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English | History | Art & Design | Citizenship | PSHE

Young Leonardo da Vinci laid bare in new drama

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. KeywordsLeonardo da Vinci - An Italian artist and inventor (1452 - 1519), considered to be one of the world's greatest geniuses. He painted the Mona Lisa and designed an early flying machine.

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