Born in the middle of the 15th century, during the Renaissance, artist and visionary Leonardo da Vinci was one of the most brilliant and restless minds of a glittering and restive age.
One would think that sticking 100 percent of the time to the facts of the life of a man described by contemporary Giorgio Vasari as having a “beauty of body never sufficiently extolled,” an “infinite grace” and “great bodily strength,” with a “spirit and courage ever royal and magnanimous” would be enough for a dramatic cable series.
And that’s not even mentioning the major works of art he’s known best for: the enigmatic portrait “Mona Lisa,” the reverent and yet dynamic “The Last Supper,” and one of the most famous pen-and-ink drawings of all time, depicting the beauty of proper proportions, called ‘Vitruvian Man.”
On Friday, April 12, Starz premieres “Da Vinci’s Demons,” a creation of writer David S. Goyer (“Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight,” “The Dark Knight Rises”), that uses the life of Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley) as a jumping-off point for an extravagantly produced historical fantasy that reimagines him as a womanizing swashbuckler searching for the mythical “Book of Leaves” with the help of a possibly — or probably — imaginary figure called The Turk (Alexander Siddig).
In Goyer’s mind, the comic book parallels are obvious.
“There are some parallels to Batman,” he says. “He had big father issues, you know, missing parent. Obviously, both obsessed with flight. Both had these formative horrific incidents where they were trapped in caves — or, in Batman’s case, a well.
“There was one that da Vinci wrote about in his own journals when he was 13 where something happened in a cave. We don’t know exactly what happened. He sketched it, and he said that, sort of, something horrific happened to him in a cave. And that’s something we explore in this show.
“I also thought it was interesting that Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, originally based da Vinci’s — I’m sorry — Batman’s cape on da Vinci’s glider. So there are sort of two figures that have always been kind of inextricably linked.”
Among Goyer’s colorful cast of figures in decadent Florence, Italy (some based loosely on history), are Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock), the mistress of Lorenzo Medici (Elliot Cowan); Count Girolamo Riario (Blake Ritson), a nephew of Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner, in a scenery-chewing portrayal) transformed here into the pontiff’s pious, secret son; Clarice Orsini (Lara Pulver), Lorenzo’s devoted and devout wife; thief and grave robber Zoroaster (Gregg Chillin); barmaid/model Vanessa (Hera Hilmar); teenage apprentice Nico Machiavelli (Eros Vlahos); bon vivant Giuliano Medici (Tom Bateman); and painter, sculptor and architect Andrea Verrocchio (Allan Corduner).
What is true is that Leonardo da Vinci was a bit of an intellectual hummingbird, landing on different pursuits just long enough to get a taste but not often sticking around to become an accomplished master.
It’s a testament to his native genius, then, that the things he actually finished — aside from reams of journal entries and sketches of ingenious inventions and the intricacies of the body and the natural world — are deathless works of art.
“He was so mercurial,” says Riley, “and so much was written about how his mind flitted from one thing to the next, and how frustrated he got, how charming he could be when necessary, and then how angry he would get.
“To get to play all these different things in one role, in one job, that’s a gift.”
As to what he might think of this version of Leonardo if he met him in life, Riley says, “How you would feel when you met him is like a hundred different people at once — depends on what day you met him.”
Vasari describes the aging and ill Leonardo as desiring to learn about Catholicism and struggling to his feet to receive communion. So it seems the hedonistic humanist eventually found his way to faith.
By contrast, Pulver’s character stands firm in her beliefs right from the beginning.
“She was of noble birth,” says Pulver, “so she entered into an arranged marriage with Lorenzo Medici, controversially, really, because she was very much a woman of the church.
“She was entering this very freethinking, Bohemian world of Florence at that time. Many people had opinions and looked down on her strong beliefs.”
According to Pulver, that doesn’t faze Clarice Orsini.
“She’s the first person I’ve ever played,” she says, “who knows exactly who she is, and she’s so OK with who she is. Therefore other people’s opinions, criticisms, slightly wash over her, because she knows who she is, she knows what she stands for, and she’s able to keep her cards very close to her chest.
“She’s a very clever, shrewd businesswoman and politician. She delivers that knowledge or that trump card whenever her husband or Leonardo da Vinci needs her to.”