And the Code He Lived By

Review by Mark Wiechman

Director:  Robert Gardner
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  16:9 Widescreen
Studio:  New Video
Features:  See Review
Length: 91 minutes plus extras
Release date: 
January 31, 2006

“To conceive an idea is noble.  To execute the work is servile.” 

Leonardo Da Vinci, commenting in his notebooks on the then unfinished Adoration of the Magi.

Film ****

With all the fuss over The Da Vinci Code’s mixture of fact and fiction there has been very little attention paid to the actual life of the man who inspired the story to begin with.  Leonardo was indeed a man of all seasons who lived by no code other than his own.  While we like to think that the Renaissance was a peaceful time of painting, flowers, and a free atmosphere in which creative genius flourished, but this wonderful special brings to life the turbulent years which gave birth to the rebirth of civilization. 

The opening panorama reminds us of one of the turning points in history which is too often forgotten:  the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Islamic Turks.  After standing for more than a thousand years as the crown jewel of eastern Christendom, the barbarians finally won it as their own.  Though Islam produced much art and science of its own, the energy of the proliferation of art moved west to Italy, and combined with renewed interest in man himself as the center of the universe, the Renaissance produced almost too many great works of art for anyone but a scholar to fully appreciate Its influence on visual arts, architecture, and even science continue today.  Interestingly, he did not actually paint that many canvases, but usually only did it when he had cash flow problems.  He was truly more interested in science and nature.  His clients became angry when he did not complete commissions and actually he lost interest in his career just when he was peaking in his creativity.  Like Mozart, he could not deal with pleasing clients.  Like many geniuses he was somewhat spoiled and arrogant. 

Many of the scenes in this special include very convincing re-enactments with English subtitles, authentic costumes, and spoken Italian that make us think we are witnessing history itself.  Like most specials from the History channel, the comments of intelligent historians and briskly interwoven with the dramatizations.  This particular special also frequently displays dates of the events shown in the upper left part of the screen.  Florence was anything but peaceful in those days, and the often deadly intrigue and open lust for power may not have been obvious to the young Da Vinci, but we are shown how they influenced his destiny.    

Art studios in this day also had extensive mechanical engineering needs to erect the huge domes and other works commissioned by the rich and powerful.  Just as J.S. Bach and Mozart seemed to absorb, summarize, and then produce the finest music in the styles of their times, Da Vinci had he personal charisma, physical strength, and intelligence to produce works beyond anything seen until his age.  According to legend he could bend horseshoes with his hands, and it is well-known that he wrote his notebooks in script which was backwards.  

He was an artist but also possessed the inquisitiveness of a scientist.  He drew pictures of corpses but he also refused to eat meat.  He never stopped experimenting, which unfortunately doomed some of his paintings to premature decay due to unstable primers.  He also had two great strikes against him:  he was illegitimate and also accused of sodomy.  He overcame the stigma of the former, but the latter, while unproven, haunted him forever.  His love of nature, however, was tempered by witnessing murder in churches and public hangings, and encouraged him to sketch the dead as well as design war machines.  He sketched what became the modern tank and other savage vehicles which improved on Roman designs. 

Video ****

A wonderful widescreen production, which is great for the wide panoramic shots of the Italian countryside (or at least what looks like Italy!) and the maps which show the imminent danger of the Turks and the French breathing down Italy’s neck.   Vivid colors and smooth transitions abound that many filmmakers could learn from.  

Audio ****

Only stereo but well-mixed and crisp.  Dialogue, music, and narration blend very well and all are professionally executed. 

Features ***1/2

This DVD has something new for the History Channel, a Behind the Scenes featurette “History in the Making: Da Vinci.”   It reveals that modern day Lithuania is actually closer in appearance to Da Vinci’s Italy that modern Italy itself!  It is somewhat self-congratulatory as are many such featurettes, but bravo to the studio for shooting a movie within a history special.  This is money well-spent in my opinion.  My only criticism is that some of the featurette is lifted right from the program itself, rather than just being a behind the scenes special.  It is essentially a shortened version of the program plus some production footage. 


Da Vinci’s real code was to not be afraid of what others think or to be limited by what has been done before, as shown in another timely feature from the History Channel which continues their tradition of making history come alive for viewers of any age or education level.  

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