Fresh Light and Revolutionary Vision

Young Leonardo: The Evolution of a Revolutionary Artist

by Jean-Pierre Isbouts and Christopher Heath Brown
2017 Thomas Dunner Books, 240 pages, $26.99
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The subject of half a millennium of historical scrutiny, what more about Leonardo da Vinci and his masterpiece the “Last Supper” remains to be said? In Young Leonardo, Jean-Pierre Isbouts and Christopher Heath Brown challenge the traditional account of Leonardo’s early career. They aim to uncover the real story of the development of this extraordinary artist, shedding fresh light on the context of Leonardo’s early work, and in the end, opening our eyes to the possibility of seeing Leonardo’s masterpiece afresh.

The authors, one an art historian and the other a surgeon who uses his knowledge of faces to analyze Renaissance portraits, published The Mona Lisa Myth in 2013.

Orthodox Narrative

The orthodox narrative of Leonardo’s formative artistic years runs something like this: As an apprentice in Florence, Leonardo distinguished himself as a prodigy, earning the recognition of Lorenzo de Medici, ruler of the Florentine Republic. Lorenzo dispatched him to Milan to serve as the court artist for the would-be duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. He became the most celebrated artist of the Milanese court, executing ducal portraits, designing sets and costumes for its festivities, and, along the way, painting his masterwork, the “Last Supper.”

Isbouts and Brown maintain the truth is less clear-cut. Young Leonardo approaches the artist not through the art itself—whose obvious genius belies his struggle for approval in both Florence and Milan—but through the lens of the political and art-historical backdrop of fifteenth-century Italy.

Through an explication of the aesthetic expectations of patrons (which Leonardo repeatedly failed to meet) and the decline of the Medici stronghold on Florence, the authors contest both the extent of Leonardo’s Florentine celebrity as well as the terms on which he left for Milan. They also cast doubts on his status in the Milanese court. He didn’t receive any major commissions for years, and when large projects did arise, he was regularly overlooked in favor of Lombard artists.

The greater part of the book is devoted to the form, process, meaning, and circumstances surrounding the revolutionary “Last Supper.” The authors reject the notion of the fresco as the product of his sole, untethered genius. There were fairly strict representational conventions laid out by the Dominicans to which he was expected to adhere. The Last Supper was also an understandably popular theme for a refectory, and there were notable Quattrocento antecedents of the subject.

Leonardo da Vinci,

Leonardo da Vinci, “Last Supper,” ca. 1494-1498. Image: Young Leonardo


Leonardo’s Inventions

Yet Leonardo’s version is much less dependent on contemporary precedents than on solutions to problems he had already worked out for himself. It is remarkable just how thoroughly his scheme breaks from the customary arrangement. The architectonic grouping of the figures and the stunning array of emotions captured therein, the cinematic manipulation of light, the perspectival sleight of hand, the painted architecture used as a means of directing the viewer’s focus, and the timing of the “shot” at the climactic moment of the narrative—all of these were inventions overlaid on a program that was more or less defined.

Tracing Leonardo’s development from his earliest work, the authors establish the “Last Supper” as the culmination of decades of artistic exploration. The theatrical lighting seen in the “Last Supper,” for instance, can be found in the dramatic chiaroscuro in some of his early Florentine paintings. His “Adoration of the Magi” displays the same daring transformation of the principal subject and astonishing range of emotional expression that make the “Last Supper” resonate with such force.

Unfortunately, Leonardo’s characteristic inventiveness extended to the medium. Due to a failed experimental tempera paint, very little remains of the original painting.

However, the authors offer compelling evidence that a copy of the “Last Supper” was completed for King Louis XII of France under Leonardo’s immediate supervision. Amazingly, they claim this painting may still be in existence today, in the form of a twenty-five-foot-wide canvas whose patron has never been determined. This revelation, if true, affords an opportunity to see Leonardo’s masterpiece anew, in all its original vitality.


Ultimately, what is the picture of Leonardo’s early life that emerges in Young Leonardo? He was a genius, to be sure, but also an outsider—one whose earliest attempts at revitalizing Italian art were met mostly with rejection. Yet his lack of critical success never deterred his revolutionary vision, nor would his early failures prevent him from becoming the star around which much art of the following century would orbit. Just as Leonardo brought fresh life to a stagnating artistic milieu, so too does this small, eminently readable book bring fresh life to our understanding of his work.