Donal O’Keeffe.


How Leonardo Da Vinci's legacy has lived on in pop culture

The Renaissance polymath may have died on this day in 1519, but his memory has lived on through all sorts of representations over the past 500 years, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

How Leonardo Da Vinci's legacy has lived on in pop culture

Leonardo si ser Piero da Vinci departed this world on 2 May 1519 at the venerable age of 67, but he has enjoyed an astonishing afterlife.

Born out of wedlock to a Florentine notary and a peasant woman, Leonardo became, in his own lifetime, an enduring figure in popular culture.

The King of France is said to have cradled Leonardo’s head as he died. He was, in modern terms, a rock star, a bona fide celebrity.

Leonardo is reputed to have served as the model for the white-bearded figure of Plato in Raphael’s Vatican fresco ‘The School of Athens’, and while still alive was widely hailed as the greatest genius of all time.

In the last years of Leonardo’s life, Francis I of France became his patron and close friend, commissioning him to create a walking, mechanical lion, the chest of which would open, to reveal a cluster of lilies.

The Renaissance polymath left behind a legacy far beyond the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper.

A masterful artist, he was also an unrivalled scientist, anatomist and architect, inventing technologies so advanced as to be unrealisable during his lifetime.

By most accounts a handsome, charismatic and good-humoured man, Leonardo’s private life appears to have been tumultuous, and, at a time when it was illegal, he was probably gay.

Court records from 1476 show that 24-year-old Leonardo and three other young men were charged with sodomy, but charges were dropped for lack of evidence.

His closest relationships seem to have been with his students Salai, who lived with him for 30 years, and Melzi, who travelled to France with Leonardo in his final years.

An artist given to procrastination, he broke the hearts of impatient patrons.

His biographer Vasari claims that Leonardo, on his death bed, lamented that he had “offended against God and men by failing to practice his art as he should have done.”

If Van Gogh is the archetype of the artist as tortured soul, then Leonardo is, in the popular imagination, the artist as inspired genius, fussing from one half-finished canvas to the next in a cluttered studio overhung by dreams of flying machines.

The earliest works of fiction to feature Leonardo date from the 16th century, and he first appears in film in the 1919 Italian Leonardo da Vinci.

He casts a long shadow on popular culture in the 20th and 21st centuries, appearing in film, literature, computer games and comics.

The Da Vinci Code

Dan Brown’s best-selling novel from 2003 features a conspiracy theory revolving around Leonardo’s works.

It may be gripping, but it’s utter hogwash, based largely upon the debunked 1982 cod-history ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’.

Apparently, Jesus married Mary Magdalene, and gave us the Merovingian kings of France.

The lads in Opus Dei are in it, and Up To No Good.

By the time I awoke during the film version, kindly old Gandalf Ian McKellen had been revealed as — SPOILER ALERT — the baddy.

Hopefully Tom Hanks — we knew he was sound before ever he made the Benhaffaf twins a video — got a truly magnificent conservatory from the mountain of cash he got for attaching his name to this rubbish.

Assassin’s Creed

In the popular video game, Leonardo is a significant supporting character, befriending the Renaissance-era Assassin, Ezio Auditore da Firenze, and acting as his technical advisor.

Mr Peabody and Sherman

Leonardo is also a supporting character in Dreamworks’ charming animated sci-fi comedy (2014).

Mr Peabody, a genius anthropomorphic dog, and his adopted 7-year-old human son, Sherman, travel through time, finding themselves - along with Sherman’s classmate Penny - in Florence in 1508.

Sherman proves that Leonardo’s flying machine works, and Mr Peabody makes Mona Lisa smile.

Star Trek

Da Vinci lives long and prospers twice in Star Trek.

In ‘Requiem for Methuselah’ (1969), Leonardo is an alias of Flint, an immortal human who has had many names in his 6,000-year-long life.

He tells Captain Kirk that he was also known as Solomon, Socrates, Alexander the Great, Lazarus and Brahms.

A century later, in Star Trek: Voyager (1997), Captain Janeway relies on the counsel of her holographic mentor, a recreation of da Vinci played by a pre-Lord of the Rings John Rhys-Davies.


In DC Comics, Leonardo’s apprentice becomes a Renaissance Batman, while in Marvel Comics, Leonardo masters time travel, heading to the 1960s to contribute to the founding of S.H.I.E.L.D., the espionage agency led in the movies by Samuel L Jackson.

My Favourite Martian

In My Favourite Martian (1966), Uncle Martin uses his time machine to bring his friend Leonardo to the present day.

Incensed that La Gioconda is now known as the Mona Lisa, he steals the painting and vows to take it home to the 15th century.

Gentle time-bending hi-jinks ensue, and to preserve history, Martin has to resort to forgery.

Doctor Who

Temporal shenanigans and artistic fakery play a major part too in ‘City of Death’, the 1979 Doctor Who serial co-written by Douglas Adams.

Leonardo doesn’t appear on-screen, but he plays an important role, creating six copies of La Gioconda.

In the end, five of the copies are destroyed along with the original, but one survives, indistinguishable from the prototype.

The Doctor and his assistant Romana place the fake in the Louvre, reasoning that even if it’s a copy, it’s still the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.

Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett’s 1988 novel features the first appearance of Discworld’s Leonard of Quirm, a painter famous for his masterpiece, the Mona Ogg; a happily imprisoned genius who invents weapons of war while believing naively that nobody would ever use them.

Da Vinci also features in Pratchett’s 1990 collaboration with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens, soon to be a TV series on Amazon Prime.

The demon Crowley owns Leonardo’s original Mona Lisa sketch, purchased from the artist and, the demon thinks, far superior to the finished painting.

“Leonardo had felt so too. ‘I got her bloody smile right in the roughs,’” he told Crowley, sipping cold wine in the lunchtime sun, “but it went all over the place when I painted it.

"Her husband had a few things to say about it when I delivered it, but, like I tell him,

"Signor del Gioconda, apart from you, who’s going to see it? Anyway… explain this helicopter thing again, will you?’”

In many ways he is the quintessential artist: an artist so beloved as to outshine his art.

500 years after his death, Leonardo continues to capture the popular imagination.

By the way, “da Vinci” was more his address. Like many superstars, he went by just one name.

Perhaps there really is a case to be made that Leonardo was the first rock star.

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