"Historical fantasies" can be amusing. Like that movie that makes Abraham Lincoln a vampire killer. Or that steampunk TV show that tells me Victorian science fiction author HG Wells was "actually" a woman ninja fighter. But please. I draw the line at making Leonardo da Vinci a heterosexual horndog.
Da Vinci's Demons is a soon-to-premiere TV series in which our favorite gay Florentine is not only a scientific genius far ahead of his time and a great artist, as he was in real life, but also a master swordfighter and ladies' man. He's eagerly shown romping and snarking one-liners in bed with several different women in the show's official trailer. According to creator David S. Goyer (who co-wrote the Dark Knight trilogy of blockbuster Batman films), the series "reimagines" Da Vinci as a superhero. "He's a little bit Indiana Jones, a little bit Bruce Wayne," Goyer says. But apparently not even a little bit gay.
The 20th century is littered with art critics and academics who fell over themselves to refute the obvious about our gay forefather Leonardo. Sigmund Freud was the first to openly discuss the subject of Leonardo's sex life, and he proposed that Leonardo didn't have any. Yes, Freud conceded, he had definite homosexual impulses, but rest assured he would never have acted on them. In his famous Leonardo da Vinci: A Study in Psychosexuality, Freud says Leonardo was a "homosexual in feeling" but not in practice, who rerouted all his homoerotic desire into creating art works of genius.
Then one day, said Freud, when Leonardo was in his fifties, a young married woman from a prominent family in Gioconda walked into his studio wanting to have her portrait painted, and Leonardo fell in love for the first time. (I'm not making this up, but Freud sure was.) Already sounds like Hollywood shlock, doesn't it? Yes, Freud believed that the enigmatic Mona Lisa stole the genius's heart, and the rest is art history.
Only it's really, really not.
There were a number of biographical red flags that Freud sidestepped in his musings disguised as analysis. For example, Leonardo had been a male model and a noted fashionista who was always impeccably dressed. By all accounts, he was a mild-mannered, left-handed vegetarian who bought caged birds in the market for the sole purpose of letting them fly free. He employed only the most strikingly handsome youths as his models, never married, and left all his property to his longtime companion Francesco Melzi.
Oh yes, and by the way, while a young man Leonardo had been imprisoned for sodomy. Apparently it never occurred to the venerable Doctor Freud that Leonardo might have "evaded everything sexual" in public because he'd already been arrested and locked up for having sex with a man. As the dusty old psychosexual maxim goes, "Once imprisoned, twice shy."
And, as Freud was aware, Leonardo is well known to have remarked that he considered "procreative sex" to be "disgusting." How more clearly, in religion-saturated Renaissance Italy, could Leonardo have stated that he was not heterosexual?
Da Vinci's Demons' creator and the Starz network seem to be attempting to "reimagine" their TV Leonardo as a raging Renaissance pussymeister, like another historical figure, Pope Alexander the Sixth, in the hit show The Borgias, which is set in the same time period but on a competing cable network. Da Vinci's Demons, though, as a historical "fantasy," will have, according to their press release, the added attractions of sorcery, prognostication, and yes, the obligatory historical vampire or two.
According to Huffpost's Laura Prudom, when questions about Leonardo's sexuality were raised at a publicity panel for the show that included Goyer and Tom Riley (who plays the lead role), "the panelists assured reporters that other orientation options were a definite possibility." Right. Let's not even use that pesky G-word.
To be fair, so far I've only read the publicity and seen the trailer. I don't doubt that Da Vinci's Demons will have breathtaking production values, great special effects, and be a whirlwind of derring-do and clanking swords. The show is Starz' new hit series hopeful now that Spartacus is ending, and the continued sound of clanking swords and swishbuckling, pardon me, swashbuckling, is just the ticket for that audience. Spartacus certainly didn't shy away from gay characters, but judging from the trailer for Da Vinci's Demons, "other orientation options" are not planned for this lead character who, it is now generally conceded, was decidedly gay in real life.
"One of the themes of this show is 'history is a lie,'" said Goyer. This is something GLBT scholars are acutely aware of, having spent at least the last three decades resurrecting our lost and stolen, invisible-ized past. Apparently Goyer doesn't see the irony of his own statement as it applies to his "reimagining" of da Vinci's sexuality.
"Everything you've heard about da Vinci, we're going to turn on its head," said executive producer Jane Trantor. And Da Vinci's Demons' tagline is "Everything you've never imagined." Cute, huh? What I never imaginedconsidering that Leonardo and Michelangelo are the gay Dynamic Duo of Renaissance artis that a "historical fantasy" would make one of Western Civilization's most important gay artists into a tits-and-vajayjay hunter.
I'll be happy to be proved wrong if the show's other "orientation options" turn out to show Leonardo experimenting with heterosexuality but discovering he's really gay. I don't think that's very likely to be where this "historical fantasy" is headed, however.
I guess a gay heroic action-adventure leading role is still considered too financially risky even for cable, though Da Vinci's Demons would have been the perfect show to test that assumption. Several of Da Vinci's Demons personnel once worked on Torchwood, the series that already gave the lead-role-orientation-options car a test drive, with mixed results. But in hetering up LeonardoI mean, for godssake, Leonardo!Da Vinci's Demons becomes a nominee for the new 'hip' face of homophobia, where "reinventing" the past seems to be code for reburying or at least reblurrying gay history.
Da Vinci's actual demons will be those who think that showing him for the gay man he was, even in today's world, would be in some way to demonize him.
Da Vinci's Demons will première on Starz on Friday, April 12, at 10pm EDT.