'I'm still looking for the answers': An interview with Ross King

Ross King, author of "Leonardo and 'The Last Supper' "; Credit: Judith Ghilks Why Italy? Why Leonardo? Why Michelangelo? Yes, these are simple questions, but they're the best ones to present to novelist and historical biographer Ross King, whose latest book is "Leonardo and 'The Last Supper' " (Walker & Company).

I borrowed a page (and some inspiration) from another book blog, The Arched Doorway -- and a nice interview of Karen Dales -- and decided to ask Ross  to discuss the motivations behind his writing (he's far too polite to ever refuse; note his friendly expression to the left).

Our discussion also moved in the direction of thriller writer Dan Brown, but this  conversation took place well before the announcement this week that Brown's forthcoming new Robert Langdon novel is situated in Italy, a country that Ross continually revisits in his nonfiction work.

You've written about Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Machiavelli, now Leonardo --- Where does your fascination with the Italian past come from?

Ross King: I’m interested in those moments in history when there’s a very definite shift -- a revolution even -- in the way people design, paint and think. Fifteenth-century Florence was probably the best example we have of these intellectual and artistic tipping points.

I’m interested in how it was that a city of only 30,000 people managed to produce, in the space of a century, geniuses such as Brunelleschi, Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Machiavelli. I’m still looking for the answers!

Your earlier books included novels, but your most recent books are works of nonfiction -- do you consider nonfiction to be your home, now, or would you consider a return to fiction if the right subject presented itself?

RK: I would definitely love to do another novel. Unbelievable as it seems to me, it’s been fifteen years since I wrote my last novel, “Ex-Libris.” I do have a few ideas, so it’s a matter of finding the time to develop them. I’ve learned a lot about writing in the last fifteen years, so I’m hopeful that I could do a reasonably good job!

How do you feel about books like "The Da Vinci Code" which suggest hidden conspiracies and messages in Leonardo's work? 

LeonardoRK: I don’t agree with many of the popular interpretations of Leonardo’s work. They say more about our own obsessions than those of Leonardo and his contemporaries. But on the other hand I don’t object to anything that makes people look more closely at works of art, or anything that brings artists to public consciousness. Funnily enough, “The Da Vinci Code” was in part responsible for my book on Leonardo.

It was? So Dan Brown deserves some credit for leading you to the subject of your newest book?

RK: Yes, in a way he does. Back in the heyday of Dan Brown, I used to get asked to give lectures on the “real” Leonardo and the truth, or otherwise, of “The Da Vinci Code.” The novel forced me to look very closely at the paintings and also to study the documentary evidence and historical record. It was while doing my research for these lectures that I realized how the full story of how Leonardo painted “The Last Supper” would be a fascinating subject for a book. So I suppose I ultimately do have Dan Brown to thank for that!

Your new book sheds so much light on the creation of a world masterpiece, and I wonder if thriller writers like Brown have actually helped you in another way: to reach an even wider audience. I'd bet that more people know about Leonardo now, thanks to Brown, and that must be helpful to writers with a more scholarly, serious interest.  What do you think?

RK: Yes, it may well be that “The Da Vinci Code” has helped writers tackling the historical Leonardo - such as Charles Nicholl or myself - reach a wider audience. So for that, too, I can make no complaint.

A frustrated failure and his masterpiece: new in bookstores

"The Last Supper," painting by Leonardo Da Vinci: If only we all could fail like this. Dan Brown thinks he knows Leonardo's secrets; so does Javier Serra and plenty of other novelists; but it's Ross King who's the true authority. With "Leonardo and 'The Last Supper' " (Walker & Company), he reveals the real circumstances -- minus all that business about Mary Magdalene and the Priory of Sion -- that led to the Renaissance genius' creation of his masterpiece.

Leonardo was in middle age when the project to paint Jesus and his Apostles came along--following a string of unfinished commissions.

What was the most recent, humiliating one?  It involved 75 pounds of bronze: The bronze had been intended for Leonardo's statue of Milan's Francesco Sforza astride a horse, but it was melted instead into cannon balls.

All Leonardo's planning, all his hopes ... gone (literally) in a puff of smoke from a cannon's mouth.

ross-king-leonardo-and-the-last-supperKing deftly reconstructs everything -- Leonardo's circumstances and his execution of the painting, the historical context of 15th century Italy -- and infuses the figure of the artist himself with a fresh bloom, devoid of caricature.

That is no small feat: Some critics have treated the maestro from Vinci like an accidental genius or somebody's crazy uncle, a dabbler who was a bit nutty and lost in a cloud of experimentation in a messy studio.

That negative image seemed further reinforced a few years ago: Remember when the alarming news was announced that "The Last Supper" was disintegrating thanks to Leonardo's painting method? That surely didn't help his case either.

Ah, but wait, King points out, waving a cautionary finger, Leonardo created a special surface with a primer coat of lead white in order to "enhance the mural's luminosity" -- to make that solemn biblical scene glow with a timeless quality on the convent wall. That's hardly the strategy of a madman.

"Over the course of three years," King writes, "[Leonardo] managed -- almost for the only time in his life -- to harness and concentrate his relentless energies and restless obsessions. The result was 450 square feet of pigment and plaster, and a work of art utterly unlike anything ever seen before -- and something unquestionably superior to the efforts of even the greatest masters of the previous century."

Here, as in his books about Machiavelli and Michelangelo, King clearly demonstrates why he is the friend of every armchair traveler eager to understand life as it was actually experienced in the Italian past.

If someone in your family happens to share this historical appetite, well, then, you have just stumbled on an ideal holiday gift for them in "Leonardo and 'The Last Supper,' " haven't you?