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

Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz