Leonardo Da Vinci Was An Incredible Procrastinator

By J. Wisniewski on Thursday, January 23, 2014
“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” —Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

In A Nutshell

If prompted to name a “Renaissance man,” the first name to come to mind for most of us would likely be Leonardo da Vinci. But despite his pursuit of a number of arts, da Vinci only finished a handful of works and quickly gained a reputation among his peers and patrons for being unreliable.

The Whole Bushel

For most, Leonardo da Vinci is the personification of the multifarious arts and learning which we like to associate the Renaissance with. But even though his interests were varied, his work habits were not. Leonardo consistently imagined and started projects only to abandon them, leaving a trail of incomplete paintings, sculptures, and building designs behind him. Which created a whole lot of pissed off patrons who had to hire other painters and sculptors to finish what Leonardo started.

Leonardo’s artistic talent was widely known and recognized, but his failure to deliver on contracts often overshadowed his work. The great artist was once contracted to complete a painting in seven months. However, it took da Vinci 25 years to finish the “Virgin on the Rocks.” The “Mona Lisa,” a relatively compact work, took the master almost 15 years to paint. Leonardo lived to age 67, yet completed 15 paintings and a handful of architectural designs. Given his long working life and poor work habits his brilliance with a brush defies explanation. Imagine Lebron James playing a dozen sports, giving each up after a few months before playing a single season in the NBA and averaging 50 points a game per game . . . only to retire and take up butterfly collecting.

A great deal of the productivity we attribute to Leonardo is the result of the discovery of his voluminous notebooks packed with sketches and examinations of a diverse range of subjects. Leonardo, however, never organized, edited, or published his notes. Nor did he attempt to create the things he conceptualized in sketches. His ruminations on science and helicopters were a form of personal edification more akin to daydreaming than scientific contribution. When the thousands of pages of notebooks were discovered centuries after Leonardo’s death, they were a revelation. His beautiful sketches seemed to be precursors to a host of modern inventions. But upon closer examination, many of da Vinci’s scientific observations were erroneous and based on faulty logic due in no small part to his only brief flirtation with formal schooling and resulting lack of mathematical acumen.

Leonardo da Vinci is certainly proof that quality beats quantity, because when Leonardo actually executed on a painting, the results were typically brilliant. But his reputation as a polymath (and sometimes mistakenly as a polyglot) is undeserved based on the evidence.

Show Me The Proof

Leonardo’s Universe: The Renaissance World of Leonardo Da Vinci, Bülent Atalay, Keith Wamsley
Psychology Today: Da Vinci, Copernicus and the Astronomical Procrastination of Science
Slate.com: Some Genius