Leonardo da Vinci, the type of figure that transcends time and space, has been the subject of endless fascination for centuries. So it’s a pity that Leonardothe latest CW acquisition to debut in the United States, attempts to capture the spirit of the genius behind the Mona Lisa and The last Supper and non-artistic feats by playing quickly and loosely with the facts of his life for dramatic effect. Creators Frank Spotnitz and Steve Thompson have concocted a historical drama that not only lacks the aura of more inventive period pieces on television, but they’ve also undermined the protagonists with a contrived murder mystery subplot.
In his first TV role since the BBC adaptation of Poldark Aidan Turner, who ended in 2019, stars as the titular polymath initially introduced to the public in two different timelines: first as a bearded, brooding prisoner accused of poisoning his muse, Caterina da Cremona (undo it‘s Matilda De Angelis), and interrogated by officer Stefano Giraldi (the good doctor‘s Freddie Highmore); and then as a fresh, clumsy apprentice in the studio of famed painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrochio (Giancarlo Giannini) in Florence some 16 years earlier.
Giraldi’s investigation into Caterina’s death and Leonardo’s possible involvement serves as the framework for each of the episodes, which essentially consists of the officer interviewing several people from Leonardo’s inner circle, all of whom point to his obsessive curiosity and non- relentless pursuit of perfection in his work as his fatal flaws. Despite the dialogues that feel a little too meta and modern for the 15th century (e.g. Da Vinci’s left-handedness and vegetarianism are explicitly mentioned rather than just shown on screen), Turner provides a multi-layered view of Leonardo, allowing the series goes beyond a picturesque tour of Florence and Milan, where his character often changes from feeling uninspired to tunnel vision. (These are told in multiple sequences intended to evoke the mind of a genius at work.) To his credit, Turner has both the intensity of an outsider desperate for his father’s approval, and the endearing innocence of a young man who has a habit of putting his foot in his mouth.
Highmore, meanwhile, is unusually monotonous as Giraldi, playing the part of a Milanese officer who brings very little in the first four episodes and grows increasingly tired of possible performing one of the most famous artists of all time. Giraldi doesn’t seem to be the only one who has reservations about the murder mystery. As a plotting device, it just doesn’t work. There may be a few references to her life on the street, including how she ended up with a scar on her back that Leonardo immediately notices when they first cross paths, but the lack of explanations about Caterina’s past – at least in the episodes we saw — leaves us pretty ambivalent about her inevitable death. As much as De Angelis tries to capture the essence of a forward-looking woman navigating the court politics and social mores of her day, she can only do so much with so little.
In the end, Caterina may have just been a figment of someone’s imagination. With the exception of Giuseppe Bossi (an Italian art historian) and Charles Nicholl (one of da Vinci’s modern biographers), both of whom insist that da Vinci was in a relationship with a lover named “La Cremona” to possibly help him paint women better, there is little evidence to support Caterina’s real existence. In fact, many art scientists agree that Da Vinci was probably gay. While his real-life arrest for sodomy and subsequent acquittal at age 24 are dramatized in the series, Leonardo’s homosexuality is largely swept under the rug in favor of his (possibly nonexistent) relationship with Caterina, a dynamic that is curiously codependent and difficult. to be fixed down.
In a busy TV landscape with a bold innovative take on the historical drama (The big, Foreigner, Bridgerton), Leonardo would have benefited from an earlier and deeper exploration of the titular character’s sexuality, arguably linked to some of his greatest works. Instead, the show’s failure and reluctance to dig into Da Vinci’s personal life only underscores its shortcomings, making this portrait of the polymath feel more like a safe sketch than a masterpiece.