Like its polymath subject, Amazon’s eight-part drama based (loosely) on the life and career of Leonardo da Vinci wants to be many things at once. A biopic-style study of genius, a period potboiler, even a murder mystery - the show tries out all of these guises and more, but never quite convinces as any of them.
In the opening moments, we meet a brooding, beardy Leonardo, played by Poldark’s Aidan Turner, who has been thrown into prison, accused of the murder of his muse and companion, Caterina de Cremona. A baby-faced officer of the law (Freddie Highmore) is intent on proving that his celebrity charge is guilty; his interrogations frame the episodes, prompting scenes from Leonardo’s life to unravel in flashbacks.
His reminiscences draw us back to the early days of his career, as an earnest, beardless apprentice in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence, where his perfectionism, and insistence upon recreating the world exactly as he sees it, sets him apart from his more workmanlike peers. It’s here that he becomes captivated by model Caterina, played by The Undoing’s breakout star Matilda de Angelis, who earns her keep posing as angels and classical goddesses. “I don’t draw like the others do,” Leonardo tells her.
This might sound a bit like the Renaissance art-boy equivalent of “I’m not like other guys,” but it’s true - and his talent elicits jealousy from some of his peers. One particularly sneaky frenemy snitches to the authorities when Leonardo has an assignation with a male prostitute, causing him to be arrested for sodomy and thrown out of Verrocchio’s workshop. Forced to go it alone, albeit with Caterina at his side, his artistic journey begins with a commission to paint Ginevra de’ Benci, the daughter of a wealthy nobleman; each subsequent episode then hinges around the creation of one of da Vinci’s defining works (later instalments will eventually explore the painting of the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper) .
Be wary of taking this as an art history lesson, though. The character of Caterina has been dreamed up by showrunner Frank Spotnitz and writer Steve Thompson, inspired by the much-contested mystery of ‘La Cremona,’ a courtesan who may or may not have been mentioned in Leonardo’s personal papers; the murder subplot, too, is a fabrication.
Playing fast and loose with the truth isn’t necessarily a bad thing: despite all the outraged hot takes that reliably follow each new series of The Crown, we surely shouldn’t expect our TV dramas to provide us with unassailable historical truth. The vast swathes of creative licence used here, though, don’t really succeed in making the series more compelling. In one scene, maestro Verrocchio teaches his protégé about chiaroscuro: throughout the opening episodes, the series’ darker, more ponderous elements risk subsuming many of its strengths. Turner and de Angelis (who is thankfully given much more to do here than in The Undoing’s grisly flashback sequences) both put in thoughtful, layered performances - it’s frustrating to be yanked out of scenes setting up their burgeoning (platonic) relationship and thrown into an unnecessary murder mystery.
We’re in a boom time for historical drama that doesn’t stick to the rules of the genre - just look at success stories like The Favourite and The Great. Perhaps that’s why the show’s creators decided to shake things up. The end result, though, lacks cohesion - it feels more like a sketch than a masterpiece.
Leonardo is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video from April 16