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historical tv drama

Nick Catalano


Nick 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, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. Nick’s reviews are available at


When 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.

In 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 Demons .

The 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.

Great 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.

At 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.

The 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.

Against 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 at work.

In 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 today.

Throughout 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Elements 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.

For 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.

In 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.

Apropos 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 series.

When 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.


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Jo-Anne Kelly
One wonders . . . have you become Da Vinci. It has been said, to understand the man you must become the man.
The series does provide a balance of accurate Renaissance history in Florence coupled with mystery and intrigue. The story has beautiful scenery and strong casting. I applaud the creative team and the Director.
The Director helps you see Da Vinci's thought process. For example, the birds, I imagine through his eyes, not with the same intelligence but with great amazement, and you get it.
Da Vinci's Demons is a wonderful story of life, history and sex all roled into a modern day series that viewers can watch and love.
I look forward to the next season.


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