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Leonardo: the real history behind the new Renaissance drama

As a new drama starring Aidan Turner reimagines the life of the Renaissance artist over an eight-episode series, we take a closer look at the historical detail that features in the show, hear from the show’s creators on the real inspiration, and separate fact from fiction here…

Aidan Turner as Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci, as played by Aidan Turner in new period drama Leonardo, is a man out of his time. He imagines the world from above, sees pioneering cinematic compositions on blank walls, designs war machines that will not be fully realised by other minds until centuries later. Yet this Leonardo is also erratic, and hamstrung by his quest for perfection.

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It is true that the painter often delayed and procrastinated, taking years to complete many of his famous works and leaving countless more unfinished. Bringing humanity to the universally accepted fact of Leonardo’s genius is a new drama, written by Frank Spotnitz and Steve Thompson. But how do you create a 21st-century drama that conveys the ground-breaking nature of Leonardo’s work?

“It was hugely exciting task, but also a very difficult one, because there’s not just one Leonardo genius,” explains Leonardo writer Steve Thompson (also known as a writer on BBC One’s Sherlock). “There are many; he was an extraordinary artist ahead of his time, but also an inventor and an engineer, and an astronomer and a mathematician.” The greatest task for them was deciding which story to tell, he explains.

Eight pieces of art, they decided, would form the spine of the narrative, and the drama plays with many themes that in reality preoccupied Leonardo da Vinci throughout his career: the workings of light and vision; emotional interaction between figures; the careful observation of the natural world; and the depiction of ideal beauty.

Matilda De Angelis, Aidan Turner and Freddie Highmore in new drama ‘Leonardo’
Matilda De Angelis, Aidan Turner and Freddie Highmore in new drama ‘Leonardo’. (Image by ©Fabio Lovino)

“We were always looking for not just the important pieces of art, but the ones that had great stories attached to them,” says Spotnitz (whose previous writing includes The X Files and The Man in the High Castle). “If there’s a great human story behind the attempt to create the art, then it makes it easier to attach the process to that human struggle that you’re emotionally engaged with watching.”

Running alongside the origin stories of works such as the Last Supper and the portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci,and of course Mona Lisa, is the human story of Leonardo’s life – albeit one woven with supposition and fiction. It’s a choice established from the opening moments of episode one as we find Leonardo in a jail cell, accused of murder – which never happened. The series flashes back to key moments in Leonardo’s life and significant work, relying – as much historical drama does – upon finding the gaps in stories that allow for imagination.

Leonardo is available on Amazon Prime Video now – you can sign up for Amazon Prime here with a 30-day free trial. Looking for something else to watch? Explore our full round-up of the best historical TV and film available to stream right now, or the new history TV and radio airing in the UK this month.

As dramatists, that's incredibly exciting because you're almost being invited to fill in the blanks

“All of the biographies we read about Leonardo are incomplete, and many of them choose at various points to speculate and say: ‘These are the facts’,” explains Thompson. “As dramatists, that’s incredibly exciting because you’re almost being invited to fill in the blanks.”

There are many enjoyable ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ nuggets of real historical detail – when Turner’s Leonardo questions whether there is meat in a dish, some viewers may remember that there is some enticing evidence that suggests Leonardo was a vegetarian. In the artist’s first meeting with Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan (a man soon to become Leonardo’s patron), the duke mentions that the left-hand angel in Andrea del Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ was likely painted by someone who was left-handed, which Leonardo was. Many art historians agree that it was by Leonardo’s hand, and its great beauty prompted fierce jealousy in Verrocchio.

The Baptism of Christ painted by Verrocchio and assistants
The Baptism of Christ (1475–78) by Verrocchio and assistants. Leonardo’s skilfully painted angel (far left) was said to have made his master jealous. (Photo by DeAgostini /Getty Images)

But the drama uses many historical elements in broader ways to explore facets of Leonardo as a character, from his unstable existence pitching work to patrons, to his reaction to personal tragedy. Below, we dig into the main questions that will help separate fact from fiction.

Warning, spoilers ahead


Was Leonardo ‘illegitimate’?

Yes, he was the illegitimate son of Florentine lawyer Ser Piero da Vinci and a young peasant. But his illegitimacy was not a serious hindrance, writes Maya Corry. “While the Church stridently condemned sex outside marriage, the realities of life, love and lust meant that many children were the result of such unions.”

Though Leonardo’s relationship with his father is portrayed as strained in the drama, Leonardo was welcomed into his father’s home and provided for alongside Ser Piero’s legitimate offspring. However, his illegitimate birth did mean that he could not follow his father and become a notary, so Leonardo was apprenticed to Florentine painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio.

Giancarlo Giannini as Andrea del Verrocchio in 'Leonardo'. (Image ©Fabio Lovino)
Giancarlo Giannini as Andrea del Verrocchio in ‘Leonardo’. (Image ©Fabio Lovino)

 

Was Caterina de Cremona a real person?

The historical evidence for Caterina de Cremona (played by Matilda De Angelis) is slim. In the show, Caterina is a close friend and confidant of the artist, and her story forms a significant part of the drama; in the first episode, Caterina is found dead of alleged poisoning, and Leonardo is the main suspect. Theirs is a relationship that shapes the entire series.

Her character is a composite figure inspired by a sliver of factual evidence that does appear in the historical evidence of Leonardo’s life, surfaced in a 2004 biography by Charles Nicholl.

Caterina de Cremona (played by Matilda de Angelis)
Caterina de Cremona (played by Matilda de Angelis) is a composite figure inspired by a sliver of factual evidence that does appear in the historical evidence of Leonardo’s life. (Image ©FabioLovino)

Scribbled in the corner of geometrical designs and anatomical studies at Windsor, writes Nicholl, is a list of six names – one of which is Chermonese – from which Nicholl concludes that in Leonardo’s retinue in 1509 was someone from Cremona. Nicholl writes: “We have here, I believe, a sighting of a mysterious woman called Cremona, with whom Leonardo was involved in some undefined way.” Nicholl goes on to speculate on the woman’s presence in Leonardo’s party – an artists’ model, a romantic partner? – and it is this note that inspired Thompson and Spotnitz. “Various biographers have speculated about who she might be,” says Thompson. “Could she be the model represented in perhaps one of his greatest works, Leda and the Swan?”

“We knew from this scrap of paper that this woman was important to Leonardo,” adds Spotnitz. “It’s an act of imagination to recover her from history and imagine who she might have been. And in so doing, we are able to shine a light on Leonardo’s soul.

“We found that was a really powerful way to help the audience understand what it must have been like to have been Leonardo and what his art might have meant to him.”

 

Was Leonardo accused of sodomy? 

Yes. On 9 April 1476, Leonardo da Vinci was accused of sodomy in an anonymous report to the Florentine authorities. The nearly 24-year-old Leonardo was one of four men said to have had sex with the 17-year-old Jacopo Saltarelli, a well-known male sex worker in Florence – though the charges were later dropped.

“Only about 20 per cent of those accused of sodomy were actually convicted,” writes Catherine Fletcher, “and it was not until the fourth offence that jail became a possibility.”

Though it’s true there was religious hostility towards the charge of sodomy, a factor in the drama that leads to Leonardo’s dismissal from Verrocchio’s workshop.

Did Leonardo have a relationship with his apprentice Salaì?

“We believe that Leonardo was gay, and we depict him as a gay man in this series,” Frank Spotnitz told HistoryExtra. “He never has sex with Caterina. But there is still a love there and she’s an inspiration to him.”

Leonardo’s most prominent romantic (and possibly sexual) attachment depicted in the show is with his apprentice, Gian Giacomo Caprotti, known as Salaì (a nickname, meaning ‘little devil’). In reality this is the relationship, writes Catherine Fletcher, that has prompted most speculation, though it’s not one sits comfortably with modern sensibilities. Salaì was 10 years old when he joined the then 38-year-old Leonardo’s workshop as an assistant in 1490. He remained in Leonardo’s household until almost Leonardo’s death.

A portrait of a boy suspected to be Salaì by Leonardo da Vinci
A portrait of a boy suspected to be Salaì by Leonardo da Vinci. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Such relationships between older and younger men were common to Leonardo’s time – “this pederastic model was typical of same-sex relationships in Renaissance Florence,” says Fletcher, “with the younger man often aged between 12 and 18.” But even with that context, it’s not an easily palatable truth to convey in a 21st-century period drama, and so though Leonardo and Salaì (played by Carlos Cuevas) differ in sensibility and background, in the show they are portrayed as more equal in age.

How did Leonardo da Vinci paint the Last Supper?

In the drama, we see Leonardo reject the prevalent 15th-century techniques of painting fresco, a method that meant that the work had to be completed rapidly and using pigment mixed with water and sometimes egg yolk on moist plaster. In reality, Leonardo did develop a new technique that allowed him to apply the pigment at his own pace, experimenting with other water and oil-based mediums.

The Last Supper, likely painted between 1495 and 1498 for the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, would become one of the artist’s most famous works and it gave Leonardo the opportunity to put his religious theories on display.

Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper
The ‘Last Supper’, painted at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

“It allowed him to explore visually his beliefs about how the body communicates inner states of being,” writes Maya Corry. “His notes are full of assertions that the painter ought to be constantly aware of how the motions of the mind are visible in bodily movements, gestures and facial expressions.”

Disciples’ characteristics are marked by their body language, with vivid depictions of their astonishment at Christ’s announcement that one of them would betray him.

The picture’s fame spread but, as the character of fellow artist Tomaso Massini foreshadows, Leonardo’s new technique did have implications for his work. The Last Supper soon began to degrade; paint had begun to flake off even during the artist’s lifetime. The painting underwent a significant restoration effort in the late 1990s, a project not without controversy – virtually none of the original paint remains. Today it can still be seen on the wall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie, though as the painting remains fragile, visitors are allotted 15 minutes to view the mural in groups of no more than 30 people.

 

Did Ludovico Sforza poison his nephew?

Leonardo gained commissions from a range of patrons of widely differing social statuses. Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, is one of a number of Leonardo’s patrons featured in the series, along with his wife, Beatrice d’Este, and later Cesare Borgia (though missing from Leonardo’s set of patrons in the drama is the influential Isabelle d’Este, sister of Beatrice).

Leonardo always sought stable employment with patrons who would allow him the freedom to pursue his extraordinary range of artistic and scientific interests, and he was employed by Sforza and later patrons for his design of machinery as much as artistic talent. “For Sforza, da Vinci designed several bridges, including a revolving bridge for use by armies on the move. With wheels, a rope-and-pulley system and a counterweight tank for balance, it could be packed away and transported,” writes Marina Wallace.

James D'Arcy as Ludovico Sforza
James D’Arcy as Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, in ‘Leonardo’. (Image by ©Fabio Lovino)

Though he did gain the longed-for salary and stability from Sforza, in the drama, Caterina and later Leonardo are prompted to flee from the Milanese court when the duke’s young nephew is brutally poisoned.

Portrayed as ruthless and unpredictable, Ludovico Sforza (played by James D’Arcy) had gained power as the Duke of Milan in 1476 after the assassination of his elder brother Galeazzo Maria Sforza, who was stabbed by Milanese conspirators. Ludovico’s rule began by acting as regent on behalf of his brother’s eldest son, seven-year-old Gian Galeazzo, though he later sought to legitimise his rule through marriage to his niece, Bianca Maria.

However, Ludovico’s power was still contentious and there were calls for him to cede power to Gian Galeazzo, the rightful ruler of Milan. Gian Galeazzo left Milan to establish a court at Pavia. A struggle ensued as the various claims were supported, an episode which, as in the show, did end in the premature death of Gian Galeazzo in 1494. His death was viewed as suspicious; Renaissance historian Francesco Guicciardini suggested that he was poisoned at the order of his uncle.

But Gian Galeazzo was 25 when he died, rather than the isolated teenager portrayed in the show, and also had his own family; he had married his cousin Isabella of Naples and fathered four children. 

 

Did Leonardo and Michelangelo have a rivalry?

The pair were a generation apart, and yet as two of the master artists of the Renaissance age they formed a rivalry, one which is widely accepted to have begun when Leonardo was appointed to a committee to determine where in Florence to place Michelangelo’s statue of David.

In October 1503, the Republican government of Florence commissioned Leonardo to paint a mural of the battle of Anghiari. This mural was to decorate part of one wall of the main council chamber in the Palazzo Vecchio – the seat of Florentine government. A year later, Michelangelo was commissioned in competition with Leonardo to fresco another section of this room. It’s amid this setting that the drama chooses to set the main stage of the artists’ clear divergence of principle.

“Leonardo believed the painter’s job was to remake nature through a profound study and understanding of it, just as the aspiring aeronautical engineer’s job was to understand the flight of birds and bats so as to fabricate a great artificial uccello (bird),” writes Martin Kemp. “Michelangelo, by contrast, adhered to a philosophy that was strongly Platonic in flavour. Instead, the focus was on the soul within the body, and the striving of human insight to transcend our mortal limits.”

The battle of Anghiari
A drawing by Rubens, based on the central portion of Leonardo’s now lost painting of the battle of Anghiari. (Image by Alamy)

As in the drama, payments from the time show how Leonardo prepared the wall in the Palazzo Vecchio for painting. The materials he purchased in April 1505 indicate that he proposed to paint not in the traditional fresco technique, but with oil-based pigments on dry plaster. This was a mistake: on 6 June, torrential rain caused his cartoon (a full-scale preparatory drawing for a fresco) to come unstuck, and – perhaps due to defective linseed oil – his paint dripped off the wall after he lit a fire to dry it out. In the drama, this adds fuel to the already tense relationship between Leonardo and Michelangelo.

But, as depicted in the series, there was a truce and even understanding of sorts that evolved. “Their art was in productive dialogue in Florence during the early years of the 16th century, and in Rome while Leonardo was in the holy city between 1513 and 1516,” writes Kemp. Leonardo’s art exercised obvious influence on Michelangelo. When he returned to Florence from Rome in his mid-thirties, “Michelangelo was demonstrably affected by what his rival Leonardo was doing.”

For more of the real history behind the latest historical dramas, check out the realities of Victorian London that underpin Netflix’s Sherlock Holmes-spinoff The Irregulars, and explore the real relationship between fossil hunter Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison in Ammonite, now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) and Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) in Francis Lee's new film 'Ammonite'. (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate UK / See-Saw Films)

Did Leonardo create an aerial map of Imola?

Yes, as the drama chooses to show, Leonardo did create a highly accurate, colour-coded map of the strategically important town of Imola, during a period in which his patron was warlord Cesare Borgia (played by Max Bennett), son of Pope Alexander VI. In 1502, Borgia directed Leonardo to serve as his consultant on military architecture, which led to Leonardo’s innovative map.

“Up until that point,” explains Steve Thompson, “most maps, like the famous map of London, had all been side views. But you can see all the buildings from the side and therefore some of them are obscured. Borgia asked him to draw a map of Imola in order to strengthen the defences for the coming war. Leonardo again had a vision, almost an artistic vision. How could you create a map with God’s eyes?”

As depicted in the show, the Florentine republic also employed Leonardo to manage the diversion of the river Arno and fortify Piombino, a city on the coast.

An accurate map of Imola, made for Cesare Borgia
An accurate map of Imola, made for Cesare Borgia. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

 

Who was the woman who sat for Mona Lisa?

Contemporaries spoke with admiration of Leonardo’s ability to encapsulate an individual’s inner world in a single image, and he often employed symbolism to highlight the inner emotions of his sitter, as shown in the drama when he paints juniper in the background of Ginevra de’ Benci’s portrait. Juniper was used to symbolise ‘virtue’ in Renaissance Italy, and also could also have been a play on Ginevra’s name.

Mona Lisa began as a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo (maiden name Lisa Gherardini), who was the wife of a Florentine merchant, Francesco del Giocondo. “He was quite upwardly mobile and evidently saw having a portrait of his wife by one of Florence’s star artists as quite an attractive thing,” says Catherine Fletcher. “The interesting thing about Mona Lisa is that Francesco del Giocondo never got his painting.”

Leonardo da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa'
Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ began as a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Leonardo took the painting with him when he moved to France. One argument, Fletcher explains, is that though Mona Lisa was seemingly commissioned originally as a portrait, by the end of its existence it was not really a portrait of a real woman anymore, as the features had become so idealised. Either way, the work held significant meaning for Leonardo – it was one of three portraits he kept with him when he went to France, along with Saint John the Baptist and a Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.

Did Leonardo have children?

No, Leonardo had no children, though one of the elements of the drama plays on this tantalising possibility.

How did Leonardo da Vinci die?

Legend has it that Leonardo da Vinci died in the arms of King Francis I of France, such was the king’s admiration and pride for the artist’s presence at his court. Leonardo had moved to live in France in 1516, at the invitation of the king. Leonardo died at the Château du Clos Lucé, in Amboise in France, on 2 May 1519, aged 67.

A tomb bearing Leonardo da Vinci's epitaph
A tomb bearing Leonardo da Vinci’s epitaph at Chateau d’Amboise, Loire Valley, France. (Photo by: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

He was buried in the palace church of Saint-Florentin, but due its demolition during the French Revolution in the late 18th century, the exact location of his grave no longer remains. A skeleton, found with some inscriptions on a fragment of stone which contained letters of da Vinci’s name, was moved to the chapel of Saint-Hubert, and a tomb bearing Leonardo’s epitaph can be visited today.

Leonardo is available on Amazon Prime Video now. You can sign up for Amazon Prime for £7.99 a month with a 30-day free trial.

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Elinor Evans is acting digital editor of HistoryExtra.com