Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature
and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for
several journals and is the author of Clifford
Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter,
Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham
New Yorker at Sea. Nick’s reviews are available
Aristotle in his Poetics insisted that drama was superior
to history, he set forth ideas that have striking impact for
creators of present day historical fiction, film and TV. Because
the dramatist/artist can construct a world which includes the
entire gamut of emotional, psychological, sensate and imaginative
components in addition to historical fact, his composition is
‘universal’ whereas the historian is limited only
to facts and can render only the ‘particular.’ For
this reason the Greek sage held that art had much more “cognitive
value” than history.
most student memories the Florentine renaissance exists only
as a time of intense artistic and intellectual achievement.
The history books read in high school and college give a deferential
impression and very little else. The vast landscape of human
intercourse involving political ambition, diabolical selfishness,
incredulous violence, religious hypocrisy, ruthless enmity as
well as intellectual curiosity and artistic creativity cannot
be chronicled in a history book. For that universal experience
we need creativity and last season Starz network presented the
latest entrant of the history drama genre -- Da Vinci’s
key to successful historical fiction or historical fantasy as
some have labeled it is a tactful balance between verifiable
fact and flourishing fictional creation. As Aristotle indicated,
contrived behaviour of historical characters and concomitant
episodic development need to follow a pattern of “probability
and necessity.” If a work fails it is usually because
facts are hopelessly distorted, character behaviour is wildly
improbable, or event construction is imaginatively outlandish.
success with this balance in prose was achieved by Irving Stone
in such historical novels as The Agony and The Ecstasy,
Lust for Life, and The Origin. In drama, some
of Shakespeare’s history plays (Richard III, Henry
IV, Henry V) established genre standards while others fell
short (Henry VI plays). In cinema, Oliver Stone failed
with J.F.K. but triumphed with Alexander.
The spate of recent TV history/drama series has earned mixed
reviews but continued a saleable irksomeness - soap opera stereotyping.
This was abundant in HBO’s Rome but less so in
Showtime’s The Tudors and The Borgias.
the outset of Da Vinci’s Demons, creator/producer
David Goyer and his researchers were indefatigable in their
quest for accurate Florentine history and the minutiae of Leonardo’s
early life -- the focus of the series. They accurately recorded
and utilized the missal dagger assassination of Milan’s
Galeazzo Sforza in 1476, the launching of Da Vinci’s Columbina
or little dove to celebrate Easter Sunday, the liason between
Lorenzo Medici and his mistress Lucrezia Donati, the relationship
between Pope Sixtus IV and his sadistic nephew Girolamo Riario,
the participation of Francesco Salviati in the Pazzi conspiracy,
the role of Jacopo Saltarelli in the sodomy trial of Leonardo
and an impressive litany of other events. They employed little
known but verifiable features of Da Vinci’s life in the
episodes: his terrifying youthful dream of entering a cave in
the Tuscan countryside; his youthful curiosity about insects
and serpents revealed in his creation of a shield of Medusa,
his memory of a kite perched on his baby carriage chased away
by his mother Caterina. These obscure incidents were integrated
with scenes involving better known facts: his myriad inventions,
his 13,000 page sketchbook, his purchase and release of birds
to study their flying technique, his employment as a military
engineer, his cryptic coded writing and, of course, his talent
as a painter.
show’s theme focuses on Leonardo at age twenty-five in
1477 and is set against detailed depictions of the political,
economic, aesthetic, social and religious environment of fifteenth
century Italy with all of its intense intrigue, evil conspiracies
and power struggles. The alliances between Florence and Milan
and Rome and Naples are illustrated as is the unexpected democratic
spirit of the Medici (any citizen can petition Lorenzo in a
personal interview); the specific banking talents of the Medici
staff i.e. double entry book keeping, bills of exchange and
book transfers are referenced; the presentation of masques and
classical works i.e. Boccaccio’s Decameron are
presented; the pride of Florentine social and sexual liberalism
is heralded in Donatello’s David; the tension between
the moral strictures of the centuries old Roman church (symbolized
by the appearance of Torquemada) and the pandemic secularity
of the Florentines (epitomized by the paintings of Bottecelli)
is continually evident.
this thickly woven background of Florentine history we have
young Leonardo Da Vinci portrayed as a good-looking Einstein
with a high degree of moral character – qualities found
in comic book characters. However, what little we do know of
Leonardo essentially supports this creation of a cinematic action-hero.
In Vasari’s Lives we read that he was “striking
and handsome” that he was a “sparkling conversationalist
. . . an artist of outstanding physical beauty who displayed
infinite grace in everything he did and who cultivated his genius
so brilliantly that all problems he studied were solved with
ease . . . He was physically so strong that he could withstand
violence and with his right hand he could bend the ring of an
iron door knocker or a horseshoe as if they were lead . . .
He was so generous that he fed all his friends, rich or poor
. . . ” Of course most compelling to us centuries later
is his astounding genius. How can he grasp complex reality so
quickly? How can he turn his observations into real objects
so easily? In Da Vinci’s Demons this phenomenon
is communicated cleverly through the employment of rotoscoping
-- cartoon blueprints that enable viewers to watch his mind
addition we know that Leonardo wrote fables in the manner of
Aesop. They are short, involving complex ideas but focus on
dangers such as greed, selfishness and jealousy. They point
out the benefits of compassion, kindness, honesty and generosity.
Biographers indicate that they were often told in the courts
of Italy and France and are still re-told in the Tuscan countryside
the adventurous episodes we frequently see these virtuous qualities
juxtaposed against his ingenious flying machines, bombards,
periscopes, scuba suits and cameras obscura. In a scene where
he rescues his friend Vanessa from St. Anthony’s fire
(ergot infection) he demonstrates deep compassion; he continually
disarms opponents with superior strength and agility; he comforts
a male admirer (Jacopo Santarelli) while presciently musing
on the mystery of bisexual desire. Throughout he extolls the
freedom, intellectuality and art of his native Florence, and
defends it against the false piety and injustice of Rome.
fictive framework of Da Vinci’s Demons rarely
veers far from verifiable albeit spurious history. The major
conflict for the hero involves a search for his mother Caterina.
She was a peasant woman, possibly of Turkish ancestry, and Leonardo,
born illegitimately, spent his youth until age 5, living in
his mother’s farmhouse in Anchiano. There is nothing else
known about her. At this point Goyer initiates his storyline
introducing Da Vinci as a 25-year-old engaging in an agonizing
quest for his mother whose face he cannot remember and who has
disappeared. A mysterious Turk Al-Rahim, a son of Mithras (a
Mideast religion co-existing with early Christianity), encounters
our hero. He calls himself a “Child of Earth” and
will guide Da Vinci in unlocking the hidden areas of his mind
by accessing the Fountain of Memory. These symbols and allusions
are traceable to akashic records, Old Norse Mimisbrunnr, the
Upanishads and Celtic legends. Thus we have a substantive
mytharc which, combined with Italian history, furthers the action.
quest takes Da Vinci to the castle of Vlad III, (The Impaler)
actual ruler of Wallachia in the Transylvania area of Romania.
This Christian ruler has fought against the Ottoman Turks at
Constantinople but forsaken Christ and further complicated the
confusing history of religious warfare in mid-fifteenth century.
The threat of the Ottoman Empire on renaissance Italy has been
a neglected issue among historians, but it did occur and the
show successfully puts the threat in perspective.
of suspense, mystery and intrigue are of course spun through
the tale which features artfully edited scene shifts that help
balance the distributed exposition. We have a cornucopia of
codes, ciphers, secret compartments, hidden identities, double
meanings and Da Vinci’s habit of writing backwards (which
actually inspired composer Bear McCreary to write music with
the opposite notes of the opening theme used to create the closing
theme). These elements avoid defying credibility because they
derive from known elements in Da Vinci’s life and the
baleful events in the charged atmosphere of renaissance Italy.
those whose skepticism and curiosity is piqued by this avalanche
of history and torrent of fact, the producers have supplied
an iPad app which explains all the gadgets, elucidates the allusions
and symbols, and contains interviews with the actors and creators.
the eight episodes there are scenes of intense violence and
wanton deviance – areas where critics and naysayers can
get in their negative licks with the usual accusations of gratuitousness.
But since the end of the Italian Renaissance 400 years ago,
there have been myriad authoritative accounts of the horrific
murders, ghastly tortures and explicit violence with many unequivocal
stomach-turning descriptions. In Da Vinci’s Demons,
efforts to exploit these elements are conspicuously missing.
This is noteworthy since it is easy to imagine a producer hungry
for ratings licking his chops at the opportunity for gratuitousness
available with this material.
of production, David Goyer’s creative team achieved impressive
verisimilitude (highlights are Verrocchio’s studio, the
Medici palace and the Bargello) in their re-creation of renaissance
Florence. Designer Edward Thomas, special effects supervisor
Danny Hargreaves, visual effects producer Simon Frame, and costume
designer Annie Symons deserve special mention. Tom Riley’s
portrayal of Da Vinci is particularly convincing in scenes where
the character displays angry impatience with distractions and
interruptions. Da Vinci often left projects unfinished –
continually frustrating his companions -- because when his matchless
intellect seized upon a new idea, he was off and running. Despite
instances where their dialogue is compressed and intermittently
undecipherable, the characters of Zoroaster (Greg Chillin) and
Nico (Eros Vlahos) convincingly complement the adventurous nature
of their leader Leonardo. Laura Haddock’s depiction of
Lucrezia Donati’s treacherous vacillations keeps us guessing
about her intent for eight episodes. And Blake Ritson as Count
Riario sets new peripheries for unscrupulous villainy in a TV
all of the elements necessary for an Aristotelian success are
present there still exists the question of thematic significance.
If the blending of the elements is artfully wrought but the
theme is the slaying of a cockroach, then all is lost. However,
in Da Vinci’s Demons the themes of the Florentine
Renaissance and the character of one of history’s unqualified
geniuses are more than enough to warrant serious attention.
I will have no choice but to show it to my university students
who will learn much more from viewing it than from any attempt
on my part to lecture on the history.