What is the story about?
Facing trial in prison for the murder of his muse and lover, Caterina da Cremona, acclaimed Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci awaits his hanging. As Officer Stefano Giraldi keeps trying to coax a confession out of Leonardo, Leonardo recounts his humble beginnings as an artist and his relationship with Caterina. While Leonardo keeps narrating his story and awaiting his death, Stefano starts wondering whether Leonardo is really speaking the truth, or whether there is more than meets the eye.
When one thinks of Leonardo da Vinci, the word "Monalisa" immediately comes to mind. However, it is certainly intriguing to think of him as a murder suspect. Creators Frank Spotnitz and Steve Thompson use this gambit to frame Leonardo, where Leonardo is narrating his life to Stefano almost as a confession. The phrase "historical fiction" perfectly sits well with this series, because, in terms of accuracy to history and accounts, it runs contrary to what has been discovered about the great Renaissance artist till now. There is no actual evidence to show that Caterina de Cremona really existed, or if she had any offspring, or if Leonardo had any relationship with Caterina. Yet Spotnitz and Thompson use the character of Caterina to paper over any cracks in the gaps surrounding the narrative of da Vinci.
Once you get over these issues and submit to the vision of the writers, the series truly shines. The Milan of yore, which attained its creative and cultural peak during the Renaissance, truly comes alive in the show. Against this backdrop is the tortuous existence of Leonardo, who always strives for perfection, and yet is flabbergasted when people tell him he has achieved perfection. The Monalisa features almost as a footnote here, but it is the making of The Last Supper that makes this series come alive. The attention to detail in the production design is insane, and I suspect the involvement of Italian broadcaster Rai in the production helped matters. The series constantly shifts between historical drama and murder mystery, with Stefano's investigation taking up a considerable amount of screen time. If you can discount historical inaccuracies and want a gorgeously-made historical drama, pick out the biggest screen possible and watch this.
This series would not be effective at all without Aidan Turner's superbly-etched Leonardo. As the perennially-tormented artist whose addiction for perfection and idealism touches all his work, Turner is a knockout. Matilda de Angelis is alternately charming and haunting as Caterina. Italian legend Giancarlo Giannini is impressive as Verrocchio, Leonardo's teacher. Carlos Cuevas lends able support as Salai, Leonardo's assistant. James D'Arcy is menacing as Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan and Leonardo's patron, who becomes an antagonist. The only discordant note in the casting comes from the performance of Freddie Highmore. As Stefano Giraldi, he tries hard, but looks too non-threatening for a law enforcer.
Music & Other Departments
The cinematography by Steve Jones and Alessandro Pesci is top-notch. Domenico Sica's production design and Carlo Serafin's art direction are terrific. John Paesano's background score is decent.
The scenes showing Leonardo at work are painstakingly crafted.
How well you receive the series will depend on whether or not you can stomach the fact that Caterina might not have existed in real life. Leonardo da Vinci was known to have been homosexual, or maybe even bisexual, according to various accounts. It is certainly a risky gamble to peg an entire narrative on.
Did I enjoy it?
Yes. It is mostly engrossing.
Do I recommend it?
If you want a gorgeously-shot Renaissance mashup of romance, history and murder mystery, watch this show. A better suggestion would be to watch this on a bigger screen.