TV cracks the Da Vinci code: two new shows present contrasting views

Leonardo da Vinci's story was wrapped up in secret societies and sexual intrigue. Two new TV shows take a contrasting look at the artist. But can any actor, even one as celebrated as Peter Capaldi, do him justice?

He is the most famous artist of all time, an inventor, mathematician, painter and engineer. Now two very different programmes hope to present a different side to Leonardo da Vinci, the man behind the myths. Later this month, Sky Arts' innovative documentary Inside the Mind of Leonardo, featuring Peter Capaldi, will use Leonardo's surviving notebooks to lay bare his thoughts on everything from hair dye to war weaponry. And in April, Da Vinci's Demons, an epic historical fantasy featuring a young and dashing Leonardo and written by David S Goyer, the writer behind the new Superman film, Man of Steel, comes to Fox.

Goyer's Leonardo is, he admits, very different from the white-bearded man many of us picture. "Obviously we deal with his art but we also present him as a bit of a prototypical investigator, a little bit Sherlock Holmes, a little bit Indiana Jones, a little bit Iron Man's Tony Stark… He's a man of action and the whole story is wrapped up in a lot of history, secret societies and sexual intrigue," he says, admitting that when he was first approached: "I said if you want a dry, historical biopic I'm not your guy… but if you want something that kind of reinvents history and presents it with a broad canvas and broad strokes filled with dashing characters and darkness I'm that guy. They said, 'Yeah we want that'."

The finished product has been kept tightly under wraps until its April premiere but extended trailers suggest a lavishly detailed take which falls just on the right side of enjoyable hokum, anchored by a sardonic performance from British star Tom Riley, who appears to spend a fair amount of time with his (suitably chiselled) chest on display uttering such glorious lines as "Perhaps you've heard of me… I am an artist, an inventor and an engineer."

Adding to the intrigue, this Leonardo is entangled in different ways with two women, both of whom are equally out of bounds: his patron Lorenzo de Medici's wife Clarice Orsini (Lara Pulver) and Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock), who just happens to be Lorenzo's mistress, while Riley admitted in a recent television interview that the show will tackle Leonardo's relationships with and feelings for men. "I can't reveal too much because it's a major plot point but we were never going to ignore that side of his life," he said.

"There are all sorts of controversies regarding his sexuality, most people think he was bisexual," says Goyer. "If people want to come for the history they'll get that but if they're fans of Lost or Spartacus or Game of Thrones then they'll like it as well. We've taken liberties, this is a historical fantasy, we're not saying it's the truth – in fact one of the tag lines for the show is 'history is a lie', which is us being deliberately cheeky."

If Da Vinci's Demons gives us a Leonardo who is all swords and smouldering, Inside the Mind of Leonardo takes a more pared-back approach in the hope of showing the audience the inner workings of an incredible mind. "I think there's an enduring fascination with the beauty of his mind," says James Hunt, Sky Arts' director of programming. "Genius is a laboured and over-used word, but it truly applies here."

Ignoring the traditional documentary approach, the show does away with re-enactments, voiceovers and even expert talking heads. Instead, Capaldi reads from the notebooks while a variety of effects, from animation to 3D, bring those words to life. There are no costumes, no sense that Capaldi is Leonardo no matter how beautifully he reads the words, but rather a stripped-down approach that presents the mind behind the drawings in an intriguingly fresh way. "Every single word is the voice of Leonardo," says Hunt. "It doesn't seek to answer everything just lets his works stand for themselves and allows you to see them a fresh way."

Both shows tap into our ongoing fascination with Leonardo, who continues to inspire almost 500 years after his death in 1519. In The Beginning Was the End, the latest production from the innovative theatre company dreamthinkspeak currently showing at Somerset House, was inspired by the apocalyptic Leonardo sketch A Cloudburst of Material Possessions and uses the artist's ideas about hydraulics as part of a hallucinatory piece about the nature of change in a fast-paced world. In 2011, the National Gallery's Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan was the fastest-selling show in the gallery's history. In part, the frenzy was fuelled by the fact that so few of Leonardo's paintings survive – a notoriously slow worker, only 15 paintings are attributed entirely by him.

One review of the National Gallery exhibition described him as "a visual thinker who painted part time". His appeal lies in the fact he is all things to everybody: to doctors he is an anatomist; to scientists an inventor and engineer; to fans of conspiracy theories and Dan Brown novels, a code creator or breaker and possible spy.

"He is extraordinary, there is no other cultural figure with his reach," says Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of history of art at the University of Oxford, who served as a consultant on the Sky Arts documentary. "That's partially down to the inherent complexity and suggestiveness of his work which offers an enormously complex set of possibilities, the idea that you can find your own image in them as it were. But the major thing is that he crosses all these territories: he is a doctor, an engineer, a geologist, an artist, and a scientist. There's nobody else thinking in this way until the late 18th century. He captures a very wide range of interests and that's what people find fascinating."

Every generation has re-created Leonardo in their own image, refracting his accomplishments through their eyes. "These days we see him as a celebrity," says Kemp. "Once you see the drawings and the paintings it's impossible to remain unaffected," says Kemp. "It doesn't matter how much background knowledge you have, or how little, those works have something else, a sheer living intensity. It's uncanny, I wouldn't like to be in a dark room alone with them, there's a sense of presence that goes beyond mere pigment."

Most interestingly Leonardo always stood apart. "There was an infinite grace in all his actions; and so great was his genius, and such its growth, that to whatever difficulties he turned his mind, he solved them with ease," wrote Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists first published in 1550. "The fame of his name so increased, that not only in his lifetime was he held in esteem, but his reputation became even greater among posterity after his death".

It helps that Leonardo remains at best half-known. "He led a pretty mysterious life," says Hunt. "It was strange and not altogether straightforward and so much about it is disputed. You can't help but play detective because every painting is almost a detective story and nobody is ever absolutely certain. There's an enigma which adds to the allure."

Goyer agrees: "Intriguingly for someone like me there are a lot of gaps in his history," he says. "There's about a four or five year gap from the time he was 27 or 28 until the time he was 32 where there's almost no record of what he was doing, yet this is a person whose life up to that point and after that point was incredibly well-documented. As a creator those gaps in history are gold…"

It's the same sense of mystery that permeates the artist's most famous painting, the half-smiling Mona Lisa, about whom the 19th-century critic Walter Pater aptly wrote: "She is older than the rocks among which she sits… the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea." The mysterious Leonardo resists easy characterisation. He too remains both old and new, a symbol of Renaissance glory, of a wideness of vision that, as Kemp says, "provides a counterpart to the manic narrowing of our minds today" and yet also a thoroughly modern figure, a dabbler in many trades, who could create both the helicopter and the automated bobbin winder.

'Inside the Mind of Leonardo' airs on 24 March at 9pm on Sky Arts 2 HD and Sky 3D; 'Da Vinci's Demons' starts on 19 April on Fox. In the Beginning Was the End, Somerset House, London WC2 (somersethouse.org.uk) to 30 March

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