Da Vinci's Demons: The Hanged Man

April 15, 2013

The premiere episode of the new Starz Tv series Da Vinci's Demons sets the scene for an enjoyable first season. In response to many requests to "review" the show, I have decided on a concise format addressing three key areas, summarised by the following graphic:

Introduction: What the show is... and is not
Da Vinci's Demons is a work of fantasy, drawing on historical events, names and places. In some cases there is a pleasing overlap with recorded events, in other cases not. The primary aim of such a program is of course to entertain, and in this respect, the story, setting, characters and performances combine nicely for the first installment. Gone are the days when television series would be allowed 2-3 seasons to develop and mature. In this sense, Da Vinci's Demons is polished in both its narrative and visual style, with consistent performances from its actors - a solid achievement for a pilot episode. 

Those who may be disappointed by factual inaccuracies are reminded that such inconsistencies are also present in written histories of the period, from Machiavelli to Vasari and beyond. It is surely not the role of the entertainment industry to address this gap - although it is hoped that watching such programs can spark an interest to seek more knowledge. It is the intention of these recaps to assist this process for those interested, with relevant resources listed at the end. 

Leonardo is played by Tom Riley, whose performance renders the artist as a spirited genius. Riley's on-screen demeanor may remind some viewers of Robert Downey Jr's recent portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. It is important to remember, this is Leonardo in his twenties, not the wisened, bearded figure seen in drawings and depictions of him by other artists. For those distracted by the flamboyance of Riley's Leonardo, we are reminded of an historical account of Leonardo's preference to wear bright colours, including pink. The costume designers have opted away from this (for this episode at least), and Riley's Leonardo seems to channel the dashing Renaissance visual archetype - with a particular similarity to Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love unlikely to be a coincidence.

Early modern visionaries obviously love flaunting chest hair. Right Tom Riley as Leonardo

Events at the start of the show allow us to establish the year as 1476. Leonardo is described as a master artist in his own right, but also in the employ of Verrocchio, the workshop of the older artist and sculptor being a primary setting in this episode. In this instance, the writers have been quite faithful to history. Leonardo had been accepted into the Order of Saint Luke (the Painters Guild) - in 1472, implying that he was recognised as an independent master artist, or maestro - as he is often called during the show. Although he had achieved master status, he did continue to collaborate within Verrochio's workshop at least until 1478. [1]

No one mentions the hyper colossal pseudo David in Verrocchio's studio...

It was fun to see a Tv version of a Renaissance workshop. In the background, sections of sculpture can be seen, from which students practise drawing. Plaster casts of drapery folds are also observed, which were commonly used during the period. Dominating the workshop is a large colossal head in sections, which seems to suspiciously resemble Michelangelo's David, which did not exist at this date, and was of course hewn from a single block of marble. More perceptive viewers may also spot a very rough looking version of Leonardo's Madonna Litta on the workshop wall. 

Perhaps the most enthralling character in the show - for me at least - was Florence herself. Beautifully rendered, we get glimpses of the city from many vantage points. My favourite of these scenes showed Leonardo making a quick sketch of Lucrezia Donati, the mistress of Lorenzo de' Medici. The scene renders a vision of the Piazza della Signoria as it may have looked in 1476. The fountains and statuary now seen in front of the Palazzo Vecchio and within the Loggia are accurately absent.

The show also give us glimpses of Rome and Milan. In both cities, some architectural inconsistencies were noted, with a severely premature dome atop Saint Peter's. At this point of course, Old Saint Peter's Basilica was still standing, although in an increasing state of disrepair. The Castello Sforzesca in Milan was shown only quickly in an establishing shot, with another dome at its centre.

CG dome fever: only one of these is depicted accurately for c.1476

Historical consistency is mostly observed in the character and political alliances depicted. The Medici are de-facto rulers of Florence, with their rivals in the city including the Pazzi. The Palazzo Medici is depicted as more expansive than it is even today, with an octagonal courtyard that will be disconcerting to those that love its actual courtyard - which at the time housed the famous bronze David by Donatello.

A Sforza envoy arrives at the Palazzo Medici in Florence, giving us a quick external view

Palazzo Medici courtyard depicted in the show Inset The actual courtyard

There is no mention of a year date throughout the show, although the assassination of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan near the beginning allows us to assign the year as 1476.

Some conventions used with names may be a little jarring to some, with Leonardo often referred to as "Da Vinci" - although his closest friends call him "Leonardo" or "Leo". He is accurately described as the illegitimate son of a notary, although the characterisation of his father seems disconcertingly exaggerated.
Although the episode depicted a hanging as per its title, it was not one of the Pazzi conspirators, as sketched by Leonardo in 1479.

Lorenzo de' Medici is played by Eliot Cowan, who despite having a passionate screen presence, has a pair of very large and unusual sideburns, making him perhaps appear closer to a science fiction villain than the longer haired Lorenzo we recognise from sculpture and posthumous portraits. 

The bust of Lorenzo attributed to the Verrocchio workshop, and Eliot Cowan as Lorenzo

The lead female character is Lucrezia Donati, the "mistress" of Lorenzo de' Medici - which  correlates with contemporary accounts. [2] That she is also Leonardo's lover and a member of a secret Vatican pact to destroy the Medici is a part of her story that may grate on some.

Laura Haddock plays Lucrezia Donati. Leonardo's quick sketch of her vaguely evokes a drawing of a woman's head now at the Uffizi.

On Leonardo's sexuality & a sly Botticelli reference
Many are curious as to how the show will approach Leonardo's sexuality, with historical records stating he was once jailed (and released) due to an accusation of sodomy.[3] From what is shown in the first episode, Leonardo appears to be interested in both men and women. He actively cavorts with Lucrezia Donati, but is also approached in a tavern by seedy young male studio model, who states that no one contemplates his form as Leonardo does. The artist dismisses the young hustler, telling him to seek Botticelli, who is an easier mark. Shortly after the same young man is seen exiting the tavern with an other male, although it unclear if it was Botticelli or not. 

One of Leonardo's models slips away for a late night tryst

This last section will mention elements of the show, which I suspect may be the deciding factor  for whether viewers will commit to watching the series. The primary focus of the show revolves around a fantastical story, with very loosely referenced historical elements. A central character, a Turkish traveler meets Leonardo, revealing that the artist will join his order - the Sons of Mithras, to find a compendium of lost knowledge known as The Book of Leaves.  While evidence of Mithraism in antiquity has been found, exploring its transmission during the Renaissance is not the aim of the show. It is one of the many elements of a story crafted for entertainment purposes. Those seeking some more scholarly contribution on these subjects are directed towards the references and recommended resources listed below.

 Mithraic Lion-headed statuette is seen on the shelf in the Palazzo Medici

Da Vinci's Demons renders fifteenth century Florence in stunning visual clarity.  Those who are happy to go along for the ride will enjoy the escapism the series promises. For lovers of the art and history of the period, many interesting elements can still be spotted among the names, locations and objects seen in the story.

Readers in the US can presently watch the first episode FREE by visiting the Starz website: link

1. Feinberg, LJ. The Young Leonardo: Art and Life in Fifteenth Century Florence. Cambridge University Press. 2011. p.60

2. See. Grazia Pernis, M. Adams, L. Lucrezia Tornabuoni De' Medici And the Medici Family in the Fifteenth Century. Peter Lang Publishers. 2006. p.74-5.
As noted by Lorenzo's biographer Niccolò Valori, "[Lorenzo] loved Lucrezia Donati, who was a woman of rare beauty, honesty and nobility... When he was young, Lorenzo composed beautiful poems and songs for her in the vernacular in her honor. He also organized magnificent shows for her, including an equestrian tournament." [p.74]

3.  Feinberg, LJ. As cited above  p.59-60

Recommended resources - Further reading on Mithraism, Leonardo and the Medici
*BBC Radio 4. In Our Time. The Cult of Mithras. Dec 27 2012. Podcast. (link)

*Entry for Mithraism on wikipiedia article is of high quality, well ref'd. (link)

*3PP Born of Sorrow - The bust of Lorenzo de' Medici  (link)

*Kemp, M. Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design. Princeton University Press. 2006. (link)

Universal Leonardo - high quality, free online web resource dedicated to Leonardo hosted by University of the Arts, London. (link)


Alexandra said...

After the first historical error, amongst the many you point out, I would have turned off the tv in horror. Like when i threw a dan brown book across the room after 12 pages.

Unknown said...

Hi Alexandra!

I think a relevant consideration here is what pop culture does with historical content. It seems classicists have had more exposure to their subject matter being put through the pop culture filter ; For the Renaissance, the mass market interest seems more recent, particularly brought about by the Dan Brown books (whether we like it or not), the Assassins Creed games and The various forms of the Borgias Tv series.

Any interest is better than no interest quite frankly. It's up to those of us with the knowledge to be able to provide some counterbalance to what is seen, from a factual perspective. It really seems the perfect thing for a blog to address.

As much as I adore seeing Florence in the 15th century rendered digitally, I am getting more of Sherlock Holmes/Indy Jones type vibe from watching this show. Anyone who enjoys those type of programs really should give this a try. Looking for art/historical references and teaching moments is quite fun, but hardly the reason why the show exists.

kind regards

Anonymous said...

It is a show for entertainment not for history buffs. It was entertaining enough to keep interest.

Nancy Ewart said...

The graphics are interesting, vivid and colorful. I am a history and art history geek so I had a very hard time ignoring all the inaccurate parts, as in everything but the visuals. I found it enjoyable but I do wonder if shows like this will bring people to the real thing - or just more of the same comic book mangling of real history.

Unknown said...

@Anon/Nancy - thank you for your comments!

Leonardo is the first Renaissance artist to have his own TV series (also recalling the BBC kids show) - is there a pop culture icon extracted from history that has not suffered distortion in the process?

This is equally about how large masses of people prefer to consume information.

"Real" history is not flicking through a scholarly tome, or sitting in a lecture hall. The closest we can get to it is an echo, on site in an archaeological context, or through archives or artworks in situ. Even then, we are steps removed from context.

People respond to television and film because of its dynamic mode of presentation (similar can be said for video games), the time when the divide between education and entertainment will be almost seamless will hopefully be coming our way. Knowledge could potentially reach many more than the the traditional text based models presently allow.

Kind Regards

Lysandwr Blaidd said...

Your article (found through a tweet byTom Riley) is an excellent examination of the show. People instantly turned off by the 'inaccuracies' they perceive probably have trouble watching *any* television, and this is clearly fantasy. That said, I was presently surprised to learn (via this article) how many details they did use correctly!
I look forward to your futute recaps, and especially the links/resources you so kindly supply. Kudos!

Anonymous said...

I'm with Hasan—I love Florence and Renaissance Italy enough that I can just take in the atmosphere. We're all pretty well informed on the history and art of the period, so, yes, it's pretty hard to enjoy any fictional work if you expect a scholar's accuracy.

Hope to see the recaps of the new season of the Borgias soon!

Marc said...

The octagonal "courtyard" of the Palazzo Medici is the staircase hall at Margam Castle (near the studios where the series was filmed in Port Talbot, South Wales) with its ceiling shorn off. Here's how it normally looks: http://www.flickr.com/photos/opobs/2671446169/ It's also, appropriately enough, popped up as "the Royal Collection" (presumably at Windsor Castle) in Doctor Who!

Out of curiosity, what is or was the "BBC kids show" about Leonardo?

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments - and welcome to 3PP!

@Lysandwr - it was nice to see the comment from the show writers via twitter aiming for this balance. It would seem obvious given all we know about Mr Goyer, yet there will always be some that can't make that separation.

Part of the issue may be the comparison with Dan Brown and the Da Vinci code, which contains that misleading (to some) statement about real names and places at the start...

Also, invariably you will find that scholars and students of the Renaissance are less used to seeing their field in popular culture, than classicists are for example. We are all still living with the legacy of the Ninja Turtles (!) and now we are beset with multiple TV series set in the Quattrocento! Naturally, some adjustment will be required, and dare I say, a new area of study be created, just as we have wonderful Pop Classicists among us.

@Anon - I am presently swamped, and am not entirely sure about the Borgias recaps. But, I will watch the first episode of Season 3 soon and hope it inspires. I hear the Lucrezia/Cesare performances are really something.

@Marc - Cheers for the Margam Castle pic - fascinating! I had a feeling it was not entirely CG. The Leonardo kids TV series featured on CBBC for two seasons, concluding in 2012. It is quite fun, and of course - being designed for kids, did not raise a murmur from pedants about its historical accuracy!

Kind Regards

Sandra said...

Ninja Turtles?! How funny! As a tourist guide precisely in Florence, and working with people that have perhaps only heard the word "Renaissance" once or twice, and have a vague idea of what it was, it is precisely their familiarity with the Ninja Turtles which I exploit to narrow the gap between them and the real deal! Hazan!! Once again, your reasoning is enriching and spot on! Kudos and gratitude!

Sedef said...

Thanks Hasan!

I loved your review as I loved the show. These shows are wonderful to pique people's curiosity and they have so far done a good job of setting an intriguing stage. Obviously scholars and intellectuals are not these type of shows' target audience, even if the realities can make just as good a story. And for the rest of us, there is this! thanks to Hasan we can share our thoughts and vent out frustrations on a more sophisticated scale. I love good historical dramas but reading your review added another dimension to my enjoyment. I am looking forward to your reviews just as much as the next episode tomorrow night.

Federico said...

Hi, I think it would be interesting hear a point of view from an Italian person :-) To be sincere, here in Italy I have read very few positive reviews of the Da Vinci's Demons show. Maybe because we took our Renaissance in a very serious manner, and even though we know that this show has no educational purposes but is merely entertainment, we find very hard to comprehend why the authors should represent Leonardo as that cocky bully that appears in the show. And we do not understand why, for entertainment purposes, authors should have put into the story a quest for that strange Book of Leaves and all that stuff such as the mysterious Turk, the predestined child, the secret sect and so on. Isn't Renaissance history engaging by itself?

Even from an entertainment point of view I found this show predicted and ordinary, so at the end I got a little bored and I thought I will not watch the next episodes (here in Italy only the first has been transmitted). I preferred a lot the Da Vinci Code... at least this was a really engaging novel (overlooking its fancy theories). And by the way: why people outside Italy insists addressing to Leonardo calling him "Da Vinci" which was not his surname? :-)

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments!

@Sandra - I am pleased you enjoyed the post and also appreciated the reference to "narrowing the gap" - this is a beautiful description of what any communicator on this topic should do. In a public forum such as this especially, I would hope that the content appeals to as diverse an audience as possible. cheers!

@Sedef - piquing curiosity is one of the great benefits of TV and movies inspired by historical people and events. The best scholars and intellectuals would equally have a style which favours a universal audience, and is engaging to follow.

@Federico - welcome back to 3PP! What do Italians think of "Da Vincis Demons"? Does this really matter. It's a TV show after all. When it comes to the handling of cultural properties, I would imagine there are more pressing concerns in Italy than what a fantasy TV show is doing with Leonardo?!

The "Da Vinci" complaint is a common one from pedants of course. It is amusing that people inside or outside of Italy never make this complaint about Caravaggio!

Many kind regards

Edward Goldberg said...

Maybe it is because I live mostly in Italy, but I am always curious regarding what Italians think (and more specifically, people in specific geographical areas) about...um..."cultural expressions" of this sort, since the reactions are often quite instructive. Is "Da Vinci's Demons" actually being broadcast in Italian? It might be a personal thing, but I always take books more seriously than television. So, I found "Da Vinci Code" to be pure agony (the only way that I could force myself to read it--after several failed attempts--was to bring nothing else with me on a transatlantic flight). By the way, I have heard that "Codice Da Vinci" (the Italian translation) works considerably better than the English original from a literary point of view--which could help explain Federico's relatively postive response. Meanwhile, I value television shows of that ilk as a guilty pleasure. You know, you make some popcorn, you invite some friends, you sit around making silly comments--and, hey, no harm done! In any case, Italian bookstores are full of really horrendous historical novels, in Italian, that are never seen outside of Italy--and they make "Da Vinci's Demons" look like five hundred page studies, translated from German, with more footnotes than text. Incidentally, by 1476, most of the streets and squares in Florence had been paved for several centuries. I need to check this out, but I believe that Piazza della Signoria had been done in brick, in a herringbone pattern.

Tiana Kai said...

I loved reading this post and all the comments! I have not watched an episode yet, but have become more intrigued. (I'm a Game of Thrones addict).

As history is not my strong point, I assume it may bother some that it is not spot on, but really... how would it be? Based on most comments and what I've read online it seems enjoyable and now that Florence is 'home' I am sure it will be fun for me to get a historical and slightly altered view on what happened on the streets of downtown. I'm sure if I was back in the states I would watch it just to feel like I'm back in Florence.

I agree about one of your comments, that maybe shows like this will at least get viewers more interested in knowing the full, true history... I still need to finish my book about Lucrezia! This show may help me get there.

Cheers! tiana

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments!

@Ed - Da Vinci's Demons is being shown in Italy, available to viewers who have a FoxTV subscription - though I am unsure of its broadcast language (The Italian wiki page for it says English but I'm not sure if there is an overdub or subtitles). Interesting to see the bare Piazza depiction was a romanticised one - thank you for clarifying! I am really enjoying the show, and spotting historical tidbits is always a fun challenge more than a source of ire.

@Tiana - I think it may be easier to enjoy the story of one did not have a deeper familiarity with the history of the period! When one studies anything for a period of time it perhaps instills a fact checking instinct, which we must learn to either switch off, or approach with a lighter disposition?

I would wonder how I would respond to see Raphael turn up in a TV show and be wildly misrepresented, but then realise that this is quite unlikely as he isn't really surrounded by as much hype as the Leonardo, Michelangelo or even Caravaggio these days!

For all those who intend to check it out - enjoy the spectacle and the story - some fun Botticelli appearances in episode 4!

Kind regards

mjensen427 said...

Great article, really loved the research!

michael thorn said...

You are very clearly homosexual!

michael thorn said...

A fantasy program isn't supposed to be historically accurate and only a dunce/fool/idiot/gobshite/cockhead would point out historical inaccuracie!

michael thorn said...

Such horror! A book you say? Across the room you say? A whole book? Ooh such daring did you tear out a page also? Even if you didn't that's still impressive what emotion you must have felt! Did you do it with a cucumber rammed into your anus?

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