Da Vinci’s Demons – Leonardo, a Hero Armed Only with Genius

Da Vinci's Demons 2013

By the fifteenth century there was a tangible need for exceptional change throughout Europe. During the fourteenth century in Italy any citizen had been reticent about displaying his wealth. His was a very dangerous and uncertain world. However by the Quattrocento, or fifteenth century, the focus had changed. Demonstration of your wealth became a key to dominance in both the social and political spheres and many newly educated men and woman began questioning the world around them and their place within it.

A new period of scientific examination would bring about a period of creative frenzy. Artists, architects and scholars, as well as the rich, and by now very educated rulers of many of the city-states that made up the land mass we now know as Italy, became passionate about affecting change. Feudal society was being replaced by a modern corporate system, with social dynamism disrupting traditional systems of privilege by rank.

The one question Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) constantly kept asking was, ‘who will tell me if anything was ever finished?’.

Leonardo da Vinci’s curiosity and imagination throughout his life was at the heart of his success and it remained insatiable. He was a true Renaissance man, one whose thirst for knowledge was only exceeded by his desire for more.

He understood that man was the measure of all things and that propriety was all about a perfection of style.

Painter, sculptor, architect, musician, engineer, inventor, and scientist, at the heart of da Vinci’s understanding of the material world, was the idea that art and science were conjoined.

For Leonardo direct observation was the only path to truth.

David S. Goyer, co-writer of The Dark Knight Trilogy, has recently filmed Season 1 of a television historical fantasy drama series for STARZ about Leonardo da Vinci at the age of 25, depicting him as a dreamer and idealist, who is fighting to set knowledge free and to help invent the future. It’s the ‘untold’ story of the man who was both ostracized and celebrated for his ideas.

In Australia the series premiéred on the FX Channel on April 16. da Vinci is depicted as a young man tormented by his own talent, frustrated that as yet he has not been able to discover his true calling. He is driven by his demons, seduced by his patron’s mistress and lives at the cutting edge of society. He is a hero on a great quest, armed only with his genius.

Leonardo da Vinci, according to this view of him, was an unstoppable force, propelling his whole age out of the darkness into the light of reason, onto enlightenment and eventual freedom.

The new thinking of Leonardo’s age promoted the thought that if ‘man’ regained faith in himself, he would recognize the true value of history, would honour men of the past, and in turn learn to honour himself, with reputation, fame and secular glory his ideal goal. By increasing the prestige of his ancestry he knew that his will would survive through his sons and the sons of his sons.

Leonardo da Vinci was, and is in this TV series, depicted as he was reputed to be in real life, a visionary of amazing proportions.

He was at the forefront of a society still emerging from the fear, hypocrisy and prejudices of the medieval ages.

The way religion was interpreted was being held up for close examination and da Vinci was illegitimate during a time when a legitimate birth was important. It must have been hard to come to terms with as da Vinci truly believes that he can see what other people cannot see.

English actor of stage and screen Tom Riley (b1981) plays the feisty young man from the Tuscan village of Vinci, who went on to become one of the greatest men the world has ever known.

Tom Riley, Lost in Austen

Playing Leonardo da Vinci is by far Riley’s biggest role to date, and it happened in a series of eight episodes shot in Wales on an elaborate set, which recreated 15thcentury Italy.

Riley  has been immersed in acting since he was four years of age, studying English literature and drama and completing a professional acting course at London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in 2005.

He won a coveted role in the delightful nonsense of the TV series Lost in Austen, which earned him a great personal following, practically stealing the show as George Wickham from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

He also appeared on stage on Broadway in the Tom Stoppard play Arcadia, garnering many fans in that place.

Riley admitted in an interview that he and Leonardo da Vinci had at least one thing in common – a driving perfectionism.

He plays him as a reckless, hot-blooded, confident, completely un-phazed by anything at all really, personality, a man who wanted to set himself free from his own gift of a ‘feverishly inventive imagination’, in order that he would be able to then find his own way forward.

Leonardo is reputed to have said ‘I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do’.

da Vinci was a heretic, intent on exposing the deceptions and darkness that surrounded the contemporary religious beliefs and life of his age.

His best friend in the show, played by Gregg Chillin as Zoroaster, was based on an actual historical scoundrel named Tomasso Masini a goldsmith, mechanic, magician and occulist who, like most artists of his day was a jack of all trades, good enough to help Leonardo complete the ‘Battle of Anghiari’ fresco.

Zoroaster is man at ease with his lot in life. He’s not keen to change the world, but does want to help his friend.

One of the most enigmatic and interesting characters in the show is sure to be Al-Rahim, played by Alexander Siddig, who came to attention playing Prince Feisal in the 1990 TV sequel of Lawrence of Arabia – A Dangerous Man: Lawrence after Arabia.

Born with exotic parentage, ‘Sid’ as those on the set called him, is Leonardo’s friend, a the mysterious Turk who guides Leonardo, although viewers will never be sure if he is a real person or a figment of Leonardo’s very active imagination.

James Faulkner plays Cardinal Francesco Della Rovere, who becomes Pope Sixtus IV (1414-1484).

He is busy rebuilding the Vatican, Rome and the church.

While at first he regards Leonardo as a distraction, he realizes that he has been heaven sent to aid his cause.

In history Pope Sixtus IV is associated the arts and sciences – Grammar, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, Painting, Astronomy, Philosophy, and Theology.

He is the Pope who established the Sistine chapel and commissioned two cycles of paintings in the building, which complement each other, The Life of Moses and The Life of Christ executed by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Cosimo Roselli and their workshops.

It was part of a reconciliation project between himself and Lorenzo de’ Medici, the de facto ruler of Florence who did not always see eye to eye. He wanted da Vinci and Tuscany brought under ‘Rome’s yoke’.

In his lifetime Rome became habitable, and he did much to improve the sanitary conditions of the city. He brought water from the Quirinal to the Fountain of Trevi, and began a transformation of the city which death alone hindered him from completing.

Laura Haddock plays Lucrezia Donati, who was a celebrated beauty of the time and Lorenzo de Medici’s mistress. But is she all that she seems? Beauty can often hide treachery hidden in its depths.

Elliot Cowan is Lorenzo de’ Medici, to whom the Florentines gave the name Magnificent – a title, which had a new meaning attached to virtu reflected in the titles of books of the day such as Pico’s On the Dignity of man or Manetti’s On the dignity and Excellence of Man.

When Leonardo da Vinci desired to spread the wings of his astonishing talent it was Lorenzo de’ Medici who recommended him to Ludovico Il Moro, a generous patron at Milan.

Lorenzo was a prince among men and a poet, who loved the arts and became a significant patron. His families’ wealth through banking made him a ‘de facto’ ruler of Tuscany.

Nico played by Eros Vlahos, is the devoted apprentice of Leonardo and often found out and about with Zoroaster. He tests Leonardo’s flying machine for him and it works!

He’s all about learning about how the end might justify the means and his outlook on life darkens as the series progresses.

He fancies Vanessa, played by Hera Hilmar, who has a sunny disposition and is reputed beauty who earns her living as a barmaid. She was not suited to the convent life she led prior and, bless his heart, da Vinci rescues her from it.

At this time there was an perception that religion was man-made, and that the value of religion only lay in its contribution to social order and the rules of morality. This in turn could be seen as making strong men ‘weak and inactive, delivering politics into the hands of cruel men without a fight.

Without doubt the political and artistic development of Florence in the fifteenth century is intimately linked with three generations of the Medici who established a hereditary or benevolent ruler system in Florence.

The Medici families unique achievement was that for a period of sixty years they preserved the republic at a time when other Italian states were subjected to tyranny. By preserving liberty under the law, the Medici may be said to have contributed to all of Florence’s greatest creative achievements.

Lara Pulver plays Clarice Orsini Lorenzo’s wife. There’s was a marriage arranged by proxy when she was only 16.

Not initially popular in Florence because of her strict religious personality, which was in deep contrast with the humanist ideals of her age, she is nevertheless deeply committed to Lorenzo and a valuable advisor to her husband.

Acclaimed English actor Blake Ritson plays Count Girolamo Riario, the Pope’s nephew, who plotted to assassinate to kill Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano de’Medici, but failed in what is known as the Pazzi Conspiracy, which was all about overthrowing the rule of the Medici.

Tom Bateman plays Giuliano Medici, described as a ‘dashing bon vivant’ who leaves the responsibility to his older brother Lorenzo and harbours both envy and admiration for Leonardo, understanding that da Vinci’s allegiance to Florence makes him vulnerable.

While Giuliano did die, Lorenzo survived the great plot.

Riario was supported in his quest by the Pazzi family, who were rivals of the Medici for power and the conspiracy went all the way to the top, the Papal Bankers the Salviati family.

Three Wise Men, fresco in the Magi Chapel of Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence, 1459-1461

Many great families contributed to the success of this period and in understanding the importance of family is paramount to understanding it.

Retrato de Bernardo di Bandino Baroncelli executado – the traitor Bernardo Baronceilli, who planted a dagger in the chest of Giuliano de Medici being executed, sketched by Leonardo da Vinci

The family was subject for discussion in many treatises most arguments were reduced to economic ones.  It was far less expensive to keep the family together; run one household than several; less costly and more agreeable to draw one’s servants from the family circle; and it was hard for a man to be expected to spend years amassing wealth and have no heirs to leave it to.

These family units know as the casato, or all those eating under one roof, were recognised in law and might number as many as 50 mouths, each of whom was allowed a certain rebate in the tax returns of the head of the household.

It also impacted on the building of private residences, which became an important activity, the notion of privacy itself for the family, a new focus.

The scope and depth of Leonardo da Vinci’s interests were without precedence in his life time and he was revered for his technological ingenuity. He needed all his skill and formidable intellect to survive the vagaries of his age. His skill, artistry and craftsmanship were without peer.

Da Vinci believed a man’s emotions needed to reflect the nature of his inner impulses, while his attitude needed to demonstrate his real intent.

At this time liberty’s most important form was freedom of speech, and Florence’s freedom of expression, was, in Italy at least, unique.

In other areas such as Venice and Rome at that time, citizens could be judged, and executed in secret, so the Florentine’s achievements under their constitution became widely acknowledged and envied.

Leonardo da Vinci in reality would go on to become the greatest artist of the Renaissance era in Italy, and perhaps the most famous painter that the world has yet seen.

Da Vinci was brilliant, curious and created a new idea of beauty, one that was all at once subtle, enigmatic and completely captivating. Considering how few of his paintings remain, about fifteen in all scattered around the world, his reputation and fame has been established based on drawings and sketches made for details in his paintings, of nature and for his inventions, which were truly miraculous in his time.

They prove both his vision and insight.

Most people today would understand that Renaissance superstar Leonardo da Vinci was truly a genius, as believed by those in his own time including Francois 1 of France.

He provided him with work and a home so that Leonardo could live out the last years of his life in peace and tranquility, far away from the many demons that tormented him during his youth.

“Da Vinci’s Demons” actors, from left, Blake Ritson, Lara Pulver, series creator David S. Coyer and Tom Riley pose for a photo on Thursday, April, 4, 2013 in Florence, Italy. Series Creator David S. Goyer, Tom Riley, Laura Haddock, Lara Pulver and Blake Ritson are in Florence promoting the April 12th premiere of Starz’s “Da Vinci’s Demons”. (Photo by Paolo Lazzeroni/Invision for Starz/AP Images)

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013

Watch the Trailer of Da Vinci’s Demons


Da Vinci’s Demons

In a world where thought and faith are controlled, one man fights to set knowledge free. From David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight and Man of Steel), comes the untold story of Leonardo Da Vinci during his turbulent youth in Renaissance Florence. Filmed in Wales by Phantom Four Films and Adjacent Prods. Executive producers, David S. Goyer, Julie Gardner, Jane Tranter; co-executive producer, Courtney B. Conte; producer, Lee Morris; writer-director, David S Goyer

Leonardo da Vinci
played by Tom Riley
Lucrezia Donati
played by Laura Haddock
Count Riario
played by Blake Ritson
Lorenzo Medici
played by Elliot Cowan
Clarice Orsini
played by Lara Pulver
played by Gregg Chillin
played by Hera Hilmar
played by Eros Vlahos
Pope Sixtus IV
played by James Faulkner
Giuliano Medici
played by Tom Bateman
played by Alexander Siddig

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