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?