By Carol Memmott
The original Renaissance man gets the superhero treatment in Starz's original eight-part miniseriesDa Vinci's Demons,created by David S. Goyer, co-writer of theDark Knighttrilogy, which recast the Batman legend, and the upcoming Superman film reboot,Man of Steel.
"I think Leonardo da Vinci, Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent share similarities, in that they are all mythic figures," says Goyer, who wrote the series and directed the first two episodes.
"Even though da Vinci was a real person, he exists in this rarefied place in people's consciousness. In that regard, my experience adapting Batman and Superman gave me a good training ground to look at da Vinci's life with a critical and mythic eye," Goyer says.
Da Vinci's Demonspremieres Friday at 10 ET/PT, after the series finale ofSpartacus: War of the Damned. In following weeks, it moves to 9 ET/PT.
The series centers on the artist, scientist, musician and architect at age 25, long before the artistic and scientific achievements that would make him one of the most celebrated men in history. It's a period of his life about which little is known, and it opened the door for Goyer to wrap a limited amount of history in cloaks of fantasy, mysticism, intrigue, action and adventure. "When people see the show, they're surprised that it's so swashbuckling and fun," Goyer says.
In Goyer's imagining of the young da Vinci, mysteries, codes and secret societies play a big part. "Not just because of Dan Brown, but certainly that helped," he says, referring to Brown's blockbuster novelThe Da Vinci Code.
"These things have always been synonymous with da Vinci," says Goyer. "It's why I'm calling the show a historical fantasy and why, in the first few minutes of the first episode, when one of the characters says 'history is a lie,' it's because I'm telling the audience I'm going to mess with you. I'm going to manipulate you."
Set in Renaissance Florence in the 15th century, the series actually was filmed in Swansea, a coastal area of Wales. Richly detailed sets and costumes, as well as a generous helping of computer graphics, give the series an authentic feel. In the first episode alone, says Goyer, there are 400 CGI interior and exterior shots that bring ancient Florence to life.
"This is the untold story, the other side of da Vinci that you don't see or hear spoken about as often - the engineer side, the anatomist side and the war engineer," says British actor Tom Riley, a 2011 Tony nominee for his work in Broadway'sArcadia, who plays da Vinci.
Riley hopes the show dispels most people's narrowly defined image of da Vinci as a craggy old man with long gray hair.
"It's filling in elements of his life with a more fantastical through-line based on stuff that was going on in Florence and Italy and Europe at that time."
And as in any great adventure series, Goyer says, he wanted his da Vinci embroiled in a mythical search. "In any good quest story, you need a quest object," he says. "Ultimately, I felt like Leonardo da Vinci needs to be looking for something that has to do with forbidden knowledge or knowledge that's been lost."
Goyer's answer: da Vinci's search for the (fictional) Book of Leaves, a tome said to contain the secrets of the universe. Goyer's inspiration was a 15th-century manuscript discovered by a rare-book dealer 100 years ago that has never been deciphered. And he's not the only one in pursuit: Count Girolamo Riario (Blake Ritson), Pope Sixtus IV's nephew, will stop at nothing to acquire the book and unlock its secrets.
Also entangled inDemons'web is Florence's most famous family, the Medicis, with Elliot Cowan starring as Lorenzo Medici, head of the Medici bank and de facto ruler of Florence, whose mistress Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock)also is having an affair with da Vinci.
The young genius is commissioned as Medici's war engineer, building weapons, including the first machine gun, as the specter of war looms between the papal states of Rome and Florence. Assassins, spies, murders and conspiracy all flourish in the story line.
And Goyer is pleased that current events may pique people's interest inDa Vinci's Demons.
"I'd be lying if I said the fact that the pope retiring and a new pope being elected three weeks before our show wasn't fortuitous," he says. "I think it's great for us as well that da Vinci's manuscripts were recently put online (on the British Library website, www.bl.uk) for everyone to see. It's not like we timed it, but we hopefully just got lucky."