By Paul Hirons
There’s just something about medieval dramas set in Italy that TV people just can’t stay away from. Maybe it’s the whispered plotting in candlelit corridors, the industrial-level lust for power, or the gorgeous opulence of the era that attracts them. Or perhaps it’s the tunic-ripping, bodice-popping rumpy-pumpy that is a given in these period dramas that makes them such sure-fire hits.
Most recently, Medici and The Borgias have explored these themes, and now Amazon Prime jumps onto the Renaissance gondola with this eight-part series chronicling the life of arguably the period’s most famous figure – Leonardo da Vinci.
Aidan Turner – no stranger himself to a period drama or two – leads the Leonardo cast in the role of the titular polymath who, during his lifetime in the 15th century, achieved notoriety thanks to his groundbreaking work in the worlds of the arts, science, anatomy, astronomy, botany and palaeontology.
To say Leonardo was a bona fide genius is like saying Ted Hastings only moderately enjoys catching bent coppers.
But where to start with this man who could do it all? Creators Frank Spotnitz (who has Renaissance previous with Medici) and Stephen Thompson (who worked on Sherlock) choose an odd and surprising entry point into Leonardo’s story.
Instead of kicking things off in Florence at the beginning of his artistic endeavours, we see a bearded, chained Leonardo sitting in a dark prison cell. There with him is Renaissance cop Stefano Giraldi (Freddie Highmore), who’s intent on proving Leonardo poisoned his muse, Caterina da Cremona.
On top of all the things Leonardo da Vinci was famous for, being accused of murder is at the back of the line. So it’s a strange entry point into the story, especially as we’re soon transported back to mid-1400s Florence and a clean-shaven (ie younger) Leonardo to follow his apprenticeship at the studio of renowned artist Andrea del Verrocchio (Giancarlo Giannini).
Young Leonardo is an intense sort of chap, with wide eyes and a nervousness about him, and his idiosyncrasies mean he doesn’t seem to quite fit in with all the other lads in Verrocchio’s academy. While they’re drinking, horsing around and carousing, Leonardo is more interested in sketching bird murmurations out of his window and “finding the truth of all things”.
This means whatever assignment he’s given by his mentor, he struggles to complete it because of his unrelenting quest for this unobtainable truth, especially within the subjects he draws and paints.
One such subject is Caterina da Cremona, a life model who Leonardo takes a shine to. Played by The Undoing’s brilliant rising star Matilda de Angelis, Caterina is no pushover and the two initially get off to a rocky start especially when Leonardo tells her she looks “worn”. Dodgy chat-up lines aside, they soon settle into an intense but rock-solid relationship of sorts, bonded by trauma and tragedy.
Together, the pair traverse the ups and downs of life in Renaissance-era Florence. Leonardo is talented but his insistence on perfectionism makes it difficult for him to form relationships and make friends. So much so, there’s some of the ‘old whispering in candlelit corridors’ I mentioned earlier, and soon some of his fellow artists in the academy begin to show signs of jealousy.
Verrocchio, too, isn’t happy with his protégé. It takes an act of sublime invention (and intervention) to show the world – and the wily old Verrocchio – that they might have an insane talent on their hands. From then on we constantly see Leonardo take one step forwards and then several steps back, with the idea that his blossoming genius is often a hindrance rather than an advantage. Especially during a time of strict social mores and religious restriction.
But there, always in the background, is Caterina. She often helps him out during times of strife and gives him the kind of emotional succour he’s never experienced before, while managing to further her own career and improve her own self-confidence. There’s obviously real love between the two, but this is no conventional love story.
In fact, Caterina is no conventional character – history suggests that she was dreamt up by a 19th-century Romantic and never actually existed.
This all adds to the slight strangeness of the series. An unconventional entry point and – I’d argue needless – murder mystery story features a victim that is, in all likelihood, pure fiction.
However, there’s still a lot to enjoy here. Turner is as brooding and intense – and yet wildly innocent at times – as he’s ever been, and there are some fascinating backstories into how Leonardo created some of his masterpieces – future episodes tantalisingly tease more of his most famous paintings.
You can see why Stephen Thompson was attracted to Leonardo. Like Sherlock, he wears the weight of genius heavily. With Sherlock it was his misanthropic boredom of convention, his extraordinary powers of deduction and a mind that he just could not switch off that often plunged him into a funk; with Leonardo, it’s his obsessive inquisitiveness into everything and his insistence on finding absolute perfection and truth. There are definite parallels to be drawn between the two.
Add in some trauma from his childhood and ambiguous sexuality and there’s more to Leonardo da Vinci than The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, which makes him such a fascinating character.
You could say that Leonardo is a coming-of-age tale, but it’s also a murder mystery, a love story, and a study of genius all in one. Like the man itself, it perhaps doesn’t quite know what it wants to be.
Leonardo is available on Amazon Prime Video from 16th April – check out our guides to the best Amazon Prime series and the best movies on Amazon Prime and sign up for Amazon Prime for £7.99 a month with a 30-day free trial.