Hotly anticipated pan-European drama “Leonardo” bowed in Italy Tuesday (March 23) to stellar ratings, scoring a more than 28% prime time audience share on pubcaster RAI’s flagship RAI-1 station and prompting plaudits from Italy’s Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, as well as a huge sigh of relief from its creators, according to showrunner Frank Spotnitz.

The lavish eight-part English-language retelling of the life of Italian master Leonardo da Vinci, played by Aidan Turner (“The Hobbit” franchise) is the first Italian production to receive backing from pan-European co-production initiative The Alliance, created last year by top European public service broadcasters. It is a joint effort between RAI, France Télévisions, Germany’s ZDF, and Spain’s RTVE. Shot during the pandemic, the show is also co-produced and distributed worldwide by Sony Pictures Television.

“Leonardo,” directed by Dan Percival (“The Man in the High Castle”) and Alexis Sweet (“Don Matteo”), is produced by Italy’s Lux Vide and Rai Fiction with Spotnitz’s Big Light Productions in association with France Télévisions and RTVE. 

Variety spoke to Spotnitz, producer Luca Bernabei and screenwriter Steve Thompson (“Sherlock”) about the challenges of bringing Leonardo to the screen in a new way for global TV viewers.

Luca, I believe this was your brainchild. Are you happy with the launch?

Yes, I am. It’s not a simple show. It’s not a cop show, or about doctors. It talks about the Renaissance: about art; mankind. It’s complex. Even the script was not so easy. We worked hard on it with Steve and Frank. We had like 100 hours of meetings. Among ourselves, and with our partners. We fought a lot. It was tough. But we did not take any short cuts.

At the basis there are two wonderful ideas. One is the modern mystery [aspect], because we were not taking for granted that people wanted to watch something about Leonardo. And the other idea was having a muse, Caterina da Cremona [played by rising Italian star Matilda Bernadei  from “The Undoing”], which inspired him and also served the purpose of making the show accessible to a large audience.

Steve, talk to me about weaving in the thriller/mystery framework onto historical material.

The thriller aspect is actually based on truth. It is not a complete invention. Of course quite a lot of it is fiction. But this character, the lady from Cremona, did exist. Leonardo refers to her in his writing. There are actually a couple of sketches of her that have survived. When we were researching the show we came upon her name and upon these references to her. There is a beautiful reference very late in his life when Leonardo was traveling around Italy. He wrote a note to his servants saying: ‘When I’m traveling, these are the names of the people I will be traveling with.’ He listed 5 or 6 people. Most of the names, people knew. But one of them was a complete mystery. And he just said, ‘The woman from Cremona!’ Nothing else. So, first of all, we know that he was very close to her; that she was very important to him. She was a model; he painted her. But we also know that she has completely vanished from history. And we don’t know why. That for us was a tantalizing mystery. One where we wanted to fill in the blanks. So, yes, it’s an invention. But one that has the seeds of truth in it!

Frank, did you feel added pressure since this show is a milestone of sorts for European public television?

Yes. Both Steve and I didn’t jump into this immediately. We were both wary of tackling the subject because — as fascinating a character as Leonardo da Vinci is — telling stories about art is never easy. Because the dramatic stakes of art are not obvious. You either succeed or fail at making a great piece. Also we wanted to tell the story of Leonardo and offer you insight; and not reduce or diminish him, or make it too simple. He was one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived. I think the Caterina character was our way into his character. It gave you insight into his life and what it means. I think when everybody gets to the end of these eight episodes they are going to see what we are really saying. I think that while this is not by any means a documentary — it’s entertainment — we really worked very hard to bring a lot of truth especially to the art. To the stories of the art.

While the Caterina storyline investigation is a fiction, there is an awful lot of real research and hard work that went into capturing the creation of the art and making you understand why Leonardo was so great. From a distance of 500 years sometimes it’s hard to appreciate at the time what was so revolutionary about this man. That’s what we’ve really tried to do, to put you back in that context.

And regarding The Alliance?

We think The Alliance is a great idea. We love the streaming services, but we think it’s important that traditional broadcasters remain important and vital and competitive. And we felt a lot of pressure to deliver and make this successful. So I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was hugely relieved by the ratings.

Luca, there is a lot of talk in Italy about Leonardo portrayed as gay and his “gay kiss” being a breakthrough for RAI.

We talked about this a lot, and we believe that this was part of his life. So it was right to represent it My personal feeling was that I didn’t want to pigeonhole Leonardo [with this aspect]. I didn’t want to put him in a corner. Leonardo, as a character, is larger than his private life. He belongs to world heritage. So of course we were representing that part of this life. We were also representing his relationship with Caterina da Cremona, who was his muse. We were representing the complexity of his relationship with his father; with his clients and his maestro, Verrocchio. We were representing lots of relationships. We wanted to make it clear [that he was gay] and also make the show accessible to everyone. We wanted everyone to feel the same feelings that Leonardo was feeling. My idea of any character is that you are with him. That, as an audience, you embody that character; you love that character if the character is feeling something that you can feel.

What are the next steps in the ‘Leonardo’ rollout?

I hope we will be able to soon announce an important sale to the U.S.; that will be up to Sony [to do]. We just announced a sale [to Amazon] in the U.K. I think it’s important to note that — I think for the first time — Sony came on board not just as a distributor but as a co-producer. Brendan Fitzgerald from Sony was a real co-producer. He was working on the production with us. He was really part of the project. Sony really wanted to be part of this show; to be part of its success. When we had problems with COVID, they helped us cover the increased budget; they stood by us. This is the secret of making an important show: all being partners together.