Da Vinci's Demons 1.01 "The Hanged Man" REVIEW

TV REVIEW Is Leonardo a genuine Renaissance man?

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Da Vinci's Demons 1.01 "The Hanged Man" TV REVIEW

Episode 1.01

Writer: David S Goyer
Director: David S Goyer

THE ONE WHERE Florence's resident genius about town Leonardo da Vinci uses his wits (and an infatuation with his potential boss's mistress) to secure a job with the city's ruler, Lorenzo Medici.

VERDICT Only one picture of Leonardo da Vinci exists. He's old and kind of beardy, and a million miles from the strapping young man we see at the centre of Da Vinci's Demons . Everyone was young once, of course, but it's nigh-on impossible to believe that the real Leonardo was ever quite as fashionable, well-coiffed and cool as he's portrayed here by Tom Riley.

Still, series creator David S Goyer (the writer behind Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and the upcoming Man Of Steel) has always made it quite clear that his lavish series was never intended to be an accurate representation of Renaissance Italy. He sums it up with the phrase "historical fantasy", and by dipping into a period of Da Vinci's life that we know little about (thousands of pages of the artist/inventor/genius's notebooks were lost), he has the freedom to tell the backstory of one of history's most famous thinkers (Leonardo Begins, if you will) without the restrictions of adhering to fact.

The result is an odd mix of a Doctor Who historical episode (think "The Shakespeare Code") and Game Of Thrones ; a hyper-real vision of history mixed with copious amounts of political sculduggery, nudity, sex and violence.

Florence itself looks fantastic, the Duomo and Ponte Vecchio majestic in long shots, while the interiors boast a remarkable level of detail. As for the grown-up bits, this first episode sets out its stall early on, as Downton Abbey 's Hugh Bonneville (playing the Duke of Milan) swans around in the nip, dismisses the young male lover he's spent the night with, arrives in church, and immediately ends his involvement with the show with a blade in his gut. Briefest. Cameo. Ever. From there, it becomes clear that the rulers of Florence, Milan, the Vatican and the rest of Italy really aren't the best of friends.

Aside from an assassination and a few political mutterings, however, "The Hanged Man" is rather light on plot. Indeed, the only significant narrative thrust in the episode comes from Leonardo's project to build a groundbreaking, jewel-encrusted, flying mechanical bird for a huge Florentine ceremony – and, as a consequence, bed Lucrezia Donati, the mistress of Florence's ruler, Lorenzo Medici.

The episode is actually much more concerned with establishing da Vinci as a character – we learn that he's ambidextrous and vegetarian, that he can paint from memory, that he has memories that stretch back to being six months old, and that he causes much embarrassment to his dad, the notary of Florence (da Vinci was born illegitimate). It also goes to great lengths to establish his genius, whether it's launching young assistant Nico into the sky on a hang-glider, or getting his foot in the door of Medici's court by showing off his penchant for innovative military engineering. Refreshingly, Leonardo's not portrayed as a loveable rogue, his unbridled arrogance making him ripe for a fall – as in Game Of Thrones , you get the sense that nobody in this show is whiter than white.

If the episode doesn't quite work as a standalone piece of storytelling, you can forgive it because of all of the opportunities it opens up for the rest of the season ( and the already-commissioned second ). Already we have a good sense of the world that Leonardo lives in, and know the players who will shape it. And as final revelations go, the reveal that the spy working in Florence for the Pope's right hand man, Count Riario, is none other than Lucrezia is the sort of twist great shows are built on. Looks like Leonardo's taken on more than even a genius multi-hyphenate polymath Renaissance man can handle...

IT'S WOTSISNAME Da Vinci's sideckick Zoroaster is played by Gregg Chillin, who you'll recognise as Annie's scumbag boyfriend Owen from the first series of Being Human .

TRIVIA The stunning sets are the work of former Doctor Who designer. The music, meanwhile, is the work of Battlestar Galactica 's Bear McCreary – you can hear stylistic echoes of the earlier show in the score.

DID YOU SPOT? Lara Pulver (Irene Adler in Sherlock ) makes a brief appearance in the crowd as da Vinci's mechanical bird wows the great and good of Florence. She plays Medici's wife Clarice Orsini, who will become a major player as the series develops.

Medici: " I am told you are a troublemaker, you are arrogant, impolitic and utterly incapable of keeping your opinions to yourself."

Da Vinci: "Arrogance implies that I exaggerate my own worth. I don't."

Richard Edwards

Da Vinci's Demons airs on Fox in the UK at 10pm on Friday nights.

Read our other Da Vinci's Demons season one reviews.

Watch our exclusive interviews with the stars of Da Vinci's Demons !

Richard is a freelancer journalist and editor, and was once a physicist. Rich is the former editor of SFX Magazine, but has since gone freelance, writing for websites and publications including GamesRadar+, SFX, Total Film, and more. He also co-hosts the podcast, Robby the Robot's Waiting, which is focused on sci-fi and fantasy.