Leonardo da Vinci discovered how to capture life in his drawings. And he found new ways to topple a castle. But the one thing he could never think of was a good shampoo recipe.
At least that’s the main message I took from the eight episodes of “Leonardo,” a biopic series that premieres Tuesday on the CW. Follow in the footsteps of “The Lord of the Rings” and “Game of Thrones”, the creators of “Leonardo” seem to have decided that heroes of yesteryear should have greasy locks.
But then, “Leonardo” seems so indebted to “Game of Thrones” that it could hardly have gone its own way with grooming. The music riffs on “GoT,” complete with drum beats and a twinkling harp, and it features free nudity and a pointless decapitation. Think of it as a ‘CSI’ style spin-off – ‘GoT: Florence’. It shows how deeply our sense of history is essentially aesthetic, even pictorial: our understanding of the past is based on the fantasies and images our own culture has already built up about that past – greasy hair and all – rather than on any real historical thinking. And that means rejecting the true strangeness of history in favor of the comforting stories we’ve told ourselves about it, all rooted in today’s reality — or in Westeros, which is about the same.
Despite his debt to “Game of Thrones” fantasy, “Leonardo” has the backbone of a 21st century police procedure. The first episode, and then each after that, starts with his hero in prison for murder. When the performer (played by Aidan Turner) is interrogated by a renaissance agent named Stefano Giraldi (Freddie Highmore, who, I’m glad to say, was allowed to wash his hair), flashbacks reveal how the performer got into such straights. Spoiler alert: In the final episode, when Leonardo is about to be hanged for the crime, we and Giraldi discover that he didn’t commit the deed. Viewers who didn’t see that twist coming should have their Wi-Fi revoked.
The series will most likely get away with the platitudes of its made-up plot as most viewers will likely be watching “Leonardo” not so much for his stories, but for a glimpse of a certain Renaissance genius who, though already half a millennium dead, has become one of our current art stars. (It helps that his “Salvator Mundi” sold for $450 million in 2017.) But although “Leonardo” is set in Italy around 1500 and claims to be talking about a real man, this program’s hold on history is as tenuous as any dragon drama.
The murder plot is pure fiction, but that’s forgivable: current biopics aren’t expected to stick to the facts. When we watched ‘Rocketman’ we didn’t think Elton John could actually soar above his piano. What I can’t forgive is the fake “Leonardo” photo paints by Leonardo. As played by Turner (“The Hobbit”, “Poldark”), the performer appears to be a neurotic heartthrob with an attention deficit disorder. In reality, Leonardo’s genius was extremely systematic: he took the time to understand and portray every hair on a woman’s head, every twig and leaf on a tree.
Giorgio Vasari, the great Renaissance biographer, described Leonardo as a charming interlocutor, a deeply courtly being “whose personal beauty could not be exaggerated, whose every move was grace itself” – a man “filled with a lofty and delicate spirit.” In ‘Leonardo’ he gets closer to Kurt Cobain. It’s like here in the 21st century we have a single model for what creativity might look like, and the creators of “Leonardo” don’t you dare ask us to propose another one. I think they might be right: we might be so completely stuck in our own time that we just can’t live the totally different realities of the past. Or maybe history can be an example of progress we would like to see.
This biopic series could have gone in that direction when it came to the artist’s sexuality. While Leonardo da Vinci is one of the earliest gay creators we know of, “Leonardo” most attracted him to women. Sure, the series has him kissing a guy or two, but the entire plot is built around his stormy, steamy, anything but sexual romance with a made-up character named Caterina da Cremona, played by Matilda De Angelis. (She’s the one we keep seeing naked for no reason.) In the 21st century, it doesn’t seem very homophobic not to play one of history’s famous gay figures as a homophobe. “She was love,” says Leonardo about his invented girlfriend. Why don’t we let this gay artist say, “He?”
When it comes to capturing the strangeness of the past, the show lacks even small details that should have been easy to correct. Instead of drawing with a quill pen, Leonardo uses a metal nib – which was not put into use until centuries later. Candles, a precious commodity in the Renaissance, burned by the dozen in every room, as if Leonardo had an afterthought in aromatherapy. (Perhaps his vanilla-cinnamon pillars made Mona Lisa smile.) When he paints his “Last Supper,” the show breaks down with a computer-generated animation of how perspective works in the painting — then gets that perspective wrong.
About halfway through the series, I took off my art critic hat, showed my interest in seeing yesterday that is different from today, and tried to pretend the show wasn’t about an actual artist at all, let alone a Renaissance gay man. . What if I change the title from “Leonardo” to “Tony”? Would that help me enjoy it?
Since the plot of “Tony” – sorry, “Leonardo” — is just an excuse to tell the story of the life of a great artist, the writers, Frank Spotnitz, Steve Thompson and Gabbie Asher, never bother to give it real momentum or plug the gaps. And since this is again the story of a great artist’s life, they make sure to stuff it with every “great artist” cliché they can find: “A man like Leonardo – his genius is forged by pain” , says a typical line of dialogue. “And that pain can lead a man to commit terrible deeds.” Leonardo van Gogh, you might call him – a hybrid creature that doesn’t even reflect how real artists think and act today, let alone how they did it in the Renaissance. It’s a screenwriter’s fantasy of how old artists should be.
In ‘Leonardo’ a Renaissance master says to his pupil: ‘You only drew what you saw. You have to learn to draw what you to feel.That’s a bromide that was born centuries after Leonardo’s time – drawing “only what you see” was actually one of his most radical inventions – but it’s not clear that we have much interest in understanding how cultural foundations change over time. can change.
To understand how and why art was created in the past, we may need to unlearn our current ideas about artists. And you can’t blame “Leonardo” not to even try. We are all so addicted to the dirty hair.