Every time I walk down the historical streets and alleyways of Florence, I marvel at the masterpieces of art dotted in the different piazzas. This is the city that gave birth to the Renaissance, and to the men behind it. I was invited to Florence by the US TV network, Starz, to attend the premiere of their new show Da Vinci’s Demons, about that era and the man who epitomised it, Leonardo Da Vinci.
A painter, a sculptor, an anatomist, a geologist, a cartographer, a botanist, a geologist and a writer, Leonardo Da Vinci has often been described as the archetype of the Renaissance Man. He is perhaps the most diversely talented person ever to have lived. He is mostly known for his paintings, particularly the Mona Lisa, the most famous and most parodied portrait and The Last Supper, the most reproduced religious painting of all time, his drawing of the Vitruvian Man regarded as a cultural icon and reproduced on varied items including the Euro, textbooks and T-shirts. But he was also a great scientist and engineer, conceptualised a helicopter, a tank, a calculator, a concentrated solar power and much more.
Da Vinci’s superhuman qualities have piqued the interest of Hollywood screenwriter, David Goyer, who co-penned the screenplays of other superhumans, Batman and Superman, from a very young age. “My first introduction to Leonardo Da Vinci was at about 8 or 9, reading in a comic book that Bob Kane, the creator of Batman had based Batman’s cape on Leonardo’s ornithopter,” he tells me when I meet him in Florence, where Da Vinci grew up. So when Starz asked him to do something historical, Goyer suggested Leonardo Da Vinci, and they acquiesced. “We were amazed that no-one had ever featured him as the lead in a movie or a television show before, and I just thought he’s probably the most famous man in history other than Christ, and fascinating and interesting. His name is synonymous with mysteries and secret societies and I thought who better to base a series around,” Goyer enthuses.
Indeed, hundreds of books have been written about the Italian genius, yet his life is still shrouded in mystery. He was born out-of-wedlock in the city of Vinci in the province of Florence to a wealthy Florentine legal notary and a peasant, whose identity is a still in doubt. Some even suggested that she was a Turk, and recently some scientists inferred from analysing the pattern of his fingerprints that he ought to be from an Arab descent. Historians have also debated his whereabouts from the age of 28-32; Da Vinci claimed to have been working for the Ottoman Empire in Syria and Armenia and Egypt, but others claimed that he was joking. “When you have gaps in a famous person’s history, that’s kind of gold for a creator because it gives you the creative license to invent things,” Goyer exclaims.
So if you are expecting to see a docudrama about the greatest genius ever born, then you will be disappointed. “This is a historical fantasy,” Goyer concedes. “I felt that I was beholden to history in terms of portraying the spirit of the times or the spirit of the characters and the relationships but I was trying to re-contextualise it in modern terms.”
Free from the shackles of history, Goyer imbues the show with sex and violence, feeding the insatiable appetite of the modern audience for frivolous entertainment. Da Vinci, played by British thespian Tom Riley, is a batman without the bat costume; he is undefeated swordsman and a womanizer, though there has been substantial evidence that he was a homosexual. In fact, he was accused of sodomy and never married to a woman. Goyer, however, insists that was a misconceived claim made by Freud. “My personal opinion is he was probably bisexual,” he says.
Riley concedes that Da Vinci’s sexual affair with the mistress of his boss, Lorenzo Medici, was merely a dramatic necessity. “She is primarily a means to an end and he uses her to get where he needs to be as far as war engineering is concerned.”
Like Da Vinci, the rest of the characters in the show are played by little-known British actors, including Elliot Cowan (Lorenzo Medici), Laura Haddock (Lorenzo’s mistress), Lara Pulver (Lorenzo’s wife), and Blake Ritson (The Pop’s nephew), while Wales stood in for the province of Florence. Preparing to inhabit those historical Italian characters, the actors devoured books about the Italian Renaissance and fed their eyes with the copious paintings from that era.
Lara Pulvar took another step further to endow her character with authenticity, spent some time in a rural area in Italy in order to imbibe some of the people’s mannerisms. “I would just spend a few days just literally going around into churches and seeing how people prayed, seeing their spirituality, seeing their faith, seeing how they felt they needed to cross themselves and what I found kind of unique is that it’s individual and I think it was just as much back in Renaissance Italy,” she says.
Nonetheless, however hard the production team endeavour the capture the spirit of the that era, the show, with its fantastical narration, is just another fairy tale that aims to entertain rather than educate. Goyer, however, hopes that it will inspire more interest in the great man, who is perceived by the young generation as a boring old man, telling his son, who had been completely uninterested in Da Vinci, went and bought books about him after visiting the set.
“If you read Vasari’s Lives Of The Artists, he was almost 6′ tall, he was very good-looking, he was described as a flamboyant dresser who Michelangelo berated for his dress constantly. He was known to be a good swordsman. He was ambidextrous. He could fight with both hands. He was known to be a good horse rider. He was famous for his paintings, his inventions, but also his magic tricks, his practical jokes. He has almost universal appeal,” says Goyer.
Indeed, Da Vinci sounds as appealing as Batman and Superman.