The first Renaissance man
Inside the Mind of Leonardo da Vinci 3D, documentary, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts, 2.5 chiles Flip through the journals of young men and women of ambition through the ages and you’ll find passionate entries about making a mark, leaving footprints in the sands of time, a determination not to to pass this way without leaving a trace, like “woodsmoke on the wind, foam upon the sea.” That last is from the journals of Leonardo da Vinci, a young man growing up illegitimate and unschooled in the Tuscan countryside in the latter half of the 15th century, and dreaming of making it in the big time. “I intend,” he wrote, “to leave a memory of myself in the minds of others.” And he did. When Leonardo died in 1619 at the age of sixty-seven, he was one of the most famous men in the world. He left some 30,000 pages of notebooks and several paintings. Among the latter was a portrait of the wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant, which was commissioned in 1502. Leonardo may have continued working on it off and on until his death. It’s known as the Mona Lisa.
This is not to say that the great man spent 17 years just working on this one painting. He had a lot of other interests. He was an engineer, a mathematician, an inventor, an anatomist, a geologist, a botanist, a cartographer, and a writer. Look up the definition of polymath and you’re likely to get his picture.
This documentary, directed by Julian Jones for the History Channel and featuring Scottish actor Peter Capaldi as Leonardo, is at its best when it concentrates on the notebooks, on the restless, ceaseless curiosity of the mind of perhaps the most brilliant and diverse man ever to draw breath. For reasons that possibly not even Leonardo could explain, the director has chosen to make his film in 3-D, even proudly blazoning that in the title. There is very little in the content that benefits from the third dimension, and there are some things that actually suffer. I found in watching it that when the screen was filled with a Leonardo painting, I could sometimes see the thing brighter and clearer if I slipped the tinted 3-D glasses down my nose and peered over them.
Perhaps the 3-D has something to do with Capaldi’s sometimes overheated performance. In assuming the character of Leonardo, he seems to be reaching for another dimension, coiled like a snake, hunched in a chair, staring off in brooding absorption and then suddenly springing to life to engage the camera with some histrionics. He grows on you as the film goes on, but he takes some getting to know. He does not convey Leonardo in any visual sense; he is clean-shaven and wearing modern clothes, but the words he speaks are culled from those magnificent journals written in Leonardo’s hand and spoken in what is meant to conjure up Leonardo’s voice.
Any chance to spend some time inside one of the greatest minds that ever lived is time well spent, even if this documentary doesn’t take as much advantage of the visit as we might like.
— Jonathan Richards
The prying Scotsman: Peter Capaldi copies Leonardo’s notes