In search of Leonardo da Vinci in “Leonardo”
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 find was a good recipe for shampoo.
This is at least the main message that I retained from the eight episodes of “Leonardo”, a biopic series broadcast Tuesday on the CW. In the footsteps of the “Lord of the Rings” and “Game of Thrones”, the creators of “Leonardo” seem to have decided that the heroes of old had to have oily hair.
But then, “Leonardo” seems so indebted to “Game of Thrones” that he could hardly have gone his own way when it comes to grooming. Its music riffs on “GoT,” with drumbeats and shimmering harp, and it includes gratuitous nudity and unnecessary beheading. Think of it as a “CSI”-style spin-off – “GoT: Florence.” This shows how our sense of history is essentially aesthetic, even pictorial: our understanding of the past is based on the fantasies and images that our own culture has already constructed about that past – greasy hair and all – rather only on a real historical thought. . And that means we reject the true alien nature of the story in favor of the heartwarming stories we’ve told ourselves about it, all rooted in today’s reality – or Westeros, which is pretty much the same as the same.
Despite his debt to “Game of Thrones” fantasy, “Leonardo” has the backbone of a 21st century police procedural. The first episode, then each of the following ones, begins with its hero in prison for murder. As the entertainer (played by Aidan Turner) is questioned by a Renaissance cop named Stefano Giraldi (Freddie Highmore, who I’m happy to say was allowed to wash his hair), flashbacks reveal how the artist found himself in such a situation. Spoiler alert: In the final episode, when Leonardo is about to be hanged for the crime, we and Giraldi find out he didn’t commit the deed. Viewers who didn’t see this twist coming should have their Wi-Fi revoked.
The series will most likely get away with the platitudes of its made-up plot, since most viewers will likely be watching “Leonardo.” less for its storytelling than for a glimpse of a certain Renaissance genius who, though dead for half a millennium, has become one of our current art stars. (It helps that his “Salvator Mundi” sold for $450 million in 2017.) But even though “Leonardo” is set in Italy around 1500 and claims to be about a real man, this program’s hold on the story is as weak as any dragon drama.
The murder plot is pure fiction, but that’s forgivable: today’s biopics aren’t expected to stick to the facts. Watching “Rocketman,” we didn’t think Elton John could truly float above his piano. What I can’t forgive is the fake “Leonardo” image Leonardo’s paintings. Played by Turner (“The Hobbit”, “Poldark”), the artist seems like a neurotic idol with attention deficit disorder. In reality, Leonardo’s genius was systematic in the extreme: he took the time to understand and represent every hair on a woman’s head, every twig and every leaf on a tree.
Giorgio Vasari, the great Renaissance biographer, described Leonardo as a charming conversationalist, a profoundly courteous being “whose personal beauty could not be exaggerated, whose every movement was grace itself” – a man “filled with a noble and delicate spirit”. In “Leonardo”, he gets closer to Kurt Cobain. It’s like, here in the 21st century, we have a unique model of what creativity might look like, and the creators of “Leonardo” dare not ask us to imagine another. I guess they might be right: we might be so completely stuck in our own time that we just can’t inhabit the profoundly different realities of the past. Or perhaps history could offer an example of progress that we would like to see.
This biopic series could have gone in that direction when it comes to the artist’s sexuality. Even though Leonardo da Vinci is one of the earliest gay designers we know of, “Leonardo” drew him most powerfully towards women. Sure, the show shows him kissing a man or two, but the entire plot is built around his stormy, steamy, and 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, not playing one of the famous figures in gay history seems borderline homophobic. “She was love,” Leonardo says of his made-up girlfriend. Why not hear this gay artist say, “He?”
When it comes to capturing the weirdness of the past, the series even misses small details that should have been easy to fix. Rather than drawing with a quill pen, Leonardo used a metal nib – which was not used until centuries later. Candles, a dear commodity in the Renaissance, burn by the dozens in every room, as if Leonardo had a penchant for aromatherapy. (Perhaps his vanilla-cinnamon mainstays made the Mona Lisa smile.) When he paints his “Last Supper,” the show breaks into a computer-generated animation of how perspective works in the painting—and then gets it wrong.
About halfway through the show, I took off my art critic hat, gave up my interest in seeing different yesterdays from now, and tried to pretend the show wasn’t about any real artist, and let alone a Renaissance gay. And if I changed the title of “Leonardo” to “Tony”? Would it help me enjoy it?
Not a lot.
Since the plot of “Tony” – sorry, “Leonard” — is only a pretext to tell the life of a great artist, the screenwriters, Frank Spotnitz, Steve Thompson and Gabbie Asher, never bother to give him a real boost or to plug his holes. And since this is, once again, the life story of a great artist, they make sure to stuff it with all the “great artist” cliches they can find: “A man like Leonardo – his genius is forged by pain,” says one line of dialogue. “And that pain can drive a man to do terrible things.” Leonardo van Gogh, you might call him – a hybrid creature that doesn’t even reflect the way real artists think and act today, let alone what they did in the Renaissance. It’s a screenwriter’s fantasy of what the artists of old should be like.
In “Leonardo”, a Renaissance master says to his pupil: “You only drew what you saw. You must learn to draw what you feel.“It’s a bromide born centuries after Leonardo’s time – drawing ‘only what you see’ was in fact one of his most radical inventions – but it’s not clear that we have many appetite for understanding how cultural underpinnings can change over time.
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” for not even trying. We are all so addicted to dirty hair.