Could there be any more interesting, more captivating city than Florence during the Renaissance? Home to Da Vinci, Botticelli, Machiavelli, as well as the Medici family the most powerful bankers in all of Italy?
Historical fiction seems to enjoy a special kind of popularity, from HBO’s John Adams mini series to shows like The Tudors, Rome, The Borgia’s and harkening back to “I, Claudius” people just seem to crave the political drama of days gone by, even Game of Thrones though firmly based in fiction seems to appeal in the same way.
Maybe it’s that these periods of history seem less civilized but more civil. Less clean but some what more clear with the divide between the haves and have-nots even more pronounced than now (or some might say just as pronounced). And for some strange reason we, as viewers, accept (even revel in) the idea that in these times where royal families ruled with iron wills and people died from common diseases that upstarts and free thinkers like Leonardo Da Vinci ran about flaunting their brilliance in the faces of all.
Starz’ version of the Maestro is reminiscent of BBC’s Casanova, bash and adventurous, but darker more mad and intense. Leonardo (played brilliantly by Tom Riley) is an odd, impassioned, brilliant, brave malcontent who while striving for greatness steps on toes and causes trouble (for himself as well as others) almost categorically.
If he was just this, just a brash young arrogant misanthrope, the show would fall flat on its ass. But this is not the case. Series creator David S. Goyer’s (co-writer of the Dark Knight Trilogy and Man of Steel) has gone to great pains to show us the Da Vinci represented by writings (including Leonardo’s own) of the period. While I watched the first episode and saw Leonardo strap his young apprentice Nico (Eros Vlahos, one of the many characters you’ll meet who are more than they seem) into his human kite contraption and send him into the air I thought, oh please like that happened. Guess what, it did. Numerous times. In real life the experiment even resulted in breaking both the legs of one of Leo’s close friends. That’s the magic of this show for me. The things I would dismiss as “storytelling” turn out to be truths, others of course are half-truths and exaggerations. This is historical fiction, so that’s to be expected and part of the fun.
Season one’s plot follows Leonardo’s journey through his life in search of greatness as well as embroiling us in a mystery. His lifelong fascination with his mother’s disappearance and a half remembered experience in a cave as a child make Leo very susceptible to the secret organization, The Brotherhood of Mythras, and their quest for book known as “The Book of Leaves”. Once our hero hears that the book and the quest for it may give him answers, he quickly becomes obsessed.
It isn’t smooth sailing. There’s a conspiracy at the Vatican, the Pope (played by the menacing James Faulkner) and some of his cronies (including the suitably creepy Girolamo Riario played by Blake Ritson) are protecting the “Secret Archives”, a treasure trove of knowledge, and they’re going to make sure Leo doesn’t find the answers he seeks. All the while working to overthrow the city-state of Florence and remove the Medici from power.
A mad creator! An evil government conspiracy! Florence in the 1400’s! Political intrigue, sex and violence are everywhere in this attractively filmed well acted drama. It’s just chock-full of the things that make a show like this a must watch. How can this get any better? Well season two premieres in October*, so I guess we’ll find out!
*Correction – the Admin over at tom-riley.com pointed out that season two is actually set to première in Spring of 2014 – Here’s hoping we get a sneak peek in October at the NYCC panel!
Want to see for yourself? Watch the first episode for free at Starz’ site for Free Full Episodes!
Or you could buy the first season on DVD! I highly recommend it!