In this magnificent book, Pietro Marani, the director of the project to restore Leonardo's Last Supper, presents all the artist's known paintings. The history and significance of each are analysed at length: we read, for example, that "from a very early date", Mona Lisa was considered among Leonardo's most extraordinary accomplishments, one that made every other artist "tremble and lose heart". Context is provided by a wealth of related paintings and sketches. The presentation is extravagant: double-foldouts show frescoes in their entirety, and small areas are hugely expanded to give access to a world of sensuous detail. The intimacy of these extreme details--a tiny blue landscape glimpsed through a window, or the warm flesh of a baby's foot resting on its mother's arm--is unexpected and one of the book's many successes.
Marani combines connoisseurship with the technological tools of art history, such as x-ray exploration of revisions in a painting's underdrawings. He has spent his life studying Leonardo's paintings at first hand, so closely that he can point to where the artist lightly blurred layers of paint with his fingertips to suggest the soft skin around the eyes of his portraits of women. A chapter is devoted to Marani's belief that Leonardo was profoundly influenced by ancient art works rather than being exclusively the "modern genius" described by Romantic critics. The research is fully footnoted, with appendices including checklists of paintings and lost paintings and a collection of all the known primary documents referring directly to Leonardo's life. From its enigmatic cover (the lips of the artist's exquisite portrait of Ginevra de' Benci) to its extensive bibliography, Leonardo da Vinci comes the closest this reviewer has seen to being the ultimate art book.