Well, we all deserve a laugh right now, don’t we? So without further ado let me introduce you to Leonardo, the latest offering from Amazon Prime, which is terrible. It centres on Aidan “Poldark” Turner in another smock. He plays Leonardo da Vinci who was – have you heard? – a famous artist in Italy in the olden days. Thus, at Maestro Verrocchio’s School of Renaissance Painting ‘n’ That (“Maestro” being Italian for “Older painter about to be handed his testicoli by a student genius”) he can often be found gazing intently – more intently than all the other pupils – at canvases, tableaux and the scars on models’ backs.
One model’s scarred back in particular: that of the lowborn Caterina da Cremona (Matilda de Angelis, last seen delivering a similarly inert performance as Doomed Adulteree in The Undoing). She becomes his beloved muse, and the series is framed by Leonardo’s arrest and languishment in prison for her murder. This is a bad thing for the Vinch, obvs, but a good thing for Aidan Turner fans because it turns out you couldn’t get a haircut in late-medieval prison, even in a country known to prioritise male grooming.
Leonardo’s fellow students laugh at his perfectionism and his odd ideas that there are different sorts of light and that nature is the greatest artwork. They may also be laughing because an actor who probably thought things would take an un-Poldarkian turn for the better after his sterling work in Sarah Phelps’ 2015 adaptation of And Then There Were None is currently being forced to deliver lines such as “They draw what they want the world to see! I don’t draw that!” and “Each of these people has been on a journey and you can see that in their face!” I hope there is a lot of Renaissance wine on hand for them all.
Still, one of the apprentices is jealous enough of Leonardo’s talents to dob him in for stealing pigments in order to paint Caterina da Dairy Crema in private evening sessions at her home (these don’t go any further, by the way, because Leo keeps putting his foot in it and pissing her off. Ars longa, seduction brevis.)
But what Treacherous Apprentice doesn’t know is that the Vinch – is something of a Renaissance man. When he finds his maestro stressing over the impossibility of lifting an eleventy-billion-ton gold sphere on to a cathedral dome, he (inspired by candle smoke – “It has to be weightless!”) secretly sketches a pulley system for the job, allowing Verrocchio to cover himself in glory. When Verrocchio realises this, he reinstates Big L and makes him his first apprentice. The Vinch gets to help with an major commission: The Baptism of Christ (“Look. Jesus, John and the angels,” Verrocchio helpfully explains, pointing at the sketch plan, in case a man born and bred in Renaissance Italy didn’t recognise figures in a story he would have absorbed with his mother’s milk).
Success beckons, though Leonardo turns down an offer from the Duke of Milan (“Come and work for me! I’ve got a wolfish smile and pigments for days!” he does not quite say) through loyalty to Verrocchio and love for Caterina da Creosote, even though she has been taken up by Treacherous Apprentice and she and her painter are now limited to longing looks across a crowded fresco.
All in all, it’s awful. The script is woeful. Half of the actors look absolutely stricken with horror and those who are giving it a good try – including the stalwart Turner – make you want to cry with compassion. The whole thing is paint by numbers and there are moments when all you can do is shake your head in disbelief that this kind of thing is still being made in the year of our Lord (that’s him, under John’s oil and beside the angels) 2021.
But once you – like presumably the actors themselves did on set – distract yourself by thinking of the money they’re getting, you can relax and start to enjoy yourself. Look at Italy in the background – gorgeous! You can’t get Italy wrong. And think how restful a time the writers had, once they had decided Caterina da Kardomah could just say “You still talk like a child! From the heart!” about Leonardo instead of them having to to convey his childlike innocence through his dialogue. There’s a special kind of light known as the glow of idiocy. Bask and rejoice in it.