IN THE FIFTH EPISODE of the first season of Starz’s historical drama Da Vinci’s Demons, our hero Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley) is accused of sodomy and sorcery, and faces execution. To escape this fate, Leonardo engineers a complex plan through which he escapes prison, kidnaps the corrupt magistrate presiding over his trial, sedates him, and ties him to a pig, making sure to insert the magistrate’s genitals into the pig’s rectum. When the magistrate wakes and finds himself in this act of carnal (or rather porcine) embrace, da Vinci rigs a camera obscura to project an image of the magistrate’s sexual deviancy into the skies of Florence for all the citizens to see. Da Vinci warns the magistrate that if he does not drop the charges, he will expand the camera obscura to focus on the magistrate’s face. When the magistrate declares that “the people will never believe it me,” da Vinci replies that “people believe what’s before their eyes. Lies, truth … it’s irrelevant. The best story wins.”Cornered, the magistrate relents and agrees to drop the charges.
This scenario is of course wildly outlandish and historically inaccurate. Da Vinci was famous for experimenting with a camera obscura, but it’s unlikely he could project an image into the sky. Further, da Vinci creates a “photograph”of the magistrate’s deviancy — for purposes of ensuring his cooperation — through a technique pioneered by Albertus Magnus involving silver nitrate. Though Magnus was known to experiment with the substance, its again unlikely that the result would be as perfect a photograph as produced in the show. And yet the entire incident is a wonderful example of how historical inaccuracy shouldn’t matter in artistic renderings of a particular period. Da Vinci’s clever way of escaping death is entertaining, all the more so because the liberties taken serve to make his escape seem magical, akin to the very sorcery he was accused of committing. This magic is the show’s way of commenting on the Renaissance nature of wonder, which characterized the ethos of the time, and when we witness da Vinci’s magical exploits, we feel a little bit of that wonder.
Da Vinci’s maxim that “the best story wins”thus applies to historical fiction as a whole. The genre often comes under criticism for historical departures, but as we well know, “history” is a constructed narrative, and what we term “accurate”can often be subjective. Such artistic license not only makes historical fiction more narratively cohesive and dramatically entertaining, but is instructive in ways that history is not, as the artists behind these shows use the conscious inaccuracies to underscore the perspectives and motives of the people of that era, helping us deepen our understand of that era, something history alone cannot do.
This argument about the power of perspective was most clearly articulated by historical fiction writer Gore Vidal in the afterword to his novel Burr,where he stated that he wrote historical novels rather than histories, despite the meticulous research he conducted for these novels, because historical fiction allows him to attribute motive, whereas history does not. Though Burr’s motives were often artistic liberties taken by Vidal, they ultimately deepened our understanding of the American Revolution by showing us familiar events through an unfamiliar perspective. In the same way, three current historical television shows use artistic license to their advantage: Vikings, on the History Channel, Black Sails, on Starz, and the aforementioned Da Vinci’s Demons.
On Vikings, created by Michael Hirst (Elizabeth, The Tudors), protagonist Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) and Rollo (Clive Standen) are depicted as brothers. Historically, Ragnar was a Viking king about whom little is known, but who conducted several raids on England and France and probably lived during the ninth century. Rollo meanwhile was the ninth century Viking ruler who founded the principality of Normandy and whose decedents included William the Conqueror. The two probably did not know each other, but by making these two famous Vikings brothers, the show accomplishes two things. First, it increases the dramatic tension of its narrative by introducing an emotionally powerful fraternal rivalry that intensifies as seasons progress. While Rollo loves his older brother and helps make him Earl, his own ambitions and desire for glory (glory that we, as viewers, know he will one day achieve) lead him to question his loyalty to Ragnar. Second, the brotherly rivalry creates a recognizable family dynamic that allows viewers to connect to Ragnar and Rollo and understand their motives. This connection is ultimately the major theme of the show: though it depicts a very foreign culture, one which practices human sacrifice and massacres innocents for survival, the show still wants us to recognize this culture’s humanity. By portraying them as brothers, it gives us a way to relate to them, to see under their violent exteriors the same human emotions that we ourselves experience.
We would not be able to relate to Ragnar and Rollo if our understanding of them was dependent solely on history. There is ultimately very little actual historical evidence about Ragnar Lothbrok, and some historians even doubt whether he actually existed. We do have sagas and poetry that tell tales of Ragnar and of his wife Lagretha, and of his son Bjorn (all characters depicted on the show). But, like Vikings, these accounts are also stories, and as with any good story, the creators of these sagas and poems no doubt took liberties with historical facts to improve the narrative. And whereas we do have more direct evidence of Rollo, none of it is from his perspective. We seem him as he was to others, a King, at a distance. The show’s fictionalizing gives us a view of Ragnar and Rollo as human beings — and ultimately this is the show’s artistic purpose: to make us connect to a foreign culture. History might help us know about the Vikings, but art can help us better understand the human begins behind the historic figures.
Like Vikings, the show Black Sails, created by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine, also mixes history and fiction, as it depicts historical pirates such as Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, and Anne Bonny, fictional pirates from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island such as Capitain Flint, Billy Bones, and Long John Silver, and completely invented figures such as Eleanor Guthrie, the female overseer of Nassau, and Hal Gates, the crew’s quartermaster. While the show’s historical pirates are relatively accurately depicted, it does take some major liberties with Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), sending him on a Joseph Campbell style hero’s journey out of Nassau, where the show mainly takes place, to an island where he confronts a black-bearded pirate and defeats him, before returning him to Nassau with a newfound confidence. The historical Charles Vane did have an encounter with the pirate Blackbeard, but it was just a brief attempt to forge an alliance not a step along Vane’s road to self-actualization. The departures from the historical Charles Vane thus give the character a progression across the season, the kind of arc essential to most standard narratives.
But it’s the inclusion of the completely fictional characters, and in particular the character of Gates (Mark Ryan) that allows Black Sails to comment on the nature of pirates in the 18th-century Golden Age of Piracy. Though Gates is Captain Flint’s good friend, he is wary of his captain’s ambitions to create a pirate society and declare himself King at the expense of the rest of the crew. Gates is friendly with the crew’s working men, and comes to represent their voices, drowned out by the sea and by history. In the final episode of the first season, Gates tells Captain Flint the story of a member of their crew whose dying wish to Gates was to have a letter delivered to his sister. Gates, however, was unable to find the sister, and so he threw the letter into the sea. “There are no legacies in this life,” he laments to Flint after finishing his story. “No monuments. No history.”
Here, Black Sails makes its strongest commentary on its historical period, through the mouth of a fictitious character. Liberties need to be taken in telling the lives of these pirates of the 18th century, for they’ve never had any history to which art can be faithful.
The most fictionalized of these three shows, Da Vinci’s Demons, created by David S. Goyer (of The Dark Knight fame), declares in its opening that “history is a lie”and in its most recent season has Leonardo and friends outdo Columbus and reach the New World by 1477. Like Vikings and Black Sails, Da Vinci’s Demons uses its artistic license both to improve its narrative and heighten its drama, to comment on the clash between science and religion that characterized 15th-century Florence, and to underscore the nature of wonder during the Renaissance.
As with Vikings, a major inaccuracy concerns the friendship between the show’s major characters, most notably between da Vinci and Lorenzo de Medici (Elliot Cowan), the humanist ruler of Florence. While historically Lorenzo de Medici was da Vinci’s patron, their relationship was likely not as close as the one depicted on the show. But, just as with Ragnar and Rollo, this relationship, which moves from rivalry to companionship, provides the show with a strong emotional center and allows the audience to easily relate to the two historical figures. Additionally, the relationship allows the show to comment on the interactions between science, humanism, and religion in the Renaissance. Da Vinci and Lorenzo’s growing friendship and allegiance against the Catholic Church represents the union of science, art, and humanism against the forces of religion, a conflict which characterized the Renaissance and to which the show will continually return.
Additionally, the show takes liberties with the relationship between da Vinci and Nicolo Machiavelli (Eros Vlahos), the controversial Renaissance humanist most famous for the pessimistic view of humanity expressed in his work The Prince, present in this show as a young apprentice in da Vinci’s workshop. There is no historical evidence to suggest Machiavelli was apprentice to da Vinci, or even knew him during his childhood, but by including Machiavelli, the show suggests that there is a dark side to the secular humanism of the Renaissance. While Machiavelli, or “Nico”as he is known on the show, is quite endearing, an appraisal aided by the boyishly innocent appearance of Vlahos, he occasionally exhibits a malice that foreshadows the cynic he will become.
This dark side at times extends to da Vinci as well, whose major character flaw is a selfishness not unlike that which Machiavelli would later praise in The Prince. This flaw ismost eloquently expressed by Vanessa (Hera Hilmar), a young woman who joins da Vinci’s circle of friends after he “liberated”(his words) her from a convent. “You lied, Leonardo,”Vanessa says to him. “You promised me wonders. You said we’d fly. You said we’d burn like the sun, but there’s no sun in your world, only coldness and shadow. You’re so smart, so beautiful. But we’re just toys to you aren’t we?”For all its glorifying of science and humanism, the show is nuanced and perceptive enough to recognize that such rational humanism often comes at a cost. And once again, Vanessa’s historical authenticity is irrelevant; as an artistic creation she offers us a fresh perspective on da Vinci, and reminds us of the limits of Renaissance humanism.
Finally, the other major historical deviation within Da Vinci’s Demons is Leonardo himself. While the historical da Vinci was both an artist and a scientist, his scientific inventions weremerely theoretical and rarely ever actually constructed, and thus he was, and still is, more widely known for his art. In the show, however, da Vinci’s scientific achievements aren’t simply theoretical, but practical and dazzling. In one of the opening scenes of the show, da Vinci constructs a pair of wings that allows test subject Nico to fly. Later, da Vinci constructs innovative rotating cannons to help Lorenzo de Medici defend Florence from Rome. He also invents a way to amplify voices using well-placed pieces of brass, makes bombs out of bat dung and at one point even successfully performs a blood transfusion. And then of course there’s the camera obscura and the silver nitrate photograph. With such wild departures from what is scientifically plausible during the 15th century, da Vinci becomes a kind of superhero, a cross between Sherlock and Gandalf.
And yet, this magical aspect to da Vinci’s abilities is itself a way for the show to comment on another essential aspect of the historical time period: the Renaissance nature of wonder. Stephen Greenblatt in Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World saw wonder as “the central figure in the initial European response to the New World, the decisive emotional and intellectual experience in the presence of radical difference.”And the Renaissance was indeed a time of both wonder and radical difference. A new world was opening up for the people of Europe, a figurative new world in the realm of science and art, but also a literal New World with the discovery of the Americas. Da Vinci, the Mithraic wizard superhero, is our guide to these wondrous new worlds, and through the show’s historical departures, we in the audience are able to experience the wonder ourselves, whether it be the wonder of flying through the air with Nico, the wonder of hearing Lorenzo’s voice amplified across a plaza, the wonder of da Vinci and his companions setting foot on the New World, or even the wonder of da Vinci casting the image of a magistrate sodomizing a pig into the Florentine sky. Without the show’s conscious departures from history that make da Vinci into a larger than life superhero able to accomplish these almost magical feats, we the audience would lose this feeling of wonder, a feeling which gives us a valuable insight into the Renaissance as a time of change and a feeling which helps us understand the way the people of the time experienced the new and different worlds opening up before them.
These three current historical dramas aren’t, of course, the only television shows to use historical deviations to their advantage. HBO’s Rome presented the history of the Roman Empire through two fictional Roman soldiers, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pulo, characters with modern sensibilities that gave the audience points of identification. Showtime’s The Borgias presented heightened conflict between Cesare and his brother Juan to give to the show a dramatic and emotional heft, in the same way that Vikings does with Ragnar and Rollo. And, most intelligently of all, Showtime’s The Tudors, also created by Vikings’s Michael Hirst, demonstrates in its stunning final scene how precarious the very idea of historical accuracy can be. King Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Myers), having commissioned court painter Hans Holbein to paint his portrait, stares at it for a long moment. It is the portrait that we the audience recognize, the famous portrait of Henry VIII the world has come to know. As Henry stares at it, his life flashes before his eyes, and we see images from the Henry VIII that we, the audience, have come to know, the Henry VIII of the show. It is a far different man that stares back at us from Holbein’s painting, and we, like Henry realize the futility of trying to capture all of a person’s life in one single representation.
How could such a painting ever be historically accurate? How could we ever know who Henry really was from just one image? In the same way, how can we know what was historically accurate about da Vinci from the fragmented records we have of his life? How can we know the historical Ragnar from what little we have left of him? And how can we ever know of the myriad sailors and pirates who drowned in the vast sea and left us no history at all?
Once again, it’s Gore Vidal who helps us answer these questions. In 1876, the sequel to Burr, Vidalfurthers his ideas on history and art through the character of Baron Jacobi. The Baron, in a conversation with future president James Garfield, himself a once powerful voice that history has now made obscure, says that “what we think to be history is nothing but fiction … If you want to know what Julius Caesar, or James G. Blaine, or our own delicious James Garfield is really like, then look into a mirror and study with perfect attention what is reflected there.”
These television shows are our mirrors, and because their historical deviations give their characters motives and thus make them human, we are able to see ourselves reflected. In Ragnar and Rollo, we see our own relationships and our own rivals. In the pirates of Black Sails, we see our own ambitions and our own fears. And in Leonardo da Vinci, we see our idealized selves, superheroes not afraid to keep our eyes open to the possibility of wonder.
Aatif Rashid is a writer living in Los Angeles. He has a BA in English and history from UC Berkeley and an MSt in Global and Imperial History from Oxford University.