If ever a creator deserved the word ‘polymath’ it is surely Leonardo Da Vinci. Artist, painter, self-taught scientist, inventor, engineer: his meticulous and curious mind could explore any subject. Leonardo, created by Frank Spotnitz (known for his work on The X-Files and The Man in the High Castle) and Steve Thompson, takes some rather bold dramatic licences to weave a story and let us get to know the man behind the fame.
Leonardo joins the young man (Aiden Turner) living in his hometown of Florence as he is vying to be taken on as official apprentice to the renowned artist Andrea del Verrocchio. Obsessed with finding ‘the truth’ in his subjects (and finding it impossible to paint without it), he becomes enraptured by a young beautiful model named Caterina de Cremona (Matilda de Angelis). Yet this story is told via a framing device where an older Leonardo has been imprisoned, accused of her murder.
Such a hook is only effective if there is enough going on in the relationship to keep us engaged. Whilst Leonardo has arguably no basis for historical fact with the character of Caterina de Cremona it is gifted with such actors as Turner and de Angelis, both of whom make for a compelling push and pull interlocking friendship. Cut between scenes of police work by doubtful officer Giraldi (a bafflingly robotic performance from Freddie Highmore) and told through flashbacks of various people attesting to Leonardo’s singular focus, we track his life through a choice selection of his most famous works.
There is no erasure of Leonardo’s very well-documented homosexuality in the sense that some key relationships with men are depicted. The creators of Leonardo freely acknowledge that historical accuracy is merely a launchpad for their story but it’s arguably cynical to insert a female muse figure for him that may or may not have existed. Notwithstanding that, Turner once again showcases his hugely charismatic top billing power by delivering a Leonardo that is frequently vulnerable, often blunt, constantly blinkered, and unable to play any kind of game that would distract from his artistic integrity.
As a whodunnit Leonardo plays its cards close to its chest by keeping you guessing. Whilst the scenes with Freddie Highmore are painful to watch (I don’t think his expression changed once until the last episode) such moments serve well to yank you out of a narrative that may otherwise have come across as too biographic. Even so, it is fun to see the big hitters get their turn. Leonardo’s rank distaste for his much more flashy contemporary, Michelangelo, is very enjoyable, and a subplot involving Leonardo’s abandonment as a child and strained relationship with his father adds some flavour to his needy personality.
As I said, Leonardo doesn’t shy away from the man’s homosexuality, although it certainly barely digs into it which is missing a trick if it purports to get to know the man better. But it is impossible to begrudge the stellar performance from De Angelis as Caterina. Invented or not, her character is filled with righteous anger, glowing affection, and tragic ‘needs must’ motivations. Her existence allows for the plot to explore how even the most capable women must be beholden to the whims of powerful men, and De Angelis draws you in to each of her emotions so fully that she elevates what could have been a mechanical character into someone who lights up all her scenes.
Leonardo is a fun fantasy thanks to a greatest hits approach to the truth, and a well-written central dynamic brought to life by superb actors. A second season has been announced and it will be interesting to see where the show goes following the resolution of the narrative thread from this season. If the opening episode shows Leonardo in some leg powered helicopter screw device I would only be partly surprised.
Words by Mike Record