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
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk
    Nepal earthquake: One man's desperate escape from Everest base camp after the disaster

    Escape from Everest base camp

    Nick Talbot was sitting in his tent when the tsunami of snow and rock hit. He was lucky to live, unlike his climbing partner just feet away...
    Adopting high fibre diet could dramatically cut risk of bowel cancer, says study

    What happened when 20 Americans swapped diets with 20 Africans?

    Innovative study in the US produces remarkable results
    Blake Lively and 'The Age of Adaline': Gossip Girl comes
of age

    Gossip girl comes of age

    Blake Lively is best known for playing an affluent teenager. Her role as a woman who is trapped forever at 29 is a greater challenge
    Goat cuisine: Kid meat is coming to Ocado

    Goat cuisine

    It's loved by chefs, ethical, low in fat and delicious. So, will kid meat give lamb a run for its money?
    14 best coat hooks

    Hang on: 14 best coat hooks

    Set the tone for the rest of your house with a stylish and functional coat rack in the hallway
    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?