What do we know about Leonardo da Vinci? Well, history tells a story of the remarkable, quintessential Renaissance man, who’s work spans from the “Mona Lisa” to the “Flying Man.” However, in their latest period drama, Starz presents a much darker tale of how this man came to be written about in textbooks.
From the get-go, we are introduced to the naked Duke of Milan, played by Downton Abbey’s very own Hugh Bonneville. Knowing that the British actor had signed on with Julian Fellows’ show for the next three years, I had a feeling that his departure from this show would be swift. In a death suitable for Caesar, the Duke is murdered at what I presume to be a Senate meeting, leading the Medici family of Florence (allies of Milan) to start to panic.
Cue the young Leonardo da Vinci, painting a model in an open field. Tom Riley, who plays the legendary historical figure, brings da Vinci to life, creating a smart aleck character reminiscent of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock.
With his trusty companions Nico and Zoroaster, da Vinci seeks out the infamous Lorenzo de Medici, a member of the powerful banking family that ruled Florence. Da Vinci, who devoted his whole life to mathematics and creating inventions, believes that he has the tools necessary to help the Medici’s protect Florence from the corrupt Vatican in the wake of the Duke of Milan’s death. However, da Vinci first needs an income.
He weasels his way into the Medici’s home by beautifully sketching Lorenzo’s mistress and he uses this as a jumping stone to make the proposition to become a military engineer. Humorously (as a history nerd), Lorenzo questions why Florence would need any sort of arms, since, after all, Lorenzo himself was a peaceful “Humanist.” Regardless, he accepts and gives da Vinci the job.
Meanwhile, da Vinci meets up with a Turk who has been hunted down by the Vatican’s army, led by Captain Dragonetti. This Turk tells da Vinci that he is a part of an ancient cult, The Sons of Mithras, and that the reason da Vinci is able to conjure up these brilliant inventions is because former members of the sacred brotherhood have already created them. However, the Turk explains that the Vatican had covered up their existence and destroyed all evidence of the brotherhood except for the “Book of Leaves,” which he assigns da Vinci to find.
At the end of the episode, a cloaked figure is presented before the Vatican’s archive keeper, and when she reveals herself, she is none other than Lorenzo’s mistress and da Vinci’s lover, Lucrezia Donati, played by Laura Haddock.
All and all, I believe this was a strong pilot for a premium cable show. I’m sure that Starz captured its former audience from Spartacus, which concluded directly before Da Vinci’s premiere.
Visually, the show took viewers into the mind of the Renaissance man, showing his drawings and calculations. In this respect, the show reminded me of Temple Grandin, the 2009 HBO movie that documented the life an autistic woman who used her disability as a way to see the world in a more mechanical way.
Conceptually, the show provided a twisted background to the beloved historical figure, almost in the way that Seth Graham Smith developed his novel Unholy Night, which created a dark backstory to the three wise men who visit Jesus upon his birth.
Overall, Da Vinci’s Demons is not to be missed. The season will last eight episodes but only ratings will tell whether or not they get renewed.