work out that way for him. I was surprised to see him touting for prestigious commissions that he failed to land. Yes, Leonardo got turned down for a job. Somewhere in Piacenza a hiring committee got together, sifted through the hopeful applicants, and ended up tossing Leonardo's application in the rubbish bin.

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The Huffington Post Canada is proud to be a returning sponsor of the prestigious Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. In the weeks leading up to the March 4 announcement of this year's prize winner, we are publishing excerpts from each of the five finalists. The authors have personally chosen the portions they'd like to share, and each excerpt begins with a brief explanation of why that particular passage was chosen.

A note from author Ross King:

When I first started writing about Leonardo, I had a hard time identifying with him. Some of my other subjects were far easier. Michelangelo, despite his undeniable genius, possessed obvious and endearing human foibles. Anyone who has ever tried to throw a vase on a potter's wheel or assemble flat-pack furniture can appreciate how the enraged sculptor used to flail away with a hammer at statues that weren't turning out quite as planned. And anyone who has been the victim of office politics will empathize with Filippo Brunelleschi doing battle with a clique of mean-spirited subordinates trying to usurp his position as he worked on the dome of Florence's cathedral.

But Leonardo was different. He seemed almost superhuman not only in his genius but also in his stellar personal qualities. Unlike Michelangelo and Brunelleschi (and unlike most of us, dare I say), he seems not to have been petty, moody or vengeful. He was a scintillatingly brilliant painter and all-conquering brainiac -- qualities that make him hard enough for anyone to identify with. And, on top of that, he was handsome, witty and charming, someone who could dazzle at the dinner table as effortlessly as at the easel or drawing-board.

Or so I believed. But the more I read of Leonardo's notebooks, the more engagingly human and sympathetic he became. It's easy for us to imagine him as someone for whom success came easily, someone whose obvious talents meant he never tasted defeat or disappointment. But things didn't exactly work out that way for him. I was surprised to see him touting for prestigious commissions -- such as the bronze doors for Piacenza's cathedral -- that he failed to land. Yes, Leonardo got turned down for a job. Somewhere in Piacenza a hiring committee got together, sifted through the hopeful applicants, and ended up tossing Leonardo's application in the rubbish bin. As a victim of the ruthless, inexplicable and ego-battering wisdom of hiring committees, I felt my heart suddenly go out to him.

I was also brought up short by a number of passages in the notebooks where Leonardo deplored his lack of achievements. With The Last Supper and Mona Lisa, Leonardo created what are probably the two most famous paintings in Western art. But his laments ("Tell me if I ever did a thing") were no false modesty. Unlike Michelangelo, Leonardo never took a hammer to his work, but there's no doubt that a good number of his projects failed to reach his own high standards -- and so he neglected them or else abandoned them altogether, leaving his patrons unsatisfied and teams of lawyers pouring over the contracts. He never handed Mona Lisa to the man who commissioned it, a silk merchant named Francesco del Giocondo. He seems always to have felt that there was one more thing he could add to the portrait to make it perfect.

Even when he did finish and hand over a work, his patrons weren't always happy. Today his Virgin of the Rocks (now in the Louvre) is recognized for its breathtaking beauty and startling stylistic innovations. But for the men who commissioned it -- a band of affluent Milanese businessmen who knew nothing about art but knew what they liked -- it was just not up to snuff. Their sniffy opinion of the work (and the fact that they refused to pay him the bonus he felt he deserved) moved Leonardo to a rare fit of pique: He retorted that "the blind cannot judge colours." Everyone, Leonardo discovered, is a critic -- something with which any artist or writer can empathize.

But my heart really melted at the sight of Leonardo's carefully compiled lists of his books. It wasn't just that he loved books; it was the kinds of books he studied. Amid the weighty tomes on geometry and natural science that we might expect to find on his shelves were no few than six introductory books on Latin grammar. Many of these primers, aimed at schoolchildren, were acquired when he was in his mid-thirties and making a last attempt to master the language. But Leonardo never really learned Latin, and the thought of his collection of Latin textbooks brought to mind my own linguistic struggles, and my desperate and insatiable accumulation of French and Italian textbooks, flashcards, audiocassettes and DVDs.

So Leonardo, I discovered, is not just a universal genius whom we can admire as one of the finest examples humanity has ever produced. He is also the patron saint of perfectionists, procrastinators, unsuccessful job applicants, and exasperated second-language students. It doesn't get much more human than that.

The bronze horse was not the first commission that Leonardo, for various reasons, had been unable to complete. He was someone who promised much, who dreamed of impossible miracles. Yet thus far he had yielded a body of work that, however impressive, was still unhappily disproportionate to his talents. Despite his reputation in Milan, he had reached his forties without truly having achieved a masterpiece that would fulfil everything his astonishing talents portended. His career, in both Florence

and Milan, had seen several major commissions abandoned unfinished, with the patrons dissatisfied and, in one case, litigious. Few completed works could be attached to Leonardo's name, beyond an Annunciation altarpiece in a convent outside Florence, several Madonna and Child paintings done for private patrons, and a number of portraits, likewise done for private patrons, including the one of Lodovico Sforza's mistress Cecilia Gallerani.

He had also, apparently, done a painting -- "the most beautiful and unusual work to be found in painting," according to an early biographer -- that Lodovico sent as a wedding present to Maximilian, the Holy Roman emperor.

All of these works, the portraits in particular, were stylistically progressive and beautifully executed. A court poet wrote a poem praising the "genius and skill" with which Leonardo had captured Cecilia's likeness "for all time." Cecilia herself, evidently pleased with the portrait, called Leonardo "the master who in truth I believe has no equal." Leonardo had also painted a saintly figure so astonishingly and gorgeously lifelike that its owner "fell in love with it" (as Leonardo later claimed) and begged him to remove the religious trappings so he could "kiss it without misgivings."

Yet these works were tucked away in private homes, unseen by anyone but princes and courtiers, and the painting given to Maximilian was presumably in faraway Innsbruck. Leonardo had so far created nothing to garner for himself the tremendous public fame won by legendary and beloved artists of the past: something that could take pride of place in a cathedral or public piazza, and that the people could see with their own eyes, like Donatello's statue of Gattamelata in Padua, Giotto's frescoes in Assisi, or

Filippo Brunelleschi's dome in Florence. His bronze horse would undoubtedly have caused wonder and excitement, but the opportunity had been lost.

By the age of forty-two -- and in an era when life expectancy was only forty -- Leonardo 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. There was clearly a stark gulf between his ambitions and his accomplishments. Everyone who met him, or who saw his works, was dazzled by his obvious and undeniable brilliance. But too often his ambitions had been curtailed or frustrated. He hoped to find work as an architect, but in 1490 his aspirations were thwarted when his wooden model for a domed tower for Milan's half-built cathedral was rejected. He tried to get the job of designing and casting the bronze doors for Piacenza's cathedral, even going so far as to write the cathedral officials an anonymous letter extolling his talents: "There is no capable man -- and you may believe me -- except Leonardo the Florentine."

But no call came from Piacenza. He drew up detailed plans to redevelop Milan, dividing the city into ten districts of five thousand buildings each and including such amenities as pedestrian zones, irrigated gardens, and well-ventilated latrines. Not a single part of this plan was ever adopted or constructed. Meanwhile, Lodovico had harbored doubts about Leonardo's abilities to complete the bronze equestrian monument, even sending to Florence at one point looking for possible replacements.

At times Leonardo was troubled by his lack of achievement. As a young man he appears to have developed a reputation for melancholia. "Leonardo," wrote a friend, "why so troubled?" A sad refrain runs through his notebooks: "Tell me if anything was ever done," he often sighs. Or in another place: "Tell me if ever I did a thing."

Excerpted from Leonardo and the Last Supper. Copyright © 2012 Ross King. Published by Bond Street Books, an imprint of the Doubleday Canada Publishing Group, which is a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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