Ken Burns Turns His Lens to Leonardo da Vinci

An upcoming two-part documentary will be the filmmaker’s first foray into a non-American subject matter

The Last Supper
Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper in Milan, Italy Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Ken Burns, the award-winning documentary filmmaker known for The Vietnam War, The Civil War, The Dust Bowl and more, is turning his attention away from American subject materials for the first time: His new two-part series, which will air on PBS in November, is all about Leonardo da Vinci.

While Leonardo’s paintings and drawings rank among the world’s most celebrated, the Renaissance artist was also an inventor, scientist and engineer. The new film, which Burns co-directed with daughter Sarah Burns and son-in-law David McMahon, examines the Italian polymath’s unrelenting drive to understand the world and the enduring influence of his legacy.

“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,” says Sarah Burns in a statement from PBS. “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.”

The film will mark a departure from Ken Burns’ previous work in several ways. In addition to covering a non-American subject, it will also stray from the documentary style that made him famous, featuring “split screens with images, video and sound from different periods to further contextualize Leonardo’s art and scientific explorations,” per the statement.

To this end, the documentary follows a non-linear timeline, drawing on Leonardo’s notebooks alongside archival film, photos and audio from different time periods. The filmmakers hope this approach will help immerse the audience in Leonardo’s world.

“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,” says McMahon in the statement. “Leonardo’s thinking was so unique, and in many ways timeless, that our traditional approach alone would have been insufficient.”

The production will also show interviews with experts from around the world, as well as other artists and thinkers across multiple fields who were influenced by Leonardo’s work. One of those figures is the filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who says at the beginning of the film, “The modernity of Leonardo is that he understands that knowledge and imagination are intimately related.”

Part one of the documentary, “The Disciple of Experience,” airs on November 18 and examines the Renaissance artist’s early career. It focuses on the studio he trained in with his teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio, and the 18 years he spent under the patronage of Ludovico Sforza, the ruler of the Duchy of Milan. In this period, Leonardo created some of his most renowned works, including The Last Supper.

Part two, “Painter-God,” which debuts on November 19, follows Leonardo’s scientific endeavors and travels around Italy. During this time, he began working for military strongman Cesare Borgia, devising new ways to map cities.

“No single person can speak to our collective effort to understand the world and ourselves,” says Burns in the statement. “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.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.