Searching for Leonardo da Vinci in 'Leonardo'

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Searching for Leonardo da Vinci in 'Leonardo'
Statue of Leonardo da Vinci (Uffizi Gallery).

by Blake Gopnik

NEW YORK, NY.- Leonardo da Vinci discovered how to capture life in his drawings. And he found new ways to topple a castle. But the one thing he could never come up with was a good recipe for shampoo.

That, at least, is the main message I took away from the eight episodes of “Leonardo,” a biopic series that premiered Tuesday on the CW. Following in the footsteps of “The Lord of the Rings” and “Game of Thrones,” the makers of “Leonardo” seem to have decided that old-time heroes need to have greasy locks.

But then “Leonardo” seems so indebted to “Game of Thrones” that it could hardly have gone its own way on grooming. Its music riffs on “GoT,” complete with drumbeats and a twinkly harp, and it includes gratuitous nudity and a pointless beheading. Think of it as a “CSI”-style spinoff — “GoT: Florence.” It shows how deeply our sense of history is essentially aesthetic, even pictorial: Our understanding of the past is based on the fantasies and images our own culture has built up about that past — greasy hair and all — rather than on any real historical thinking. And that means we reject the true foreignness of history in favor of the comforting stories we’ve told ourselves about it, all rooted in today’s reality — or in Westeros, which is much the same thing.

Despite its debt to “Game of Thrones” fantasy, “Leonardo” has the backbone of a 21st-century police procedural. The first episode, and then each one that follows, begins with its hero in prison for murder. As the artist (played by Aidan Turner) is interrogated by a Renaissance cop named Stefano Giraldi (Freddie Highmore, who, I’m glad to say, was permitted to wash his hair), flashbacks reveal how the artist ended up in such straits. Spoiler alert: In the final episode, when Leonardo is about to be hanged for the crime, we and Giraldi discover that he did not do the deed. Viewers who didn’t see that twist coming ought to have their Wi-Fi revoked.

The series will most likely get away with the platitudes of its invented plot, since most viewers will probably be watching “Leonardo” less for its storytelling than for a glimpse of a certain Renaissance genius who, though dead for half a millennium, has become one of our current art stars. (It helps that his “Salvator Mundi” sold for $450 million in 2017.) But even though “Leonardo” is set in Italy around 1500 and purports to talk about a real man, this program’s grasp on history is as weak as any dragon drama.

The murder plot is pure fiction, but that’s forgivable: Today’s biopics aren’t expected to stick to the facts. Watching “Rocketman,” we didn’t think Elton John could really float above his piano. What I can’t forgive is the false picture “Leonardo” paints of Leonardo. As played by Turner (“The Hobbit,” “Poldark”), the artist seems a neurotic heartthrob with attention deficit disorder. In reality, Leonardo’s genius was systematic in the extreme: He’d take the time to understand and portray every hair on a woman’s head, every twig and leaf on a tree.

Giorgio Vasari, the great Renaissance biographer, described Leonardo as a charming conversationalist, a deeply courtly being “whose personal beauty could not be exaggerated, whose every movement was grace itself” — a man “filled with a lofty and delicate spirit.” In “Leonardo,” he comes closer to Kurt Cobain. It’s as though, here in the 21st century, we have a single model for what creativity might look like, and the creators of “Leonardo” don’t dare ask us to imagine another one.

I guess they could be right: We might be so completely stuck in our own times that we simply can’t inhabit the past’s deeply different realities. Or maybe history could offer an example of progress we might want to see.

This biopic series could have moved in that direction when it came to the artist’s sexuality. Even though Leonardo da Vinci is one of the earliest gay creators we know of, “Leonardo” has him drawn most powerfully to women. Sure, the series shows him kissing a man or two, but the entire plot is built around his stormy, steamy, all-but-sexual romance with an invented character named Caterina da Cremona, played by Matilda De Angelis. (She’s the one we keep seeing naked for no reason.) In the 21st century, not to play one of history’s famously gay figures as notably gay seems borderline homophobic.

“She was love,” says Leonardo about his invented girlfriend. Why not let us hear this gay artist say “he”?

When it comes to capturing the past’s foreignness, the show misses details it should have been easy to get right. Rather than drawing with a goose quill, Leonardo uses a metal nib — which only came into use centuries later. Candles, a pricey commodity in the Renaissance, burn by the dozen in every room, as though Leonardo had a side hustle in aromatherapy. (Maybe his vanilla-cinnamon pillars made Mona Lisa smile.) When he paints his “Last Supper,” the show breaks away to a computer-generated animation of how perspective works in the painting — then gets that perspective wrong.

About halfway through the series, I took off my art critic’s hat, abandoned my interest in seeing yesterdays that are different from now, and tried pretending the show wasn’t about any real artist at all, let alone a gay one from the Renaissance. What if I changed the title from “Leonardo” to “Tony”? Would that help me enjoy it?

Not much.

Since the plot of “Tony” — sorry, “Leonardo” — is just an excuse for telling the story of a great artist’s life, the writers, Frank Spotnitz, Steve Thompson and Gabbie Asher, never bother giving it any real momentum or patching its holes. And since this is, again, the story of a great artist’s life, they make sure to stuff it full of every “great artist” cliché they can find: “A man like Leonardo, his genius is forged by pain,” says one typical line of dialogue. “And that pain can drive a man to commit terrible acts.”

Leonardo van Gogh, you might call him — a hybrid creature that doesn’t even reflect how real artists think and act today, let alone how they did in the Renaissance. It’s a screenwriter’s fantasy of how old-time artists ought to be.

In “Leonardo,” a Renaissance master tells his pupil, “You’ve drawn only what you saw. You must learn to draw what you feel.” That’s a bromide born centuries after Leonardo’s day — drawing “only what you see” was actually one of his most radical inventions — but it’s not clear we have much appetite for understanding how cultural foundations can change over time.

To grasp how and why art got made in the past, we might need to unlearn our current ideas about artists. And you can’t blame “Leonardo” for not even trying. We’re all just so addicted to the dirty hair.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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