Leonardo Da Vinci – The Facts and Myths
What or, rather, who do we all remember when we hear the word “Renaissance”? Undoubtedly, Leonardo Da Vinci is one of the names that come to mind first. As one of the most significant artists of the age, Da Vinci surely etched his name in golden letters on the leaves of history books.
In spite of primarily being known as a painter, the hand behind the masterpiece “Mona Lisa”, Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was simply much, much more than that. He was not only engaged in other kinds of arts such as writing, sculpture and music but he was also an inventor, engineer, mathematician, architect, anatomist, botanist, geologist and cartographer. He had the mind of a genius and most often was described as a man with an unending curiosity, who was open-minded to pursue his interest to create, to invent passionately at any chance.
As a man of science with a unique mind, his perception of the world and the events happening around him was shaped through the perspective of logic. The ways and empirical methods he used in his scientific and artistic endeavors were beyond the grasp of many people for the time he lived as one of the many reasons why he carries on to amaze people almost 500 years after his death.
Da Vinci’s life and deeds were used as a theme for many literary works, TV and movie productions throughout the history. But how much of it should we choose to believe or to give the benefit of the doubt?
In this article, we examine Da Vinci’s portrayal in Da Vinci’s Demons of Starz TV network and answer any questions that our readers might have in mind relating to the life and death of the genius, his pursuits, the Book of Leaves, the Vault of Heaven, Sons of Mithras, whether or not he had an encounter with the Ottomans or his designs were used by them, his mother and other people like members of the Medici family who might or might not have come into his life.
Here are the facts and myths about the characters and elements as they are depicted in the TV show:
NOTE: This article contains SPOILERS regarding the 1st, 2nd and 3rd seasons of the TV show.
Leonardo Da Vinci and the Ottomans:
In season 3 of Da Vinci’s Demons (SPOILER) Leonardo is seen trying to defend Otranto against the Ottoman Empire and witnesses that they are using his designs to attack and capture the city. The show added many things to the story of Leonardo’s life to make the scenario more intriguing and colorful and this, his designs being used by the Ottomans, is one of the most significant “additions” made to the series as a twist. It was merely used as an element of fantasy as it can be understood when, later in the 2nd episode of the 3rd season, Al-Rahim kind of confesses Leonardo that he stole his designs by using magic when he was in Leonardo’s mind.
As for the weapons used during the attack on Otranto, at that time, the Ottomans already had large and very powerful supercannons that can shoot from a long distance. These were designed by Orban, a Hungarian engineer of the time, in three months for the siege of Constantinople (the modern day Istanbul) which caught the Byzantine Empire off-guard with the range they had. These were 8.2 m long cannons with the ability to shoot a 272 kg rock over 1.6 km (a mile).
At this point, it would be good to remember that we should all perceive the show as a form of entertainment and a work of historical “fantasy”. In order to add some spice to the show and highlight Leonardo’s inner emotional conflicts, the producers much exaggarated the tension between both sides of the war, of the invasion, to be more accurate. As a person with a sufficient level of knowledge about European and Middle Eastern history, the things I would like to clarify with sound information here are as follows; Pope Sixtus never did strip Bayezid naked (the Sultan’s son) or even met him. The invasion was calculated and planned ahead and, according to some sources, the only reason it started at the time it did was because the Ottoman navy was forced to the shores of Otranto by some unexpected winds. Lorenzo de Medici most definitely did not take part in defending Otranto, so he was never captured by or had such conflicts with the Turks – he is told to have been in Florence at the time with Da Vinci.
The Ottomans never killed elderly or weak people while capturing a city as shown in the TV series (as harsh as this is, I think it was added to the scenario as a part of the cleansing that the Sons of Mithras so hopefully expect to realize) as it would not be the way of an effective ruler and such things would be impossible to be done without the approval of the Sultan. In fact what they did was far from it; the historical accounts tell us that they used to take “able men who are capable of fighting” as prisoners of war to join their cause.
Although many people died defending Otranto, the manner of these deaths was a subject of speculation as the only resources giving gory details were the accounts of Italian historians. The Christian historiography was largely criticised by modern historians later and scholars suggested the remains to be seen in the Cathedral of Otranto might be of the soldiers defending the city. On the subject of forced conversion as of the time, the Ottomans did control Balkans for a long time, yet, only a minor part of Balkans converted. It would be appropriate to say, although they were fiercely loyal to their cause, the Ottomans did not follow such strict policy about conversion which in turn became one of the actual reasons for the disintegration and fall of the Empire ruling over three continents.
On a side note, according to the historical accounts, during the siege and capture of the city, Leonardo da Vinci was living in the Garden of the Piazza San Marco, Florence with the Medici family working on some of his paintings.
As to the fall of Otranto, the Ottomans conquered the city but most definitely not as shown in the TV series and not for the reasons specified. It was a possible start to try and capture Rome almost three decades after they conquered Constantinople, which was known as the most heavily-fortified city of the time.
After one year of controlling the city, the Ottoman forces needed reinforcements, however, the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed II the Conqueror caught a disease and mysteriously died shortly after on an expedition (for another part of Europe). There is some speculation about his death but it is mostly believed that he was slowly poisoned by one of his doctors – no one has a solid theory about who gave the order for this killing. This caused a crisis of succession in the Empire and the Ottomans withdrew their army to Albania after some negotiations made with the Christian forces formed mostly of Neapolitans and aided by some Hungarian forces which answered the 2nd call made by Pope Sixtus IV for a crusade fearing that Rome might share Constantinople’s fate.
However, as specified by Ludwig H. Heydenreich in his book, Leonardo the Inventor, Leonardo did encounter the Ottoman Sultan once when he visited Rome in 1502 to hire civil engineers to build a bridge over the Golden Horn in Istanbul. The Sultan had to reject Da Vinci’s project as he considered it impossible to be realized. This was the only time the Maestro and the Ottomans met each other. Many centuries later, inspired by that very same design, an artist named Vebjorn Sand built a bridge over a highway in Norway which is a monument to the Maestro’s genius.
Please kindly read the section below to learn about Leonardo’s mother, Caterina and her possible connections.
Vlad the Impaler – Dracula
Vlad the Voivode of Wallachia (“voivode” means both “prince” and “warlord” in Romanian language) and his brother Radu were given to the Ottoman Empire as “political hostages” by their father, Vlad II Dracul, who was dethroned as the ruler of Wallachia, in order to secure Ottomans’ support in regaining control of Wallachia and to prove he would remain loyal to them. Vlad spent six years (1442-1448) with the Turks living together with the princes of the Empire. Both he and his brother were educated in logic, religion (teachings of Quran) and languages (It is said that Vlad knew Turkish language well). On the contrary to his brother, who liked to live with the Ottomans in their court, Vlad rebelled most of the time and was constantly punished for his bad behaviour. This is assumed to be one of the reasons behind his sadistic acts later on his life.
In 1448, Vlad tried to gain control of Wallachia with the help of Ottomans. He was, however, beaten and sent on exile by Vladislav the 2nd, the ruler of Wallachia back then. Later, John Hunyadi, the Voivode of Transylvania, gave some men under Vlad’s command to defend Belgrade against the Ottomans, Vlad used this opportunity to attack Vladislav the 2nd and regained control of Wallachia.
Fueled by his hatred against the Ottomans, Vlad refused to pay tribute/tax to the Empire in 1459 and nailed the emissaries’ heads to their turbans. A few years later, he allied with the Kingdom of Hungary and went on an expedition which resulted in killing 23,884 Turks and Bulgarians (as he himself told at the time). It is said that he impaled around 20,000 Ottoman war prisoners at the time and some Ottoman soldiers stated they saw “forests of impaled people” while marching around Wallachia. That is why he was later called “Kazikli Voyvoda” (Vlad the Impaler – the literal translation is ” the Warlord with Pales”) in Turkish language. He is the source of inspiration for the infamous Dracula. The name Dracula is a patronymic (Drăculea) derived from his father’s name, Vlad II Dracul. It was also rumored that he kept his victims’ blood in barrels and drank it like wine, hence the myth about him being a vampire.
As for any possible encounters between Da Vinci and Vlad the Impaler, there are no records telling of that and it seems highly unlikely, given many differences between the characters and lifestyles of these two important historical figures as well as the lack of any reason for such meeting.
Although the exact date of his death is not known, it was assumed that Vlad died at the age of 44 or 45. For a very important side note regarding his brother, please read below.
Vlad’s Brother – NOT the Ottoman Commander and/or Gedik Ahmed Pasha
Vlad the Impaler had a brother named Radu and he lived with the Ottomans for a long time in their court as a well-respected man. He was assigned to act as the ruler of Wallachia at two different times by the Ottomans. However, he was most definitely NOT Gedik Ahmed Pasha, the Ottoman commander as it was depicted in the TV show. This is a huge twist of the facts since Gedik Ahmed Pasha was a renowned admiral and grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire who was not even remotely related to Radu, Vlad’s brother.
Lorenzo de Medici (the Magnificent/il Magnifico):
Lorenzo de Medici (1449-1492) is portrayed as the ruler of Florence in Da Vinci’s Demons as a wealthy banker who is married to a woman from another noble family, Clarice Orsini. Both of these are very accurate reflections of the historical facts. Lorenzo Medici was the ruler of the Florentine Republic as he inherited the task from his father, Piero di Cosimo de Medici (the Gouty). Lorenzo married Clarice Orsini, the daughter of Giacomo Orsini, Lord of Bracciano and Monterotondo. They had 10 children one of whom, Piero di Lorenzo de Medici (the Unfortunate) ruled Florence after Lorenzo’s death.
It can be said that the accounts regarding Leonardo Da Vinci’s relationship with Lorenzo Medici do not comply with the portrayal of these two important historical figures in the show. Some historians stated that Da Vinci was one of the significant artists in the court of Medici family such as Andrea Del Verrocchio, Sandro Botticelli, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Domenico Ghirlandaio. However, Lorenzo and Da Vinci were most probably not as close friends (with a brotherly relationship) as the TV show depicted.
Other accounts suggest that Leonardo was sent by Lorenzo Medici as an emissary to Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza with a lyre that Da Vinci crafted himself, being a skillful musician and crafter he was. In short, Da Vinci was a valued artist in the Medici court but there are no detailed accounts picturing him to be that much involved with the Medici family.
(Scroll down to read about other characters with whom Lorenzo Medici has had dealings with in the show such as Duke of Urbino, King Ferrante and King Ferrante’s son, Alfonso II of Naples.)
Giuliano Medici (1453-1478)
Giuliano Medici is depicted as the younger brother of Lorenzo Medici in Da Vinci’s Demons. He is killed in a chapel as a result of an evil scheme conspired by the Pazzi family.
Just like it is shown in the TV production, Giuliano de Medici was murdered in the Florence Cathedral, Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Il Duomo Di Firenze) on 26th of April 1478. This historical event is known as the Pazzi Conspiracy, a devious attempt of the Pazzi family to gain control of Florence by assassinating Lorenzo and Giuliano Medici. While Giuliano was stabbed by Bernardo Bandi and Francesco de Pazzi numerous times and killed by a sword wound on his head, Lorenzo de Medici survived this attack (on the contrary to the TV show where Da Vinci saves Lorenzo, this rescue was the doing of Agnolo Poliziano, a scholar and a friend of Lorenzo, who locked him in a secure place). Conspirator Jacopo de Pazzi was caught and killed by the Florentines by being thrown out of a window while another conspirator Archbishop Salviati was hanged resulting in Pope Sixtus IV banning the execution of mass and communion in Florence and assigning King of Naples, Ferdinand I to be ready to attack Florence.
As a very interesting fact; accounts never mentioned Giuliano Medici had an affair with a girl named Vanessa as shown in the TV show, but, Giuliano’s illegitimate son from Fioretta Gorini, his mistress, who was born just one month after his father was killed, became Pope Clement VII in 1523.
Clarice Orsini was the wife of Lorenzo Medici, the daughter of Jacopo Giacomo Orsini and mother of Pope Leo X (their second oldest son with Lorenzo). Although she is portrayed in Da Vinci’s Demons as a woman of strong will and free thought, the real Clarice Orsini was a woman of faith known for her strict opinion of religion, which resulted in her becoming unpopular among the people of Florence. No affairs of hers were mentioned in any record as another contradiction of her being with Carlo de Medici in the show.
Carlo de Medici:
Carlo de Medici was the illegitimate child of Cosimo de Medici from a slave named Maddelena rumored to be an African slave (some accounts state his mother might have been a Circassian woman). Unlike the portrayal of the character on TV, Carlo was a man of religion and an important clergyman abiding by his father’s wishes for him to serve the church. He died in Florence in 1492 around the age of 60.
Da Vinci’s Friends and Inner Circle
One of the most important characters in Da Vinci’s Demons is Lucrezia Donati, a beautiful woman who happens to be Da Vinci’s lover and who is depicted as Lorenzo Medici’s mistress and the daughter of the real Pope Sixtus IV.
According to historical accounts, Lucrezia Donati was married to Niccolo Ardinghelli, a cardinal of Italian Roman Catholic Church. There are some rumors regarding Lucrezia being the mistress of Lorenzo Medici while no certain accounts suggest that such relationship ever existed. However, records of the time stated that Lorenzo admired, fell in a platonic kind of love with and wrote many poems to Lucrezia. Lorenzo even had Andrea Verrocchio draw a portrait of Lucrezia Donati. As far as her relationship with Leonardo Da Vinci goes, there is no evidence of Lucrezia and Leonardo got together as it is shown in the show.
Andrea Del Verrocchio:
Andrea Del Verrocchio (Andrea di Michele di Franceso de Cioni) was a painter, goldsmith and sculptor who tutored many important names such as Leonardo da Vinci, Francesco Botticini, Pietro Perugino, Lorenzo di Credi and Domenico Ghirlandaio in his workshop in Florence. He did many works for the Medici family, both as paintings and sculptures and he died in Venice in 1488 (aged 53), unlike it is shown in the TV show (as being murdered by Carlo Medici).
Zoroaster (da Peretola)/Tommaso Masini:
A fan favorite character with his great, timely jokes and witty comments, Zoroaster, is also adapted from a real life figure. He is actually Zoroaster da Peretola, also known as Tommaso Masini. The son of a gardener, he claimed to be an illegitimate son of Lorenzo di Medici’s brother-in-law, Bernardo Rucellai.
He was a companion of da Vinci and was employed at the court of the Sforzas as a mechanic and a magician and goes down in history as the first man to fly – in one of Leonardo da Vinci’s machines (it did, however, crash and he was left with a broken leg). In some accounts, it was also mentioned that he was interested in occult sciences, in other words, magic.
He died in Rome of cholera, apparently outliving all the other historical figures on the show.
* (A big thanks to formwiz for imparting the knowledge – this character was a missing piece in my research, not anymore)
The character named Nico (Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli ) in Da Vinci’s Demons was adapted from a real life person who was actually a very important historical figure from Florence. Niccolo Machiavelli was a diplomat, military strategist, historian, humanist, politician and a writer who is considered to be the father of modern political science and political ethics. He also wrote plays (mostly comedies) and poetry. His masterpiece, The Princeexpresses Machiavelli’s thoughts on how a ruler should act in a way that inspired harsh criticism as it seemed like “teaching an evil and conniving way to be a real ruler” although he only used such manner of writing to draw readers’ interest to evil and immoral ways of politicians. On account of Italian city-states’ lack of ability to unite thus rendering them vulnerable against enemies, Machiavelli stated in his masterpiece that only a strong-minded and decisive leader, who did not fear to do what was right regardless of the consequences, could overcome all problems.
As for Machiavelli’s relationship with “the maestro”, their lives actually did coincide in spite of an age difference of 17 years between them. Although there is no record of Machiavelli being mentored by Da Vinci in the way that is shown in “Da Vinci’s Demons”, Leonardo and Niccolo worked together on some things, the most prominent one being the project to divert the course of Arno River in order to connect Florence, a city which was landlocked, to the sea as it is told in the book Fortune Is a River: Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli’s Magnificent Dream Change Course Florenti authored by Roger D. Masters.
Despite the timeline and events (including the ones related to Niccolo Machiavelli’s youth) being not fully accurate most of the time, the series hinted at Machiavelli’s brilliant mind for politics and legal matters a few times. By forging her signature, Nico did make Vanessa (who gave birth to the late Giuliano Medici’s son) the ruler of the House of Medici in the absence of Lorenzo Medici and his wife, Clarice. In the 10th episode of season 2 named “The Sins of Daedalus“, we saw the young Nico Machiavelli at work once again when he stopped Clarice from forcing Vanessa to come back to the palace saying “You cannot force her back there. Florence is a republic, it is her right, as a citizen, to choose how and where she wants to live”.
Amerigo Vespucci was an Italian navigator, explorer and cartographer who worked for the Medici family, Portuguese and Spanish navies, respectively. He was a Florentine who was assumed to be friends with Leonardo Da Vinci according to many historical accounts. He made several voyages to the America continent. Indeed, the name of the continent was derived from Vespucci’s first name. Vespucci did not think that the lands Columbus discovered on his voyages were the eastern coasts of India and Asia (as Columbus stated to be) but a separate continent. Later, the continent was named after Vespucci to honor him when a new world map was drawn in 1507. This is known to be the first use of the word “America” in the history.
No records mention Leonardo’s voyage with Amerigo Vespucci in search for the Book of Leaves or anything close to that, yet, these two were most probably friends working under the employment of the Medici court.
Caterina, Da Vinci’s mother:
Da Vinci’s mother is assumed to be peasant woman in most of the accounts, with whom his father, Piero da Vinci, had an affair. However, studies conducted by reconstructing and examining Leonardo da Vinci’s fingerprints stated Caterina might have been of Middle Eastern origin. Using dermatoglyphics discipline, through which a person’s origin might be analyzed and attributed to a certain race or population, some Italian scientists suggested the idea that Caterina might be a slave woman from Africa who was already rumored by some historians to have worked as a servant in the house of Piero da Vinci.
She, as shown in the show in a rather misleading manner, was not related to the Ottoman Empire in any way and did not join them during their attack on Otranto.
Her relation with or pursuit for the Book of Leaves is also fiction.
Other Important Characters:
Pope Sixtus IV
Born on 21 July 1414 as Francesco della Rovere, Pope Sixtus IV acted as the head of the Catholic Church between 9 August 1471 and 12 August 1484, the day he died.
He is known as the pope who had Sistine Chapel and Sistine Bridge built. He also carried on his predecessor Pope Nicholas V’s work regarding the creation of a public library in Vatican which later would be named Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, The Vatican Apostolic Library and include the Vatican Secret Archives.
On the contrary to his portrayal in Da Vinci’s Demons, Pope Sixtus IV never had a face to face meeting with the heir of the Ottoman Sultan. That being said, he clashed with the Turkish forces when he renewed a declaration of holy crusade against the Ottomans and conquered Smyrna. After the conquest, he tried to reconcile with Greek and Orthodox churches but he could not succeed in his efforts.
Pope Sixtus IV was also known for his nepotism. According to Rome tour guide Erturk Durmus, an expert on the history of Rome, Pope Sixtus IV surrounded himself with relatives (especially his nephews from della Rovere and Riario families) and friends by assigning them to powerful positions. As you remember from the show, favored and supported by his uncle, Girolamo Riario served Pope Sixtus IV and tried to eliminate the threats against him. One of those threats were, of course, the Medici family who were actually the victims of the Pazzi conspiracy.
Just like in the show, the Medici brothers were attacked by the conspirators, Bernardo Bandi and Francesco de’ Pazzi during High Mass in Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower/The Cathedral of Florence). Lorenzo de’ Medici was wounded but escaped while Giuliano de’ Medici died as a result of being stabbed 19 times. This attack was planned by Girolamo Riario, Francesco Salviati (who is from also from the Riario family) and Francesco de’ Pazzi and supported by Pope Sixtus IV. Sixtus was a cunning person, so he made a careful statement saying he could not sanctify killing in his holy position but also suggested that anyone who removed the Medicis from their power in Florence would be doing a big favour to the Catholic Church and fully supported these men in their efforts.
Sixtus IV is depicted as a pope with an affection for young boys in Da Vinci’s Demons. This is a subject detailed in Diary of the City of Rome by Stefano Infessura as he stated that he was actually a love of boys and sodomites. There are other works suggesting he was involved in such affairs, however, all of these accusations were rebutted as propaganda against the Catholic Church.
Did Sixtus IV have a twin ? He most definitely did not. His twin brother was included to the show merely to spice things up.
Portrayed as the antagonist of Leonardo in Da Vinci’s Demons, Girolamo Riario is another character fans are very curious about. The real Girolamo also served Pope Sixtus IV, his uncle as the Captain General of the Church. He was the Lord of Imola and Forli. The Lordship of Imola was granted to him as the dowry of his wife Catherina Sforza, who was the daughter of Duke of Milan, Galeazzo Maria Sforza.
During his lifetime he made many attempts against Florence supported by Pope Sixtus IV, yet, he never succeeded. He also partook in the Pazzi Conspiracy, another unsuccessful attempt to dethrone the Medicis as rulers of Florence. He was killed by 9 assassins from the Orsi family in 1488 (Aged 45) over a financial dispute he had with them.
He might have met Da Vinci since they lived in the same age and might have had some kind of an encounter as both were important figures in Florence’s history. But, there is absolutely no evidence suggesting Girolamo Riario and Leonardo Da Vinci set on a sail together, let alone being friendly as depicted in the show. Most probably, Girolamo was not a man on the way to his redemption either.
Duke of Urbino:
Duke of Urbino is also a portrayal from a real life figure, Federico da Montefeltro, who was the Lord of Urbino between 1444 and 1482. He was an important warlord (condottiero) of the age and fought many battles, some under the service for Florence, some under the service of Naples against Florence. Depicted as a man with a blind eye in the TV show, he lost his right eye in a tournament.
Unlike it is shown in the show (killed by Clarice Orsini) he died out of sickness in Ferrara.
King Ferrante in Da Vinci’s Demons is the portrayal of King Ferdinand I of Naples (also known as Don Ferrante) who acted as the King of Naples between 1458 and 1494.
He actually joined forces with Pope Sixtus IV against Florence and Lorenzo de Medici as it is shown in the TV show. He held Lorenzo Medici, who came to negotiate with him and gain his alliance against Pope Sixtus IV, as a prisoner for 3 months. But, in the end, Lorenzo convinced him and Naples became an ally of Florence. On the contrary to the TV show, where he was depicted to have been assassinated by Pope Sixtus IV and his son, King Ferrante died of cancer (as a study conducted on his mummy showed in 2006). He did, however, keep his enemies in his prison and embalm some of them. Being a cruel man, who is known to be afraid of no one, he showed his mummies to his guests sometimes.
Price Alfonso, Alfonso II of Naples, was the son of King Ferrante and the husband of Ippolita Maria Sforza. He was a warlord (a condotierro) who fought in War of Ferrara and reigned as the King of Naples between 1494 and 1495, until he died in Messina when fleeing from the King Charles VIII of France.
The Book of Leaves and the Vault of Heaven
The Book of Leaves, a mysterious book, which Leonardo thinks that might change the history and for which he and his friends set on a challenging journey and face many dangers in the TV show did not exist in real life. Nor did the Vault of Heaven. There are no records suggesting the existence of these two important elements of the show.
Sons of Mithras, the Cult:
Sons of Mithras is also a fictional cult created for the production although some actual elements of Mithraism belief were used while doing so.
This is the summary of facts and myths regarding the Renaissance genius, Leonardo Da Vinci, and how he and other important historical figures are depicted in the TV series called Da Vinci’s Demons. I, for one, am a big fan of the show. It is cinematically astounding and on its way to be masterpiece in the historical fantasy genre. So, I thought learning about the real stories of those characters would be not only interesting but also enlightening.