With Leonardo, we finally have a well-written historical drama featuring an actually queer Leonardo da Vinci. The eight-episode show has Leonardo awaiting to be executed on charges of killing his muse Caterina da Cremona. I couldn’t get enough of it!
This review of Leonardo contains a lot of spoilers. You have been warned.
Previous depictions of Leonardo da Vinci have left a lot to be desired. For some reason, the creative teams are unable to depict the iconic painter as a well-written queer man. The teen-centric Leonardo series on CBBC, starring out queer actor Jonathan Bailey (Bridgerton), never mentioned him being queer while it ran for two seasons (a total of 26 episodes) from 2011 until 2012. The Tom Riley starring Da Vinci’s Demons (2013-2015) on Starz was a complete mess as the narrative mentioned him being queer in only one or two episodes (from what I can remember) during the three-season run (28 episodes) and solely focused on the artist’s romance with a woman.
The queer representation on Da Vinci’s Demons was so poor that actor Tom Riley had an entire discussion in the comment section of the queer-centric website The Backlot to try and figure out what the queer audience was talking about. Due to The Backlot being dissolved back in 2015 and merging with NewNowNext, his interview that led to said discussion is archived. I think you should consider reading it. As far as my opinion goes, the entire thing came across as the creative team wanting the queer audience to just be glad they showed Leonardo was queer in a single episode and allow them to continue telling a “straightwashed” story.
Anyway, that’s why I was wary of watching the current Leonardo series. But then I read some promo material about how creators Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files, The Man in the High Castle, Medici) and Steve Thompson (Sherlock) would be leaning into Leo’s queer sexuality and I decided to watch this show. And I’m glad I did.
Keep in mind that this is a highly fictionalized retelling of Leonardo da Vinci’s life. This piece of content is not meant to offer a history lesson. So, for you to enjoy what happens, you’ll need to stop yourself from trying to find historical accuracies in what’s being shown on the screen. Of course, some facts about Leo are present. He’s a vegetarian and left-handed. Other than that, just relax and allow the narrative to take you on an exciting journey full of mystery, political intrigue, and emotional development.
We jump into the drama right from the first episode. Leo’s been accused of murdering Caterina. We have young officer Stefano Giraldi (Freddie Highmore) on the case. As far as Stefano’s concerned, there’s a lot that doesn’t make sense. He can tell that Leo’s hiding something. Each episode is divided between the present timeline and flashbacks (covering 16 years over the course of the series). We follow Stefano as he interviews different people in Leo’s life to figure out what led to Caterina being murdered by poison.
The characters Stefano interrogates include Leo’s unreliable assistant Tommaso Masini (Alessandro Sperduti), Leo’s boyfriend Salai (Carlos Cuevas), and Caterina’s lover and Venetian Ambassador to Florence Bernado Bembo (Flavio Parenti). Each person offers their perspective of the events and what they think of the genius Leonardo. As far as they’re concerned, Leo’s a selfish person. No one is more valuable to him than his artistic expression. Of course, Leo has his own version. It’s so much fun trying to piece the puzzle with Stefano while being aware that not every narrator is going to be reliable.
Alongside the murder-mystery aspect of the narrative, the creative team took time to showcase Leonardo’s growth as a struggling artist, engineer, inventor, and more. Even though there’s a lot of fictional storytelling involved, I liked the reasons the writers gave Leo when creating iconic pieces such as the Mona Lisa and the Portrait of Ginevra Benci. I yelled out in joy when the woman meant to inspire the Mona Lisa showed up. Again, I know things must have occurred very differently when Leonardo was alive, but I didn’t care. I was engrossed in what the show was sharing with me.
The inspiration for The Last Supper ended up involving a moment from an earlier episode that had Leo experience immense heartbreak due to a man he loved. So good!
Even a young Michelangelo showed up to butt heads with Leonardo over what is and isn’t considered real art.
It’s said that artists are meant to be sad if they are to create something worthwhile. And Leonardo made sure to show the titular character basically drowning in sadness. He was cursed as a child to destroy everything he loved. That curse clearly took a toll on Leo growing up, especially as someone who was shunned by his father. Caterina’s arrival offered Leo the love that was missing from his life. But even their relationship got marred by the circumstances the two found themselves in over the years, ultimately snowballing into Caterina’s demise.
As someone who isn’t a fan of women being fridged to cause man pain, I was very confused with the premise. The writers were basically turning a handful of tropes around, even when handling a story about a queer character living in a society that didn’t accept him (staying true to records, Leo stood on trial for sodomy in the show, too). And yet, when it came to Caterina, I was displeased the writers decided to recreate a problematic trope by making her part of Leo’s life just to kill her off.
However, all of my worries were for naught. The way the writers handled Caterina’s storyline was amazing. They gave context in the finale that explained why historians remain conflicted over whether or not she even existed in the first place.
Aidan Turner and Matilda De Angelis did a wonderful job of depicting the strong bond between Leo and Caterina. The love shared between them is going to make you feel sad whenever they’re separated due to certain situations. And for those wondering, there’s no jealousy between Caterina and Salai because the love Leo had for both of them was of two different kinds.
So, while the year 2021 still has content featuring fridged women and sad queer characters (*cough* The Irregulars *cough*), Leonardo made for a welcome offering that went against all of that. I loved every second of it.
Narrative decisions aside, Leonardo‘s just a very pretty show. The old-timey production design is a visual treat and the cast is gorgeous to look at.
While Leonardo might not be for everyone due to the murder-mystery setup and the liberties taken with retelling an iconic artist’s life story in such a manner, I still highly recommend watching this show. Each episode is around 50 minutes long. The entire season is bingeable and I think you too will appreciate a series that doesn’t shy away from having a queer Leonardo da Vinci as the lead.
As for nudity and sexually intimate scenes, there’s nothing to worry about in my opinion. I was actually surprised by how chaste the entire show was considering how over-the-top media can get as the creative teams try to find the weakest of excuses to make their actors drop trou in a bid to distract from the issues present in the show and maintain the interest of the audience.
The limited nudity that is present in Leonardo involves an artistic setting (you’ll see it in paintings and sculptures).
Leonardo premiered on Amazon Prime UK on April 16, 2021.
Go watch it!
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Farid has a Double Masters in Psychology and Biotechnology as well as an M.Phil in Molecular Genetics. He is the author of numerous books including Missing in Somerville, and The Game Master of Somerville. He gives us insight into comics, books, TV shows, anime/manga, video games, and movies.
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