twelve o’clock, April 9, 2021 – 09:03

Too much controversy over historical truth. There is a lot of paternalism underneath television philological puritanism

of Sebastiano Maffettone

It is hard to believe, for any reasonable person, that the events and even the details of Leonardo’s life can cause a public stir. The widespread condemnation of the alleged historical errors of the Leonardo series produced by Lux-Vide and broadcast on Raiuno – with great public success – shows that, as it happens, reasonable people are wrong. In recent days, historians, critics, teachers and simple amateurs have given vent to their philological virtues to let the educated and the inclined know that the real Leonardo would have been betrayed by the character of the television drama. We know that Leonardo lived a crucial period in Milan in the last fifteen years of the 15th century, returning then in 1508 to stay there until 1513, but that – contrary to what we learn from the drama – in 1506 he was not a permanent resident of the ancient Milan. Nor would it be true that, when passing from the elusive Milan of 1506 to the Florence of sixteen years earlier, Leonardo as a young man (Aidan Turner) would have practiced in the workshop of master Andrea del Verrocchio (Giancarlo Giannini), drawing the shapes of Caterina da Cremona (Matilda de Angelis). This, if only because in 1490 Verrocchio was already dead. Above all, Caterina da Cremona would never have existed, the model victim of the crime for which Leonardo would have ended up in jail (imprisoned at this point for killing a non-existent woman).

Hunt for the historical error

And so on in the hunt for historical error. questionable why all this judging and condemning a drama at the forefront of historiography makes sense. Because the most important question obviously does not concern the truth or falsity of what happens to our Leonardo TV. Given that the Leonardo we are talking about is not the subject of a historical documentary but of a fiction, we should rather ask ourselves if and how important it is for a fiction to be realistic (after all, fiction tastes fake). Isn’t it better to believe that, for example, the name and character of Caterina da Cremona and her history with Leonardo serve more to attract international audiences than to provide historiographical information? It is no more important than historical truth how much the imaginary story – the plot – that is at the heart of the screenwriters holds up, how the television shootings are able to account for a climate, if the screenplay is sensible and effective, how the actors hold the scene, and so on? Isn’t it decisive that, on the whole, the television personality Leonardo seems on the whole capable of accounting for the aura that surrounds the real Leonardo? Basically, I am saying that the spectacle has its own internal laws and that these matter more than the external ones (of reality). Greek tragedy has its rules, as does Elizabethan drama, and these determine the course of action much more than references to reality. And then there is no need for Umberto Eco to know that sometimes the imaginary characters count for us more than the real ones.

Sympathy for creative freedom

But there are also simpler perplexities that lead us to doubt philological Puritanism. The first and most important concerns the plurality of information sources. Today even a child knows that it is enough to go to you tube to find plenty of realistic documentaries on Leonardo (seeing is believing). And maybe just seeing Raiuno’s drama can convince many to do a research like that. Not to mention that someone might even (!?) Pick up a history book to find out more, maybe just to make a good impression. Secondly, and related to what has just been said, there is a great deal of paternalism underneath television philological puritanism. The basic idea seems to be that a few learned and informed people must dictate the rules and contents of what is handled on television to an ignorant ox people. I reread the piece and I realize that perhaps I have somehow contravened the implicit invitation not to discuss the content of the fiction (there would be more serious things to devote time and attention to…). I did this for two reasons. In the first place, as an old professor I don’t like the correction of errors except when strictly necessary and I don’t like the scientific condemnation of what does not present itself as a document. Secondly, it is good to show sympathy for the creative freedom of those who work in show business and with the imagination especially in times of cancel culture.

April 9, 2021 | 09:03

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