GG Literary Awards: Q&A with Ross King


Ross_King-150.jpgIn Leonardo and The Last Supper, historian and writer Ross King explores the creation of Leonardo da Vinci's great mural masterpiece, The Last Supper painting. It's an enduring image that has had an immense influence on art history and popular culture.

Ross sat down with CBC Books to talk about the Italian artist/inventor/scientist/architect/genius and what The Last Supper means to his legacy.

Da Vinci was a pretty prolific painter, so why focus on The Last Supper in particular?

What I was interested in doing was rewinding 500+ years to that moment in 1494 when he got the commission and had to work on it. This painting was far, far larger than any painting he had done before. I wanted to go back and look at Leonardo, as a person, as a man, as well as an artist, and look at what was happening in his life at that time. What fascinated me was that he was 42-years-old when he began it, which was really the life expectancy of a man born in 15th century Italy. And to that point, he had yet to achieve anything with his paint brush, really in any medium, that would have made it to the great pantheon of Italian artists, something that he very much wanted to do. So I was interested in looking at the trajectory of his career, and what that painting meant for his career because we tend to think of him as all-encompassing genius who could do anything, and yet he had reached his 40 without really creating anything that posterity would know him for.

So what did the painting do for his career at the time?

For him it was vitally important because during the course of his lifetime, and in the decades and even the centuries after his death, the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie was the once place you could go to to see a work by Leonardo da Vinci. So that was really the work that made his reputation. One of his other great works, The Battle of Anghiari, which was celebrated in the first half of the 16th century, was covered over by about 1560, 1570, so you couldn't see that. The Mona Lisa was not in public view. He kept it in his lifetime in his own studio, only a few people saw it, and then after his death, it passed into the collections of the Kings of France, always hung in a palace where it was available to view only to people who got to see the king or the queen. And then Napoleon kept The Mona Lisa and his bathroom... so his reputation rested on [The Last Supper].

And what do you think The Last Supper means to us today?

When we celebrate Leonardo's Last Supper, what we're celebrating is not what is actually on the wall in Milan right now. In some ways, his painting, the world's most famous painting, has ceased to exist and all that we see is the ruin of it, or in some ways ... a replica of it. Because some critics say the restoration of the late 20th century means that now only 20 per cent of Leonardo's painting is there and 80 per cent of it is that of the restorer, which I think is somewhat of a harsh judgement. But nevertheless, we cannot see the painting now the way it was seen in 1497 or 1498 when Leonardo finished it. So I'm fascinated in the way the painting has literally flaked off the wall, but it's also kind of leapt off the wall figuratively and metaphorically and made itself available to all sorts of interpretations and reinterpretations and pastiches and parodies and things of that nature.

As part of your research you studied da Vinci's personal notes. Did anything in particular surprise you during your research?

What was most surprising was throughout his notes he would write little memos to himself, often little aphorisms, and things like that. What occurs throughout his notes, really throughout his life, is a kind of self-scrutiny or self-criticism, where he'll say things like "I have wasted my hours" or "I have not used my time well." He was haunted by his lack of accomplishment. I think it's very humbling for us to think that. I mean, what hope is there for any of us if Leonardo da Vinci feels like he didn't accomplish much. It brought him down to earth for me.

What does winning the GG Literary Award for Nonfiction mean to you?

I think no one ever writes books with the intent of winning prizes and you probably shouldn't, but if you win something it's just something wonderful to cap off the book. And because it's the GG's I think it's extra special because of the great pedigree of the GG's, going back to the days of John Buchan, and it's great to put myself up with all the other people who have won GG's over the years and it's wonderful to be a laureate along with all the rest of them.