Pure Talent Is Never Enough: The Case Against Leonardo Da Vinci


Everyone thinks of Leonardo da Vinci as the paragon of Renaissance virtue.  He could paint, design, and use intuition as an aid to creativity, when he felt like doing so.  But a closer look at the record paints a picture of a chronic procrastinator, a man of dubious reliability, and an idler who was more preoccupied with his daydreams than with perfecting his craft.  He had genius, of course.  But that is never enough.  Harness, discipline, and application are far more important.

Laudatory writings about him list his “interests” as evidence of his greatness, but conspicuously fail to mention that he contributed almost nothing of worth to all of these ancillary fields that he was “interested” in.  No one doubts his incredible genius; but we cannot overlook his very meager output.  Genius locked away in unpublished notebooks is genius wasted.  He is primarily known for his painting.  But in practice, he seemed more interested in solving the technical problems of composition than in the actual execution of a work.  It seems he used assistants to fill in large parts of his paintings based on instructions he provided.  Even worse than this was the pitifully small number of works that he produced in his lifetime.  For a painter of his caliber, the final count is not at all impressive.

The Mona Lisa, his most famous painting, took him about 15 years to finish; and his Virgin on the Rocks took even longer, perhaps 20 years.  These facts are indicators of a mind unable to focus, or to discipline itself, to the task at hand.  One of his most famous paintings is The Last Supper, which Leonardo was hired to paint for the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan.  In its technical details, the work is incredible, of course.

There are precise geometric proportions that underlie the work, and the viewer’s attention is kept focused (as it should be) on the faces of the disciples present.  But Leonardo had to be hounded night and day by his patrons.  He worked in short bursts of activity, followed by periods of inactivity.  It was the same story with nearly all of his works.  He would be commissioned to get some project done, and would then settle into a predictable pattern of behavior.  An initial burst of energy would quickly fizzle out, and Leonardo would then putter along in fits and starts until his employers lost patience with him.  An observer (Matteo Bandello) who actually watched Leonardo working on The Last Supper recorded that the artist would on occasion work all day without taking a break (even for meals), and then promptly lapse into inactivity that might drag on for several days.  Leonardo had to be badgered relentlessly in order for anything to get done. Worse still, for all the glowing praise that has been showered on him for his supposed technical wizardry, he executed the painting incompetently.

For a painter of his commission, this was simply inexcusable. Leonardo had chosen not to use the tried-and-true method of fresco painting, almost certainly because it would have required him to work efficiently.  In fresco painting, the paint is applied directly to wet plaster, so that when both dry, they form an inseparable union with each other.  A fresco painter cannot waste time; he must move quickly to get the project done.  Instead, Leonardo opted for a method that was completely unsuited to the task.  He used tempera paints on a base of gesso; this ensured that the paint did not adhere deeply to the wall surface. Within less than a hundred years after Leonardo completed work, it was described by one viewer as “completely ruined.”

One can only imagine how this must have frustrated and enraged his patrons, who were paying him well to see meaningful results.  But Leonardo was impervious to the criticisms of others; living in his own world, and without a family to support, he could afford to spend his days wandering around the Italian countryside, pondering nearly everything that arrested his fancy.  There is nothing wrong with this, of course; it has been the catalyst for productive genius since the beginning of time.  But at some point, speculation must give way to application.  Thought must be set aside in favor of execution.  And this was where Leonardo faltered, over and over again.

To provide another example of Leonardo’s inability to get things done, we can point to the immense statue of a horse that he planned to construct.  It was intended as an equestrian monument to Francisco Sforza, and has also been called the “Gran Cavallo” (i.e., Big Horse). As usual, he pored over every detail lovingly, as he was especially fond of animals.


More than seventy tons of bronze were actually allocated for its casting.  Leonardo completed a huge clay model of the horse in 1492, but this model was destroyed by invading French military forces in 1499.  They used it for target practice.  Thus the Gran Cavallo remained like so many of Leonardo’s abortive projects: unfinished and eventually forgotten.  Leonardo’s fame as a Renaissance polymath rests almost entirely on his voluminous notebooks, which were discovered long after his death. In these impressive collections, he records drawings and designs for all sorts of subjects: engines of war, agricultural inventions, natural history, geology, the activity of animals, mathematics, and similar subjects.

We acknowledge his great abilities, of course.  But is “interest” in a subject area enough for one to claim recognition in that field?  Where are the tangible fruits of his labors?  Where are the actual inventions?  And did these notebooks even exert any influence in history?  The answer must be a resounding negative.  Beyond their curiosity value, the notebooks do not contain any hidden engineering “secrets,” nor were they the catalyst for any future discoveries.

Popular mythology here has entirely obscured the reality of the situation.  Leonardo never saw fit to edit or publish his drawings or speculations.  The reason why was that he was simply too lazy to endure the arduous drudgery of putting a book together.  It was easier to speculate.  Even the drawings are much overrated in their inventive power.  If we wish to find a polymath who actually has achievements to his credit, Benjamin Franklin cuts far more impressive a figure than does Leonardo.  Leonardo had no practical experience with mechanics, metallurgy, or engineering, and this is evident in his drawings.  Almost all of them are impractical, or would not work as he intended them to do.  Even his notebooks do not seem to have inspired many later engineers or inventors.  They have value in shedding light on Leonardo’s personality, but beyond this, there is little that the world has gained from them.  His fame rests largely on the romanticized image of him that later centuries would confer on him; but this halo obscured more than it revealed.

Some biographers have made exaggerated claims about these notebooks, finding in them evidence of “scientific researches” that “foreshadow” or “anticipate” or “inspire” the work of actual scientists centuries later.  The very fact that historians have to resort to such vague qualifiers is testimony to Leonardo’s inadequacy as a true scientist.  It is true that Leonardo made significant and original investigations in anatomy (especially in the workings of the valves of the heart) and fluid dynamics; but these observations were never distilled into identifiable hypotheses that could be evaluated by others.  Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, and Galileo are rightly called scientists because they arduously collected data and then performed the labor of synthesizing that data into hypotheses.

Leonardo failed in three of the most important duties of a scientist: the systematic recordation of data, regular collaboration with like-minded peers, and the dissemination of verifiable results.  He was an artist with scientific inclinations, but he was not a scientist.  What is so frustrating about Leonardo’s scientific researches is that he lost interest in them at precisely the moment when intense concentration and labor were needed to reap the fruits of his experiments.  Leonardo published not one book, either during his life or posthumously.


When he died in 1519 at the age of 67, he had only completed 15 paintings. This is a pitifully small number for an artist of his caliber. Contrast this to the inexhaustible energy of Michelangelo, who worked himself to death and slept with his boots on, eager for the start of a new day of work. Genius is not enough: it must be sharpened to a fine point by diligent application, discipline, and relentless work. And this Leonardo was maddeningly unable to do. There is an Arabic proverb that emphasizes the critical difference between thinking about something, and implementing something:

[1] من تفكر اعتبر و من اعتبر اعتزل و من اعتزل سلم

And this means, “He who thinks about things, takes examples from them, and he who takes such lessons, separates himself from other men; and he who separates himself from others, is saved.”  Stated another way, cogitation is not enough:  we must put our lessons into practice, and produce something.


[1] From Freytag’s Arabum Proverbia (III, no. 2395): Qui de rebus cogitat, exemplum ab iis sumit, et qui exemplum sumit, ab hominibus se separat, et qui se separat, salvus est.



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21 thoughts on “Pure Talent Is Never Enough: The Case Against Leonardo Da Vinci

  1. Lol. Just because someone could have conceivably done more or done better doesn’t mean that they are overrated.

    Honestly, this is just silly. Being ‘controversial’ (or, more accurately, being contrary) just for the sake of it.

    So what he didn’t slave away every single fucking day? He lived life on his own terms, did whatever caught his interest, and is now universally regarded as one of the greatest and most influential artists of all time. I’d argue that’s the best possible outcome, especially in contrast with the Kobe Bryant / Tiger Woods school of greatness that borders on unhealthy obsession.

    How the hell is working yourself to DEATH an aspirational character trait?

    Liked by 2 people

    • There is no merit in mere “possible” intelligence. I think that when people idolize Da Vinci, they are idolizing both
      1. A positive social token that implies a bit of education and intelligence
      2. A life of “unappreciated greatness”, of “too smart to be hard working” aka subtle light narcissism

      They don’t realize the difficulty of the world and the relative unimportance of most people. If you don’t create things that have actual effects on the world, you don’t have an effect on the world. Whether it’s via kids or works.

      That’s it. Nobody gives a faggy shit about your dream world. Nobody is in love with your “mind”. What you imprint on your environment and the larger world is what people care about.

      Now Leonardo the myth has certainly had an impact, probably bigger than whatever accurate portrayal of the guy’s life might have been.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m sorry but this is utter Crap. Leonardo is the greatest mind that has ever lived, and you are being so ignorant and foolish. The best thing about him was that he actually went out and discovered new things about the world instead of sitting back and doing nothing. He obviously wasn’t too bloody lazy to do anything about his inventions, why do you think he coded all of his hundreds of notes and discoveries it was
    because he didn’t want them to be stolen. And Saying that he was lazy is so stupid. Of course
    he wasn’t lazy! I mean sitting doing endless commissions all of your life is not going to
    change the world, but abandoning them and
    actually discovering the world is. you say he didn’t actually influence history yet he practically invented the car, he did create the first ever self moving cart. And the helicopter and plane. I couldn’t believe this when I read it. These thoughts on him are completely wrong and ignorant.


    • The record shows that Leonardo actually had much less influence on scientists and inventors than is commonly believed. And yes, he was a procrastinator, whether you want to believe it or not.
      I do acknowledge Leonardo’s genius. But the point of the article–which you obviously missed, after getting triggered by my criticisms of him–was that genius is not enough. One needs discipline and application.


  3. I noticed that I had some of Leonardo’s traits years ago. I’d begin projects eagerly only to have them sputter out. A lot of highly creative types tend to just flutter from one thing to the next.

    Discipline is something I’ve had to trudge with great effort to build up, and I’ve learned to only start projects which I think are worthy of being worked on to finish.

    I have this community partially to thank for that.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This also hit a note with me, having come too close to major accomplishments only to drop the ball near completion.

    These traits of procrastination and lack of follow through does not diminish my respect and admiration for Leonardo – he will always be one of the greats – but it does connect me more to his humanity and the affect that a lack of self discipline can have.

    I bought a beautiful wooden model of his flying machine on the 500th anniversary of the design back in 1988. This is the one meant to be propelled by a man laying in the tubular device pumping his legs in order to make the wings flap.

    While appreciating that he came up with such a concept way back then, I couldn’t help wondering what steps in thought might have led to more refined versions that would have come a bit closer to the contraptions that came out just a few decades before the Wright Brothers.

    And for my part, I still have this gorgeous model unfinished in a drawer after 28 years.

    When I finish the model this year, it will remind me not only of a great man’s idea but also that other aspect of a man needed to make things work, just as a boat needs a rudder along with the sail.

    Thanks, Quintus, for presenting this perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interested to read this. It seems that Leonardo himself may have had some regrets about his unfulfilled potential at the end of his life.

    According to the book “Leonardo’s Universe: The Renaissance World of Leonardo Da Vinci” by Atalay and Wamsley, Leonardo asked God for forgiveness “for not using all the resources of my spirit and art.”

    His vast interest in so many subjects made it difficult to follow through and bring them to realization.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I see your point, which is worth considering, but I think there was something more about his inability or rather unwillingness to finish his paintings. His notebooks show he was obsessed by fleeting, vanishing, ever-changing forms such as water currents, vortices, winds, clouds etc. The “sfumato” technique is very present in his finished works, background landscapes are in a state of airy or watery dissolution and there is something mysterious und unfathomable about his faces that cannot be grasped which is unlike any other artist.

    Likewise, I can hardly imagine he chose this particular technique for the Last Supper out of laziness or ignorance. I’d rather think he was onto something more experimental and new. The “vanishing”, blurred state of the Last Supper adds today much to its mystery as well as to its strange beauty. His work also looks forward to the preference of modernist artists and poets of the never-ending fragment, the sketch, the fleeting impression, the torso etc. That does not happen out of “laziness”.

    I don’t think the small number of paintings really counts. Quality is always more important than quantity. There are no more than two dozens Vermeer paintings as well, and some of them are among the greatest master pieces of art history.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I know your commandmends and share the hate for the “tooth missing life is easy guy”.
    I study medicine and generally try to progress somehow, girls, gym, life. But maybe the eastern teachings have a grain of truth in them.
    I see a lot of suffering, death, mediocrity, people who are slaves to their damaging patterns.
    The book “Fuck it.” sums it up. The big mystery is an image of eternally masturbating god. What you think you are, you probably arent. What you think is important, it probably isn’t. Most of your ideas and aspirations aren’t your own. It isn’t more noble to get inspired by Marcus Aurelius, Cicero vs. a random dude from the internet. Or yourself.
    Maybe you don’t have to be a mythical hero, to earn more, achieve more, to be someone, bang 100 girls, be stoic. Fuck it. There is value and power in neutrality vs ups and downs of the life well lived you propose in 10 commandments.

    I visited the village of Vinci with a beautiful Leonardo’s museum years ago. I also remember being fascinated by a popcorn thriller Da Vinci Code. I saw Mona Lisa in Louvre and didn’t like it much, but got inspired to visit Ufizzi or random galleries in Siena. When in Milano, I primarily went to San Siro and missed the opening hours of The Last Supper by 10 minutes. If this man was a procrastinator, maybe we should redefine our terms, because his power and legacy even today is ridiculous. You somehow tie work rate tightly to greatness, which is only partially true. When a man accepts nothingbhe builds will last, that he can lose everything in a second, of course he goes on, but certainly eases up a little with the whole hustle mentality.

    PUA who bangs 100 7’s systematically or a guy who dates 3 10’s haphazardly. You can’t really say who got more out of life. I believe Leonardo dosed it just right. For him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point, but remember my article was mostly in response to unrelenting adulation that has been showered on Leonardo. They built him up into some kind of demigod, and my point is that the record doesn’t support it. He may have been a great genius, but he had very little influence on history, or even on most of his contemporaries. Remember, his notebooks (his primary claim to fame) weren’t even discovered until centuries after his death. He published not one single book.


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