Young Leonardo da Vinci laid bare in new drama

Last Supper: Poldark star Aidan Turner plays one of history’s greatest minds. © Rai 1

Is Leonardo’s life story relevant today? The new series about the Renaissance genius may be hugely entertaining. But can a tale of a 15th-Century artist have a message for modern viewers?

At his workshop in Milan, Leonardo da Vinci is desperately rifling through hundreds of scattered drawings.

Suddenly, there is a pounding on the door. “Open up in the name of the Podestà,” shouts a voice from outside. Two guards, dressed in capes, burst into the room and drag Leonardo away. As he cries out in vain, the guards declare: “You are under arrest for murder.”

This is the opening scene of Leonardo, a new drama series about the life of the Renaissance painter just launched on Amazon Prime.

Today, da Vinci is perhaps best known as an artist, the creator of the world’s most expensive painting, the Mona Lisa. But the Italian was also an architect, sculptor, engineer, mathematician and scientist – and one of the true geniuses of all time.

His notebooks, which are written mysteriously in mirror-image script, reveal sketches of detailed human anatomy and imagined mechanical contraptions which would only come into existence centuries later – such as the flying machine.

But Amazon’s drama does not focus on Leonardo da Vinci’s incredible scientific and artistic achievements. Instead, it tells the story of his personal life as a young man in 15th-Century Italy.

For the show’s writers, this decision posed one major problem – very little is actually known about da Vinci’s background. Historians agree on only a few basic facts: he was born to unmarried parents, he had no formal education and when he was 23, he was arrested on suspicion of having a homosexual relationship.

“It was a challenge to think about what we had to say about him and why people would care 500 years later, as great as Leonardo is,” says Frank Spotnitz, the drama’s American co-creator.

The solution was to blend fact and fiction. Caterina da Cremona, the model and muse who has a “platonic love story” with Aidan Turner’s young Leonardo, is based on a figure whose very existence is debated by historians.

And the plot that runs through the series surrounding Leonardo’s arrest for Caterina’s tragic poisoning is undoubtedly entirely fictional.

But Amazon’s show is not the first time dramatists have twisted the facts of da Vinci’s life. In The Da Vinci Code, his painting The Last Supper is at the centre of a worldwide conspiracy. Meanwhile, the cartoon series Futurama portrays him as an alien from a more intelligent species.

It is, however, one of the first on-screen depictions of da Vinci as a gay man. “There is a method to this,” argues Spotnitz. “By using fiction, I think you get closer to the truth than you would if you stuck to the documentary approach.”

Is Leonardo’s life story relevant today?

Behind the scenes

Of course, say some. There is no doubt: Leonardo da Vinci’s genius is just as extraordinary today as it was in the Italian Renaissance. Learning about his life, however infused with fiction it may be, can still teach us how to be creative, open-minded and to truly see the world as he did. His continued fame 500 years after his death proves that he remains relevant in the 21st Century.

Times have changed, say others. The fact that Leonardo’s writers had to invent a murder to make his story more interesting says it all. The “illegitimate, gay, vegetarian, left-handed, easily distracted and at times heretical” man described in a biography by Walter Isaacson might have been a fascinating figure of the Italian renaissance, but his personal story is hardly relevant in today’s world.

You Decide

  1. Has there ever been a greater genius than Leonardo da Vinci?
  2. Should historical dramas pay more attention to verified facts?

Activities

  1. In pairs, come up with your own definition for the word “genius”. Compare your definition with those of the rest of the class.
  2. Research the personal life of another great historical artist or scientist. Then write a fictional scene for a play loosely based on their life.

Some People Say...

“There are three classes of people: those who see, those who see when they are shown, those who do not see.”

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519), Italian artist, engineer and scientist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Although much of Leonardo’s plot is fictional, it is generally agreed by historians that the real da Vinci was most likely gay. A 2017 biography by journalist Walter Isaacson concludes that the artist was probably gay, whilst Sigmund Freud controversially suggested that da Vinci was gay but celibate. The only concrete historical evidence is a record from 1467, when he was accused of sodomy by the Office of the Night. Yet many on-screen depictions of da Vinci have ignored his sexuality.
What do we not know?
One area of debate surrounds whether writers should blend historical fact with fictional plots. Italian newspaper La Stampa concluded that the average Leonardo viewer should not be asked to distinguish between truth and fantasy. “Fiction about artists is fine in itself,” agrees art historian Martin Kemp, but “when it pretends to be ‘true’ it is profoundly dishonest”. Leonardo is not the only show to come under fire: Netflix’s The Crown has also been accused of misleading viewers.

Word Watch

Leonardo da Vinci
The artist did not have a surname in the modern sense. “Da Vinci” means “from Vinci”, the village in which he was born.
Podestà
The title of the official responsible for law and order in medieval Italian towns and cities.
Leonardo
The title character is played by Aidan Turner, the star of BBC series Poldark.
Renaissance
A period of European history including the 15th and 16th Centuries that marked the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity. It comes from the French word for “rebirth”.
Mona Lisa
The Mona Lisa was insured for $100m in 1962. Today, this would equate to roughly £628m. Every year, more than 10 million people visit the Louvre, roughly 80% coming just to see the Mona Lisa.
Platonic
An affectionate love or friendship that is not sexual. Producer Freddie Highmore believed it was important to show that on-screen relationships between men and women do not need to be romantic or sexualised.
Heretical
Departing from the beliefs and opinions of the church.
Clichés
Sayings or ideas that are overused and unoriginal. Kemp describes Leonardo as “the Monty Python of the Renaissance”.

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