In the beginning it looked like a bad sign to me. I’m speaking of the title of the new Starz fantasy thriller about Leonardo Da Vinci. “Da Vinci’s Demons,” is what they’re calling it.
Next, I see that the story opens with the Duke of Milan being assassinated on Palm Sunday, not on December 26 as history tells us.
I think, couldn’t they at least get these two things right?
There’s always that temptation to pan a video or film drama that takes liberties with the history, or language or literature.
At some point there will be a line crossed where you feel like throwing something at the screen. In this case, however, my drink remained in my hand and it didn’t take long for the show to really grow on me. I want to see more of these episodes.
It’s best to make a few allowances. This show is, after all, a TV show, and a kind of comic book superhero story. Enjoy, enjoy, I start telling myself. Leonardo is a Batman figure, but in spite of that, the narrative does gets more things right with the history than I should expect for this kind of fiction Of course there’s fudging here and there.
“Da Vinci’s Demons” presents breath-taking recreations of the streets and piazzas with the look of Florence in 1476. That alone is worth the price of admission. Note, these episodes do include graphic violence, nudity, profanity, but I say that’s something that serves the gritty period look grownups can enjoy.
In this series, Leonardo is going to become a batman-like character, just as Florence could really use a superhero, just the Pope Sixtus IV plots to suppress knowledge in secret archives and stage a nasty coup d’état in the Florentine Republic. And this is just as the republic’s leaders are nurturing a modern secular culture, the reviving ancient wisdom. In other word the bad guys are threatening the golden age of the Renaissance.
Last week in Cannes, writer David S. Groyer told reporters that Batman was a “primary inspiration” for his shaping his Leonardo character into a Fifteenth Century Renaissance caped crusader. This is due in part to the bat-like wings on Leonardo’s flying machine drawings.
That, of course, should be no surprise to readers of these pages. We talked about how Batman creator Bob Kane was inspired by Leonardo’s drawings of glider wings back in 1939, and how decades later D.C. Comics published one edition of Batman Comics with a Renaissance era Batman era gliding around on wings Leonardo created for him. In that 1994 edition, a much-older Leonardo recruits and creates the batman, who is a young Lorenzo Di Medici.
So, in the Starz show, Leonardo is the superhero and Lorenzo is just Lorenzo, not yet Lorenzo the Magnificent, but whose Florentine Republic is in peril from Papal hegemony.
A diabolical Pope Sixtus IV moves to increase the number of Papal states in Italy and expand his authority to the self-governing principalities and republics. At this point Italy is hundreds of years away from becoming a unified country. So, that is roughly the history.
Here, in the opening episode of the series, the bloody and graphic assassination of the Duke of Milan is the first strike by the Vatican. We know from the history that the assassins do strike next in Florence, on Easter Sunday, 1478, but the Pazzi-Sixtus conspiracy is presumably a matter for subsequent episodes.
Part of what made this episode fun to watch was seeing where the writer and producers have managed to credibly incorporate details from the period into the plot, even if they do botch it elsewhere.
There’s a scene where Leonardo purchases several caged starlings from a vendor, and then has the birds released as he sketches their wing movements. Now, that serves the plot if he is going to build some kind of flying machine, but there’s more being offered here.
For those of us who like to geek out on this sort thing, there’s the satisfaction of saying to one’s self.,”Hey, that’s right. Leonardo always carried that little notebook.” And, “Yes, he loved animals and liked freeing caged birds.” One can enjoy seeing those kinds of details that one has read about, even if almost every other aspect of the Starz Leonardo character is quite different from the historical Leonardo.
And then there is the beautiful computer-generated scenery behind all the action. My favorite is a shot of the Piazza della Signoria, one of the most familiar settings in Florence with its towered Pallazo Vecchio across from the arcade of the Loggia dei Lanzi.
There’s also a bawdy carnival scene in Florence Piazza del Duomo. One might think that the plain-Jane facade of the cathedral does not look as it should, but then it wouldn’t have the look we’re now familiar, not in 1476. The those decorative faux Gothic flourishes were a creation of the 19th Century, unfortunately. Starz got that one right. And yes, Florence’s mardi gras style carnivals were bawdy.
Elsewhere, this Leonardo strolls across the Ponte Vecchio, that famous bridge lined with the jewelry shops. In the background of the scene, a butcher hacks at a piece of meat on a block. It’s gratifying to see they got that right too. Butchers and tanners did occupy the bridge before they were evicted by a later-day duke who was offended by the odor.
On the other hand, a shot of the exterior of Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica, appears to be the newer domed structure completed almost 115 years later. This image appears as a scene intro and needed to signal the change in setting from Florence to Rome. Who would recognize the old St. Peter’s these days?
Overall, I’m delighted to see this fascinating chapter of history at play in popular culture. We really should be able to have a little fun with it in the form of a Batman comics or a Starz TV fantasy thriller. Even if we don’t have a great bio-pic, it’s great to have the period-appropriate storytelling.
Although, the one thing I really wish they had done differently is the title: “Da Vinci’s Demons.” It gives some of us the fits when the town where Leonardo was born –Vinci — is passed off as his last name.
See, he’s either Leonardo, or Leonardo from Vinci, as he was known in nearby Florence, or Leonardo Da Firenze, as he was known in Milan. It’s never just Da Vinci, not properly so, even if Dan Brown wrote a bad novel called “Da Vinci Code”.
What I would like to know is, why couldn’t it have been “Leonardo’s Demons”? Is it a Dan Brown thing? I know. I know. Dan Brown really sells.