Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his encrypted diaries that his first memory was a bird of prey visiting him in a crib and sticking a tailfeather in his mouth. That’s just one of the freakish tidbits of the great artists I learned from Inside the Mind of Leonardo, a movie made in 2013 but just making its way to American theaters this
One of the biggest points of the film is that Leonardo was born a bastard and therefore outsider. If he had been in a conventional family, maybe he would have gone to a fancy school and bought into the system. Instead, he taught himself from nature–watching animals–and experience and viscerally hated men who had wealth, standing and education but none of his creativity or charm.
The nature part of his thinking explains why Leonardo was so into animals. In the film he also speculates why dogs sniff each other’s butts (to see the class of food they’ve been eating, he guesses.) He looks at birds to figure out how humans might fly. And, though not in the film, Leonardo was a great lover and sometimes liberator of animals. According to one of his earliest biographers, he would buy caged birds in Italian markets just to set them free (and wrote animal fables, including one of a goldfinch who poisons her offspring so they won’t live life in human captivity.)
If you’re looking for some guy to play the smartest guy on the planet, Peter Capaldi is a fantastic choice, given his experience on Dr. Who and The Thick of It. Capaldi lets him be angry, funny and more human than you are used to seeing him. The documentary comes close to saying that he was probably gay and did religious paintings so as to stay in the church’s good graces after a brush with the moral police. Oddly, there have been a bunch of Leonardo movies lately, some of them action movies. Capaldi as Leonardo doesn’t fly, dance with fireworks or even paint. He just sits in a flouncy shirt and coolly delivers da Vinci’s own words from his diaries, written in a mirror that the Vatican recently revealed. The effect is that, regardless of what you knew or didn’t know about da Vinci, you come away impressed and maybe a little creeped out.