What do Leonardo da Vinci and Drew Barrymore have in common? Ever After

By Jamie Kwan

If you are a child of the 90’s, it is very likely you watched your fair share of Drew Barrymore movies growing up.  One of my favorites, Ever After, is a social-justice-feminist retelling of Cinderella, with Drew Barrymore as the heroine, now named Danielle de Barbarac.  Watching this for the first time in many years, I enjoyed the now-quaint 90’s girl-power slant to it (this was the age of the Spice Girls!) but even more, I was tickled that this story takes place in sixteenth-century France, under the reign of François I, that Danielle’s love interest/Prince Charming is the future king Henri II, and that her new, improved fairy godmother is the most famous Renaissance man of all, Leonardo da Vinci (!).  

There are many anachronisms and historical inaccuracies, the most striking of which are that Leonardo was dead by the time Henri II was of age to be a hot love interest and that Henri II did not marry a forward thinking, Thomas More-quoting woman named Danielle.  But overall, it’s still an enjoyable movie, if you can suspend your historical disbelief.  The film, probably because of Leonardo’s presence, is also studded with art history easter eggs.  Like the rest of the movie, the art references are generally inaccurate, but they’re entertaining: a fun homage to Leonardo and his many inventions.

So for your viewing and reading pleasure, I have compiled all interesting Renaissance art history references.  

Here is our first art historical reference: Leonardo’s famous Head of a woman (La Scapigliata).  The film opens with the Brothers Grimm visiting an elderly French aristocrat.  She tells them how she enjoyed their rendition of Cinderella but also says that they don’t know the true story of her ancestor, Danielle de Barbarac, who was the basis of the fairy tale.  She then shows them this famous Leonardo painting, which is supposedly a portrait of Danielle (and has definitely been altered to look more like Drew Barrymore).

The real deal: Leonardo da Vinci, La Scapigliata, Galleria Nazionale di Parma. Image from Wikimedia.

Then there is more plot introducing Danielle, the death of her father, her evil stepmother, etc. The years pass and now Danielle is grown up and constantly mistreated by her family.  This all takes place at Danielle’s home, which is an actual manor house. The Château de la Roussie, which was burned in 1575 and reconstructed in 1600, is located near Sarlat in the Dordogne region of France.

We are also introduced to the wayward Prince Henri, who wants to marry for love and runs away from home/the castle. While out in the countryside, he runs into Danielle and borrows her horse. And while Henri is galloping around, we finally meet Leonardo, who is traveling to the king’s chateau when he is robbed by thieves.  Luckily, prince Henri is around to help save Leonardo’s most precious possession, which he calls “his life.”  I don’t know why Leonardo is wearing this weird white bonnet, which is wears through the entire film.  We all know that Leonardo was very absorbed with the intellectual and courtly status of the artist, so he probably wouldn’t be traveling around looking like a bum/old lady.

Meanwhile, back at the mansion, Danielle is putting on a fancy dress in order to pass herself off as a courtier.  Wracked by debt, her stepmother had sold a beloved servant, but Danielle is on her way to the royal palace to rescue him.  While she gets dressed in her fancy courtier’s gown, we get a great shot of an interior.  In this room alone, we see:

A famous Leonardo drapery study.

Leonardo da Vinci, Drapery Study. Department of Prints and Drawings, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image courtesy of the Musée du Louvre

An Italian-looking portrait of a woman (maybe a Ghirlandaio knock-off?).

Another Leonardo drapery study.  Don’t they know that these drapery studies were not meant to be displayed like that?  

Leonardo da Vinci, Drapery Study, Department of Prints and Drawings, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image from Wikimedia.

And some random portrait of a man in profile that is unfortunately too blurry to make out.

Returning to Leonardo and the prince, we find that Henri was successful in retrieving Leonard’s precious cargo.  Of course, we later find out that this is none other than his Mona Lisa.  After his gallant rescue of the world’s most famous painting, Henri is forced to stop shirking his royal duties and returns home.

Danielle now arrives at the royal palace on her quest to free her servant and quote Thomas More’s Utopia (her favorite book) at the prince.  Playing the role of royal palace is the Château de Hautefort, which you can actually visit in the Dordogne.  It was originally a medieval fortress that was rebuilt in the 17th century. 

After Danielle frees her servant, our next art spotting occurs back at the royal court, where François I is complaining to his wife, Queen Marie (fictional, his two actual wives were Claude of France and Eleanor of Austria) about his son’s refusal to marry a Spanish princess (also inaccurate— Spain and France were sworn enemies at this point in time).  What is more exciting than this argument is this blurry but unmistakable glimpse of Jean Fouquet’s Virgin and Child from the Melun diptych (the other half is a votive of the Etienne Chevalier, who commissioned the work).  Why some set designer chose this piece, I don’t know, because it really should be in a church, more specifically, the College Church of Notre Dame in Melun, where it remained until it was sold in 1775.  But that’s beside the point.  My guess is that this painting was included because it matches the heinous red and blue décor of the court.

Also, if you look closely, you can see that the film version of the Virgin and Child has been carefully altered so that the Virgin’s breast, which is exposed in the original, is now under wraps.

Jean Fouquet, Virgin and child from the Melun Diptych, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp. Image from Wikimedia.

Back to the mansion, where the evil stepmother and sister are scheming over dresses and marrying the prince.  In the background we see this small, but nice looking Holy Family. Unfortunately, it’s too blurry to see if it’s after a known work of art.

Leonardo finally meets Danielle, swimming in the river, as he is testing out his water shoes, an invention he illustrates in his Codex Atlanticus.  

Leonardo da Vinci, Sketch from the Codex Atlanticus, Ambrosiana Library. Image from Wikimedia.

We also see a glimpse of his kite/flying machine, also from his Codex Atlanticus.

Leonardo da Vinci, Sketch from the Codex Atlanticus, Ambrosiana Library. Image courtsey of the Ambrosiana.

And his other geometric gadgets: an armillary sphere and a giant wooden model of his polyhedron, probably based on his illustrations for Luca Pacioli’s De divina proportionae.  What he’s doing with these things out in the middle of nowhere, I don’t know, but we don’t see these in action like his water shoes.

Luca Pacioli, De Divina Proportionae. Image from Internet Archive

At this point,  Henri is smitten with Danielle and asks her on a date to a Franciscan monastery (which is probably another chateau, but I wasn’t able to track this one down) where they wander around the library and watch monks illuminating manuscripts.  This is my idea of a great first date.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many art references in the middle of the movie, as there is more plot involving Danielle being punished by her family.  Then everyone (except for Danielle, who gets locked in the cellar) is getting ready for the royal ball where the prince is to announce his future wife.  Danielle is eventually freed by Leonardo, who manages to pick the lock of the cellar door. She is gussied up and goes off to the ball to proclaim her love for the prince. However, Danielle’s stepmother recognizes her and denounces her as an imposter before everyone; Henri is heartbroken that Danielle lied to him.

So much plot/feelings and so little art. We do, however, see a modern interpretation of Renaissance stage craft for the royal masque: a silver ship led by sea unicorns.  Fancy.

After the ball, we see Leonardo hard at work on that the famous portrait of her, although here, we are shown three different versions.  

To punish her disobedience, Danielle is sold by her stepmother to the sleazy Pierre le Pieu, who lives in this foreboding castle, which is the Château de Beynac, also in the Dordogne.  Supposedly one of the best preserved castles in the region, it was originally built in the 12th century expanded in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Henri, realizing his love for Danielle, comes to rescue her.  But predictably, Danielle has already rescued herself from the clutches of le Pieu.  I also want to point out that le Pieu sort of looks like Henri III (the last Valois king of France who also had a reputation for being a sleaze bucket), especially with the black dress, hat and single gold earring.  Coincidence? 

Unknown, Portrait of Henri III, Versailles. Image from Wikimedia.

The evil stepmother and sisters are called to court. Now we have plot resolution since Danielle has now married the prince and can exact her revenge.  Here again, but in better focus, is half of the Melun diptych.  It’s definitely a weird choice to have facing your throne.  Perhaps it’s especially effective to have a lactating Virgin Mary staring at you while you punish your lifelong enemies?

And at the very end of the movie, we see the famous portrait of Danielle again, which Leonardo gives as a gift to the royal couple.  This time, it’s framed and hanging on the wall, although we all know that this was an unfinished work and would not have been exhibited like this.  

And they all lived happily ever after.

THE END

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