“I’m Leonardo da Vinci. Revolutionary painter, artist and visionary, of the Republic of Florence.”
The term “Renaissance man” is often used to describe a person who has a very wide range of interests in which they have become quite skilled. It’s taken from the traits of the many artists, innovators and writers of the 15th century. And while the term might well apply to any number of such historical figures, there is none for whom it is more apt than Leonardo DaVinci.
He might not have been the first to imagine human flight, but he was the first to sketch models of aircraft that actually could achieve it. He invented military weapons such as the tank, fragmentation bombs, and multi-barreled cannons. And like the scientists who developed and tested the first atomic weapons in the deserts of Nevada, he spent much of his later years frightened by the prospects of his own genius. Some considered him mad. He was quite the ladies’ man; he left us with an image of the most famous woman in history, and no one even knows her name. We merely refer to her as Mona Lisa. Rich history and character like this could not long be ignored by the powers that be in Hollywood. Enter Starz’s original series Da Vinci’s Demons and the release of Season 2 on Blu-ray. It’s been nearly a year and a half since the release of the first season.
The season takes Leonardo to places the historical man never saw. In his quest for the elusive Book Of Leaves he journeys to the New World with none other than Amerigo Vespucci, the cartographer from whom two continents and a nation derive their names. Of course, none of this jives with history, but this does make for some very interesting television. In The New World Leonardo meets a native princess, played by Carolina Guerra, who is absolutely captivating in the role. The new locations also open up the show to some truly amazing vistas and provide a strong counterpart to the machinations back in Europe. There’s more than a little Indiana Jones here as Leonardo must make his way through ancient traps using the riddles that have been passed down to the native peoples. While he does finally enter the fabled Vault of Heaven, he discovers not his book, but a family connection that is sure to drive the third season quite strongly.
One of the best aspects of this story is that Leonardo and Count Riario (Ritson) find that they have to work together both to survive and to have any chance of finding the book. Of course, they each have their own purpose in searching for the book.
The European story is less interesting but still not without its own intrigue. The Vatican has attempted several times to take Florence and release the Medici control. The move causes a search for new alliances that could change the dynamics of the entire Italian peninsula. There will be the expected betrayals. There is also the introduction of a new de Medici in Carlo, played by Ray Fearon. His introduction will become a huge part of the season’s cliffhanger and promises to become even more a part of the third season.
The theme this season is very much that of Icarus, and not only forbidden knowledge but the theme of the sins of the father. There is a ton of references to the Greek story, and it even figures into episode titles.
Vanessa (Hilmar) gets to come from out of Leonardo’s shadow while he is off on his travels. She now is pregnant with the heir to the Medici empire and is brought into that house for the protection of her and the child. It’s not something she is at first comfortable with. Credit actress Hera Hilmar for showing some nice evolution of the character to the place she ends up occupying by the end of the season.
There is a strong trend in television shows these days to depict famous historical figures in their younger days, the moments of their lives less chronicled, the days before they reached the kind of fame or notoriety that allows their names to pass through history unforgotten. It doesn’t even matter if they are real or fictional. Lately shows have delivered young, yet unknown versions of Al Capone and Henry VIII along with the likes of Norman Bates or Hannibal Lecter. Da Vinci’s Demons introduces us to a young Leonardo, played by Tom Riley, who is has allied himself with the Medici family, rulers of the city-state of Florence.
Riley is a rather interesting choice for the part. He certainly has an impressive range as an actor, essential to this part. He plays Da Vinci as both inspired and eternally frustrated. He finds his genius as much a curse as a blessing. It’s likely true that Da Vinci’s own frustrations grew out of others’ inability to see what was as clear as day to him. He was a bastard son, which meant he had a social stigma to overcome as well. Riley’s Da Vinci is certainly on the edge of madness. He is haunted by the drug-induced dreams of a mysterious Al-Rahim, played By Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Alexander Siddig. We don’t really know if this man is real or not. This season his dreams are also populated by a mysterious bull figure that will be revealed at season’s end.
Da Vinci is played as more of a quirky detective than artist. He’s actually pretty frustrated with art at this point and is more obsessed with his quest. In fact, his relationship with Riario is very much like a Holmes/ Moriarty dynamic. As Da Vinci puzzles out his mysteries we see flashes of symbols and animations meant to show us his brain functioning. Slow-motion birds in flight capture Da Vinci’s thoughts as they reveal their secrets of flight. Sketches illustrate his process as he comes to another brilliant conclusion. These things appear all around the screen as if Da Vinci himself were studying them in the air around him. At times it’s distracting, at times somewhat illuminating. While the performance is certainly strong, Riley looks and acts too much like a modern character to be believable as Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s a captivating performance that just never really fits the character. Instead I find myself relating to him as more of a Monk or Castle character than the historical Da Vinci. He’s also quite the talented swashbuckler with a sword.
The show was created by David S. Goyer, and he certainly brings some of that Dark Knight aspect to the show. You’d think Goyer a busy man what with his current scripting chores on the upcoming Superman/Batman film. In the past television hasn’t really proved his medium, but here the restrictions of network television fall away and allow him to explore, and explore he does. The show is quite stylish, at times to its own distraction. Goyer is actively involved with the scripts and look of the show, and his handiwork is quite apparent.
Not much is known about the early years of Da Vinci so that much of this fictionalized story doesn’t stand out quite so badly. At times they reach. One episode brings Da Vinci to Dracula’s castle where the two share some interesting screen time together.
Each episode is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec. The show has a bit of a dark nature to it. Colors are often muted and a bit hazy. Still, there are times when colors are allowed to pop just a bit, particularly reds. The effects are far too obvious, made more so by a rather sharp and detailed high-definition image presentation. Black levels are fair to good, and shadow definition does suffer at times. It’s a shame to see some of the action muddled in the dark. There are some fine textures here that do help create the proper atmosphere of time and place. It’s a dirty environment, for the most part, and the mud and dirt stand out clearly in the presentation. Costume textures provide nice touches as well.
The Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 track is also a bit of a mixed bag. Certainly it serves mostly to bring us the dialog. There are some nice surround moments. The subs come alive quite a bit during some of the few explosive scenes. One of the best aspects of this show is the music. The Bear McCreary score is absolutely outstanding. It’s a haunting melody that stays with you for a while. I’ve actually lingered on the menus just to listen to it.
The Journey Begins – Season 1 Recap: (4:15) This is a helpful feature but is terribly misplaced on the third disc. I discovered it too late for it to be of any use.
A Closer Look: (10:47) Cast and crew talk about the themes and new stuff for season 2. There’s a lot of discussion about where the characters have developed. It does play out as quite promotional in nature, however.
Creating The New World: (3:41) A look at the locations and sets that serve as the New World in the second season.
New Sets: (4:30) A look at the new sets.
Finally, the show spends quite a bit of time on the sex and gore. We saw this on Rome and on the Spartacus shows, but I wish I could believe it was used here merely to move the story along. It often appears out of place and gratuitous. Certainly less than on the shows I mentioned, but particularly in Spartacus that was really the focus of the show. Here it is not, or should I say should not be. Yes, I know we’re on cable, but take a page from these inventors. Just because you can do a thing does not mean you must do a thing. There is rich enough material to explore that is often distracted from with the rest. Of course, there’s a reason filmmakers do these things. Still, the second season appears to have risen above such things with Leonardo’s arrival in the New World. The show itself sets high production standards. “People shouldn’t have to suffer pedestrian artwork.”