The enigma of da Vinci

By Frazier Moore

A new television series turns Leonardo da Vinci into a 15th-century Tony Stark, writes Frazier Moore.

In the 500 years since his death, Leonardo da Vinci has upstaged every genius multi-tasker in his wake. Da Vinci was a whizz as a painter, a scientist and engineer, and a futurist fighting the gravitational pull of his own times.

He was an intellect, free-thinker, vegetarian and a humanist who supported himself designing weapons of war.

He was tall, handsome and a hit with the ladies. He was great with a sword and, being ambidextrous, which hand didn't matter.

"The phrase 'Renaissance Man' was derived from him," says David S. Goyer, who has spent a lot of time pondering him, and has created Da Vinci's Demons, a sci-fi thriller set in the 1400s.

Another cool thing about da Vinci: he was a man of intrigue, ensconced in secret societies, his paternity unresolved (he was born out of wedlock), perhaps divinely inspired as he clashed with the Roman Catholic Church - a man who seemed to defy the confinements of any simple narrative.

"There's a tantalising five-year gap, stretching from when he was 27 to 32, where there's almost no record of where he was or what he was doing," says Goyer.

"A gap like that is gold when you're the creator of this show."

Da Vinci's Demons is a "historical fantasy", says Goyer, who should be up to the challenge.

Goyer's credits include the short-lived but ambitious sci-fi thriller FlashForward. He co-wrote the Dark Knight trilogy and the screenplay for the Zack Snyder-directed Man of Steel.

In Goyer's view, da Vinci was a prototype superhero: "I picture him as one-third Indiana Jones, one-third Sherlock Holmes, one-third Tony Stark (Iron Man) - and he kind of was."

To play this extraordinary chap, Goyer chose English-born actor Tom Riley, whose main previous screen credit was a supporting role in the British TV medical drama Monroe.

Goyer says he hit upon doing a show about da Vinci only by chance. He had never done anything historical before, and when cable channel Starz asked him to create a drama focused on a towering figure from the past, at he first demurred.

A number of possible candidates were considered for what was now envisioned as a "reinvention-of-history show".

"Then I realised no one's ever done a show about da Vinci. That's crazy. People say he's the most recognised figure in history other than Jesus Christ."

To prepare for the series, Goyer says he read dozens of biographies, da Vinci's journal pages and many of his letters.

He has written or co-written all eight episodes of season one and directed the first two episodes of the show, which re-creates 15th-century Florence in a studio in Wales.

But even as it revisits the past, the show, like da Vinci, is forward-looking.

"The central conflict is about who controls information," Goyer says. "On the one hand, you've got the Vatican Secret Archives. The Church wants to control the information. On the other hand, shortly before our show starts, Gutenberg invented the printing press.

"This is a modern-day touchstone that viewers can identify with. If da Vinci were alive today, his slogan would be, 'Information wants to be free'."

Who: David S. Goyer, writer and director
What: Da Vinci's Demons
Where: The Box, Sky TV
When: Thursday 8.35pm

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- TimeOut / AP

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