Ken Burns Tackles First Non-American Subject of His Career in New Doc: Leonardo da Vinci

Ken Burns has already cracked the code for being synonymous with highbrow documentary filmmaking, but now the award-winning director is taking on an unprecedented feat: capturing the life and legacy of Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci.

Burns’ upcoming PBS film “Leonardo da Vinci” marks the director’s first non-American subject. The two-part, four-hour documentary will debut November 18 and 19, as Burns codirects with daughter Sarah Burns and Dave McMahon.

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Per the official synopsis, “Leonardo da Vinci” follows the 15th century polymath’s life and evolution as a draughtsman and painter, scientist and engineer, who used notebooks to explore an astonishing array of subjects including painting, philosophy, engineering, warfare, anatomy, and geography, among many others. Set against the rich and dynamic backdrop of Renaissance Italy, at a time of skepticism and freethinking, regional war and religious upheaval, “Leonardo da Vinci” brings the artist’s towering achievements to life through his prolific personal notebooks, primary and secondary accounts of his life, and on-camera interviews with modern scholars, artists, engineers, inventors, and admirers.

“No single person can speak to our collective effort to understand the world and ourselves,” Burns said. “But Leonardo had a unique genius for inquiry, aided by his extraordinary skills as an artist and scientist, that helps us better understand the natural world that we are part of and to appreciate more fully what it means to be alive and human.”

“Leonardo da Vinci” is billed as marking a “significant change in the team’s filmmaking style, which includes using split screens with images, video and sound from different periods to further contextualize Leonardo’s art and scientific explorations,” something Burns has not done before.

Burns previously codirected with Sarah Burns and McMahon on “The Central Park Five,” “East Lake Meadows,” and “Muhammad Ali.”

Sarah Burns said in a press statement, “As we set out to explore Leonardo’s life, we realized that while he was very much a man of his time, he was also interested in something more universal. Leonardo was uniquely focused on finding connections throughout nature, something that strikes us as very modern today, but which of course has a long history.”

McMahon added, “Though we follow Leonardo’s personal journey and explore his artistic and scientific accomplishments, we’re also really focused on what went on in his mind and on understanding the depths of his curiosity. To do this we use material from his notebooks mixed with archival film, photos and sound, along with our cinematography and visual effects, and we’re not afraid to stray from the timeline. Leonardo’s thinking was so unique, and in many ways timeless, that our traditional approach alone would have been insufficient.”

Musician and composer Caroline Shaw recorded original music for the film performed by Attacca Quartet, Sō Percussion, and Roomful of Teeth. The voice of Leonardo is read by the Italian actor Adriano Giannini. Keith David serves as the film’s narrator.

Guillermo del Toro is a commentator in the documentary, saying, “the modernity of Leonardo is that he understands that knowledge and imagination are intimately related.”

Part One of the documentary is titled “The Disciple of Experience” and centers on how da Vinci joined a painter’s guild comprised of fellow talented Florence-based artists including Filippino Lippi, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pietro Perugino, and Sandro Botticelli in 1472.

Part Two, titled “Painter-God,” charts da Vinci leaving Milan and relocating to Venice, where he later is connected with Cesare Borgia. The creation of the “Mona Lisa,” a portrait of the wife of the merchant Francesco del Giocondo, is additionally explored.

“Leonardo da Vinci” will be accompanied by educational materials for middle and high school classrooms, highlighting recent research and perspectives, with PBS. The materials will be available at the Ken Burns in the Classroom hub on PBS LearningMedia. UNUM, Ken Burns’s website that looks at the connections between the past and current events, will also utilize other films from the Florentine Films library to facilitate conversations about major themes from the film.

“Leonardo da Vinci” will be available to stream on all station-branded PBS platforms including and the PBS App, available on iOS, Android, Roku streaming devices, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast and VIZIO. The series will also be available to stream on PBS Passport and the “PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel.” PBS station members can view the documentary via PBS Passport as part of a full collection of Ken Burns films. For more information about PBS Passport, visit the PBS Passport FAQ website.

The film is a production of Florentine Films and WETA Washington, D.C. The feature is written by McMahon and Sarah Burns, with Tim McAleer producing.

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