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We Love Leonardo: Da Vinci’s Demons and How We Got There

Da Vinci’s Demons, which just finished its first season on Starz, already shows its age.

“History is a lie,” a mystic man from the East coughs from the murky haze of a hot-boxed temple in Episode 1.

But whatever fictions our descendants come up with about us, I doubt they’ll fail to place Demons as a show for our time.

Having your shirt unbuttoned is a prerequisite for making the wings work.

Unbuttoning your shirt is a prerequisite for operating the wings.

It’s not that it’s historically inaccurate. The show sets itself up a historical fantasy. This means that as Leonardo (Tom Riley) vaults around CGI Florence inventing robotic pigeons or as Clarice Orsini sweeps by long-suffering in a sleeveless denim gown, you go with it.

Why not. Blake Ritson as Count Riario.

Blake Ritson as Count Riario, the Pope’s evil emissary, sports a pair of Renaissance Italian sunglasses. Sure, why not.

No, it’s Leonardo’s role as TV genius that distinguishes Demons as a 2010’s show. This is pushed relentlessly, even in the show’s tagline, “genius cannot be contained.” Like other on screen smart guys of recent years – Dr. House (House), Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock, Elementary), Patrick Jane (The Mentalist), – the new Leonardo falls easily into the role of TV smart guy we know and love.

What does the role entail?

Well for one thing he has inexhaustible reserves of energy – has he just finished up in the sack with Lorenzo di Medici’s mistress? Yes, and now he springs out of bed for a round of post-coital engineering calculations! And, like any good screen genius, he’ll lapse into broody silence before catapulting himself forward with brilliant ideas, based on his social interactions that week – “Is this a book? No, it’s a pop-up map with the key to tectonic shift! And the key to my mother’s identity!” He’s a drug user – isn’t it adorable when smart people are self-destructive? Plus he’s moody, whiney, kind of a jerk, boring about his parental issues, bossy and conceited.

"The formula for 'Game of Thrones'' success - I must find it!" (Laura Haddock as Lucrezia Donati)

“The formula for ‘Game of Thrones” success – I must find it!”

But then, we all love him because … why? Because he’s super loyal to Florence? Because he’s hot on the trail to discovering South America? Because he has flaws just like we do? Because he knows a lot of cool facts about the physics of flight? But then, why do we love any onscreen “geniuses” when we would probably despise them in real life? This is its own mystery, and probably for someone cleverer about viewer ratings to explain.

And in the case of Demons, I suppose, we’re partly on the hero’s side simply because he is Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). But why does this make him such a mysterious and likable character?

A more traditional TV portrayal of the master. From "La Vita di  Leonardo da Vinci," a 1971 Italian mini series directed by Renato Castellani

A more traditional TV portrayal of the master. From “La Vita di Leonardo da Vinci,” a 1971 Italian mini series directed by Renato Castellani

The answer is that other people made him that way. As well as being a genius, his talent has been recognized, celebrated and mythologized by such an array of influential figures that today his genius seems unquestionable. So now if you want to dispute the validity of Leonardo’s reputation as a cultural giant, you’d need to assemble a team of supporters who could outgun these guys:

1. Andrea del Verrocchio (c. 1435-1488) Even geniuses get their start somewhere, and Leonardo got his in the studio of Verrocchio. A rather shadowy figure himself in the historical record, Verrocchio produced few pictures that can be firmly attributed to his hand. Of those, Leonardo’s hand is often said to be detected. Such is the case in Tobias and the Angel, where it is argued that Leonardo, rather than his master, painted the fish in Tobias’ hand and possibly the little dog as well. It seems that the two men had a happy working relationship, with Leonardo staying in the older man’s studio past the time when he could have left to work independently. Though Leonardo seems to have been talented from a young age, working in an established and admired studio set him on the path toward success.

A possible collaborative work between Verrocchio and Leonardo. Tobias and the Angel, 1470-75. Oil on panel, 83.6 x 66 cm, National Gallery, London

A possible collaborative work between Verrocchio and Leonardo. Tobias and the Angel, 1470-75. Oil on panel, 83.6 x 66 cm, National Gallery, London

2.  Francis I (1515-1547) Internationally famed even in his day, Leonardo lived the last two years of his life in Cloux with a handsome pension paid by Francis I of France. Francis, a great patron of the arts, sometimes is believe to have cradled Leonardo’s head as the artist died. The legend, in turn, inspired future artists. For Leonardo, who often found it hard to meet commission deadlines, the support of men such as Francis was crucial – during his French residency, Leonardo would produce no known major works. It was immediately after Leonardo’s death that the king purchased his Mona Lisa, which – with a brief exception (below) – has remained in France to this day.

François-Guillaume Ménageot, The Death of Leonardo in the Arms of Francis I, 1781.  Oil on canvas, 278 x 357 cm.

François-Guillaume Ménageot, The Death of Leonardo in the Arms of Francis I, 1781. Oil on canvas, 278 x 357 cm

3. Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) For a long time, much of what was commonly known or believed to be true about the great Italian painters and Leonardo came from Vasari.  Yet reading his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550, 1568), it’s clear that he’s as much a critic as a historian. Liberally imparting his views on each artist, he writes: “[S]ometimes, in supernatural fashion, beauty, grace, and talent are united beyond measure in one single person, in a manner that … makes itself clearly known as a thing bestowed by God.” This understated passage is the introduction to Leonardo’s biography in Vasari’s Lives.

Vasari's high opinion of The Last Supper has endured. 1499, fresco, in the refectory of the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

Vasari’s high opinion of The Last Supper has endured. 1499, fresco, in the refectory of the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

On top of this, Vasari was a bit of a gossip – in fact, it’s from him that we get the story of Francis I at Leonardo’s deathbed. But what’s important to remember is that it was Leonardo’s skill as a painter that Vasari stressed – and this is what his readers would remember for years to come.

St John the Baptist, 1516. Oil on panel, Louvre, Paris.

St John the Baptist, 1516. Oil on panel, Louvre, Paris.

4. Walter Pater (1839-1894) Now, while Leonardo remained known as a great painter between the time of his death and Pater’s essay on him, an important thing happened. In 1855 French author Jules Michelet coined the term “Renaissance” to mean roughly the period of Italian painting that we understand it to be today.

You're allowed to coin terms like "the Renaissance" when you've read books that big, I guess. Thomas Couture, Portrait of Jules Michelet. Oil on canvas, Musee Carnavalet (France)

You’re allowed to coin terms like “the Renaissance” when you’ve read books that big, I guess. Thomas Couture, Portrait of Jules Michelet. Oil on canvas, Musee Carnavalet (France)

People began thinking of the last fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries as an important time of self-conscious cultural rebirth in a way they never had before. In 1869, Pater published his essay on Leonardo, which not only praised the man as an artist, but also stressed Leonardo’s identity as scientist. Pater argued that even though Leonardo hadn’t finished all the artistic projects he undertook, he was prodigiously talented and prolific in both his artistic and scientific output. This endorsement allowed readers to recognize Leonardo not only as an artistic leader but also as a innovator and inventor during a critical period of history. Leonardo’s popularity started growing.

Studies of the Shoulder and Neck, c. 1509-1510

Studies of the Shoulder and Neck, c. 1509-1510

5. Vincenzo Peruggia (1881-1925) Despite Leonardo’s gathering fame, his greatest paintings were generally considered those that were lost. But when an Italian worker at the Louvre absconded with the Mona Lisa to take back to its rightful land in 1911, it catapulted painting and artist into world renown. Enticed by the mystery of the master’s vanished painting, more people came each day to see the space where the painting had hung than had when the painting was there. On top of that, six faked versions were turned in before the painting itself finally showed up. It was found two years later under Peruggia’s bed. Peruggia, who served seven months in jail for the theft, was hailed a national hero in Italy. The Mona Lisa became a national treasure in France. And Leonardo, along with his smiling heroine, became a sensation worldwide.

After 28 months, Vincenzo Perugia was arrested for the theft of the Mona Lisa. Shown here is the transfer of the painting from the Italian Ministry of Public Instruction to France. (Bettmann / Corbis)

After 28 months, Vincenzo Perugia was arrested for the theft of the Mona Lisa. Shown here is the transfer of the painting from the Italian Ministry of Public Instruction to France. (Bettmann / Corbis)

6. Bill Gates (b. 1955) In 1994, the technology and business magnate bought the Leicester Codex at auction for $30,802,500 making it the most expensive book ever sold. The Codex is a volume of Leonardo’s scientific observations, and contains a great deal of his written ideas as well as drawings and diagrams, covering topics in geology, astronomy and light. Gates subsequently had it digitally scanned and sold on a CD-Rom. It could be read or used as a screensaver. Here, Leonardo is marketed as a mysterious genius, setting us up for our final figure in the Leonardo support crew.

"Leonardo da Vinci by Corbis"

“Leonardo da Vinci by Corbis”

7. Dan Brown (b. 1964) Whatever your opinion of the book, film and public’s reaction, it’s hard to deny the importance of The Da Vinci Code. Published in 2003, it sold 80 million copies by 2009. The plot allowed people’s perception of Leonardo to be altered again. He was no longer just an artist and scientist, he was also a cryptographer, theologian, conspirator, mystic, rebel and keeper of the key to the Holy Grail.

Mysterious murder? Sounds like a job for a symbologist with some art history facts!

Mysterious murder? Sounds like a job for a symbologist with some art history facts!

Which brings us back to the latest installment of Leonardo’s personality in Da Vinci’s Demons. A crime-solving, wise-cracking, fast-talking, pseudo-historical sex symbol. It’s easy to see where he came from — and you can’t help but wonder who he’ll be next.

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One thought on “We Love Leonardo: Da Vinci’s Demons and How We Got There

  1. Great post. I am constantly infuriated by the – especially American – need to put the past into a modern and inaccurate context. How can we possibly comprehend life when it was so dangerous – plagues, wars, famines, in our modern age? Artists talk about taking risks with their work. They talk of danger. Pah! Try sailing round the Atlantic in a 16th century ship, or childbirth pre pain killers. The sad thing is, if you take the trouble to read the real stories, they are far more interesting and engaging than Hollywood etc can present them as.

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